The History of Photography in Afghanistan

The History of Photography in Afghanistan
Nabi Khalili
Photographs are the universal language. Everyone perceives them and they do not need to be translated or be defined. These days, people perceive each other by visual ways. However, Afghanistan is a territory without any photograph; and the photographs that are available are from the reporters' perspective of the critical conditions of this country; war, violence, destruction, burqa (covers the women's body and the face), old traditions, murder, execution, al-Qaeda, Taliban, etc.
However, these cannot define Afghanistan. Different geography and beautiful landscapes, different customs and cultures, places of interest, hospitable and fair people, cheerful joys and more etc., these are the pictures of Afghanistan that are less available. The reason is the lack of attention to the photograph and photography that has impeded this country since the history. This is something that must change in proportion to the times and other social, cultural and economic developments of this country.
As it said in this article, no one paid any attention to photography for a variety of reasons and it is why that it has not been developed. after September 11, 2001, and international attention to Afghanistan photography evolved as other areas , and now it can be said that Afghanistan's  photography is somehow bold in the world.
Another major problem that Afghanistan still faces is cultural poverty, including a lack of documentation and research in various fields as photography. Throughout the history of Afghanistan's photography, we have not found a book that though briefly, recite Afghanistan's photography.

The pioneer photographers of Afghanistan
Before reviewing the history of photography of Afghanistan, it would be more appropriate to first review the history of photograph in its general sense in this country, which includes the remnants of visual arts such as painting, sculpture, miniature, and so on.

Holy statues
Sculptures of high Buddhas of the Bamyan began in the second century AD during the reign of the great Kenyan king (60-375 AD)1. The statue known as Salsal is 53 meters height and Shahmameh 35 meters height. In addition to these two large statues, thousands of other Buddha statues were built during the Buddhist era in this territory, both in Bamyan and elsewhere, including Logar, Bagram, and so on that are still exist.


  Buddha statue known as Salsal (53 meters) 

Buddha statue known as Shahmameh (35 meters)

The first oil paintings in the world
Most Buddha statues were carved in the stone. Apart from the statues that were decorated with ornaments, the artists beautifully drew the paintings on the walls of the statues, which, according to historical documents, constitute the world's first oil paintings.[2]



 [Bamyan Cave Paintings, Photographer: Ali Mandegar [3


The pioneer photographers
Irish photographer, John Burke is probably the first person to have photographed the country during the Second World War with British troops from 1878 to 1880.
John Burke was one of the engineers hired by the British Royal Navy, who went to India with British photographer William Baker and started photography with his assistant.
After a while the outbreak of the Second War between Britain and Afghanistan, he demanded that the British take him with them as an army photographer but this request rejected by the military. However, Burke decided to go to Afghanistan at his own expense and photograph the life, scenery and, of course, the British forces in Afghanistan. However, the surviving photographs show that the Irish photographer was more interested in the natural scenery and location of the British Army than in the daily lives of the people and the social status of Afghanistan. However, his few photographs of this country and its people are of particular interest and historical value. Burke's collection of photographs, titled "Afghanistan War", is available at the British Library Museum.
The first photograph in Afghanistan's photography history belongs to John Burke, which is a photograph of Amir Shir Ali Khan, the king of Afghanistan. It shows Amir sitting on a bed with a sword in his hand. John Burke took the photograph while Amir was negotiating with the British at the Court of Mbale.
After that, many foreigners continued to take photographs of Afghans. However, the Afghans themselves took photographs after years, in the early twentieth century. Of course, taking photographs was also a privilege that only the courtiers used, and it began in the court.[4]

The founder of Afghan photography and the first Afghan photographer
The first Afghan photographer is Amir Habibullah Khan, king of Afghanistan (1-4). Habibullah was a corinthian man and was interested in the features of the new world. He was the first man who brought the car to Afghanistan, which was a black Rolls Royce and was gifted by the British government. He also imported cinema, telephony and photography to Kabul.
Faiz Mohammad Kateb, historian and court columnist of Habibullah Khan, says in the four volumes of Seraj al-Tawarikh that in the beginning of the year 1909 Amir Habibullah Khan, who was interested in "saturnalia, excursion, hunting'' spend  thousands of rupees to buy photography equipment and turned part of the north side of the King's Citadel into a photography studio.
Amir introduced a group of courtiers to photography techniques to do the photo retouching. The students were mostly from courtiers: Mir Hussam al-Din Rasam, from Sadat Ghazni, a famous court painter who painted murals, along with his two brothers, Mir Abdul Raouf and Seyed Javad, as well as two court servants named Amanbeig Shaghnani and Mohammad Ayyab Khan Ilkhani were those who became familiar with photography techniques.
Amir Habibullah and his students first took photographs of princes, commanders, and lords, sold them to the owners of the photographs, and spent the proceeds on an orphanage that he had founded in 1911.
According to Faiz Mohammad Katib, Amir Habibullah thus gained seventy thousand rupees for the orphanage.
Of course, Amir Habibullah Khan was not the only photographer, in Iran Nasser al-Din Shah Qajar, who developed photography in his own country, was also a photographer.



Amir Habibollah Khan

Amanullah Khan photo taken by his father Amir Habibullah Khan

Faiz Mohammad Kātib Hazāra (Father of Historiography of Afghanistan)


The first car in Afghanistan


First photographs in Afghanistan's newspapers
In 1911, Tarzi founded a newspaper called Seraj Al Khabar. This is why that he is recognized as the father of Afghanistan's journalism.



Mahmoud Tarzi, the father of Afghanistan's journalism


This newspaper was first printed in a lithography style that photographs could not be printed in it. However, in the second year of newspaper publishing, the typography way was used which was also able to print the photographs.
Amir Habibullah Khan printed most of the photographs that he took in this governmental newspaper.


Seraj Al Akhbar newspaper


The first photography competition
It is said that along with setting up a photography studio at the royal palace in Kabul, an Indian photographer had also set up a photography studio in Kabul to photograph ordinary people. However, this is not mentioned in Seraj al-Tawarikh. However, it can be surmised that after a few years more people were likely to have acquired the camera than Amir himself was, because there was a photography competition in the second year of Seraj al-Akhbar newspaper (1912).
The photographs that were nominated for this competition were the courtesies photographs. The result of the competition was announced in the second publication of two winning photographs. The first one is the photograph of the garden of Stalf in the north of Kabul which was taken by Moein al-Saltane, the commander of Enayatollah Khan, and the second one was a photograph of the garden of Sardar Qolam Heidar Khan in Jalal Abad which was taken by the deputy chief of the commander, Mohammed Sharif Khan, "a special servant of the king." In this competition, both photos have been declared "first class".
The second photograph was taken from the garden of Sardar Gholam Haider Khan in Jalalabad, Nangarhar province, by Mohammed Sharif Khan, the special servant of Amir Habibullah Khan. Both photographs were announced the winner of the first prize of the competitions. Both gardens were popular resorts in Kabul and Jalalabad, which are known for their beautiful scenery and old trees.

First photos of women
Amir Habibollah Khan had many wives and did not like any other person take photograph from them, so he always took photographs from his wives by his own camera.

A photograph that led to the discovery of an ancient city
Among the other Afghan kings whom were interested in photography is ''Zahir Shah'', who was not only been good in photography but also good in other arts. A photograph that he took of a broken statue on one of his trips to northern Afghanistan led the French archaeological team in Afghanistan to discover the Greek-Western city of ''AI-Khanoum'', which had been excavating for years.

  A statue photographed by Zahir Shah that explores Missing City

On a trip to Takhar province in the north Afghanistan, Zahir Shah took a photograph of a statue that later turned out to be a statue of a missing city of IA-Khanoum.
After taking this photograph, French archaeologists began exploring the area in 1964 after discovering one of the great cities of the ancient world. The city of Ia-khanoum was built to protect the northeast roads and the waterways connecting to Bacteria (Balkh).


Ia-Khanoum (Lady Moon)

This historic city is located in the Dasht-e Qala district of Takhar province, more than 100 meters north of the Kokche River and two kilometers southeast of the Amu  River.

The first photograph of a political assassination
The first photograph of a political assassination is the photograph of the scene of Nader Shah being assassinated by Abdul Khaliq. Undoubtedly, an Afghan photographer took this photograph. The photographer sent it to England, and the English newspapers published it with great fanfare.


The first photograph of a political assassination (an Afghan photographer took the moment of the assassination of King Nader)

The London strip Newspaper reports that no one has taken a photograph of the moment of killing a political leader, so this photograph is somehow "unique". There is only a photograph that was taken when a hand grenade was thrown at Madrid in the carriage of the King and Queen of Spain and it published widely in newspapers in 1906.


The first photography exhibition
Nasrallah Peek launched a photo exhibition of Kabul people during the war in Kabul (6-7).[5]

Polaroid Camera
During King Zahir's long reign, besides the king himself, two other photographers in Afghanistan worked more for the government. One of them was Saheb Shah, an official photographer of Imamullah Khan, who had been sent to London to teach photography and the other was Mohammad Shah.
However, what is important in Zahir Shah's era is the emergence of wooden box cameras, known in Afghanistan as the "Polaroid camera" which led to the unprecedented proliferation of photography in Afghanistan.
These cameras were very cheap and easy and it was stand on a tripod. The lens was in a wooden box and could print black and white photographs on paper in minutes.
These cameras are likely to import from India to Afghanistan, but some have said that for the first time a Jewish businessperson imported one of these cameras out of Afghanistan and a man named Afandi, a celebrated photographer and a pupil of Mohammad Shah, made many different kind of cameras.
The Polaroid camera, still found in Kabul and Afghanistan's provinces, is a street camera that photographers take to the streets and take photographs of people. These cameras brought the magic of photography from the royal palaces and courts to the people's life.
The Polaroid camera that still is found in Kabul and Afghanistan's provinces; it is a street camera that photographers take to the streets and take photographs of people. These cameras brought the magic of photography from the royal palaces and courts to the people's life.
This type of camera was emerged in the mid-1980s, when the government decided to issue the ID card with photograph. Before that, ID cards were exported without a photograph and only with a fingerprint.
for this purpose, the government hired Mr. Afandi, who until then worked at the Sa'adat stadio on Mewand Road, to train a group to work with Polaroid camera and travel to the provinces with the officers of ID cards issuance.
In the 1960s and 1970s, government development projects were expanded with the help of the Soviet Union and the United States by constructing the roads, airports and by standing on the way of European travels.
Polaraid camera was the dominant means of public photography until the end of Taliban's reign that could be found in the streets of the city.


The Magic of Eye
The emergence of this modern technology, especially in Afghanistan's villages and provinces, was a very strange event. For example, in Kandahar, a man (probably one of the students of Mr. Afandi) was the first person to promote photography in the city with his Polaroid camera.
People in Kandahar spread rumors about this photographer and his magical device. Saying that he knows magic and magic, he is not a reliable man because he can take people's photographs with his eyes. It took many years for the Kandahar's people to get used to taking photograph.


Amir Amanullah Khan



Shah Amanullah Khan's painting image

After the assassination of Amir Habibullah Khan, his son Amir Amanullah Khan attributedas the king in 1919.
During the reign of Amanullah Khan, photography became more usual in Afghanistan. Like his father, he was keen for the development of photography in Afghanistan. Photograph and photography were very valuable for King Amanullah Khan and he regarded this documentary and historical art as a special value.
King Amanullah Khan was not a photographer himself. During his European trip in 1927, he brought several tripods and other camera's instruments from Dresden, Germany, to Afghanistan to encourage and develop this valuable art.

Amir Habibullah Kalkani


Amir Habibullah Kalkani with his companions

During the reign of Habibullah Kalkani (1929), political and military strife abounded, but photographers continued to work normally, taking documentary and memorial photographs. 

Mohammad Nadir Shah


Mohammad Nadir Shah

Mohammad Nadir Shah (1933-1929) is famous for the history of photography that the scene of his assassination by Abdul Khaliq, a Salvation School student, was the first photograph of a political assassination in the world.

 Muhammad Zahir Shah

Muhammad Zahir Shah

Mohammad Zahir Shah (1973-1933) rose to power after assassinating his father, Mohammad Nadir Shah, and reigned for forty years.
Zahir Shah had a particular interest in photography, painting, music and other arts. He took photographs of antiquities, monuments, and nature; also for commemoratives and abstractions.
The era of Zahir Shah was a time of security and peace in Afghanistan. Therefore, there were a lot of foreign tourists, photographers, and filmmakers in this period. With the advent of tourists and photographers, analogue photography cameras, using film (negatives), became increasingly popular in Kabul's photography galleries. In addition to the official photographs used for the documents, Kabul's photograph galleries also took art and souvenir photographs.


The growth of the use of photographs in Afghanistan's newspapers
During the reign of Zahir Shah, there were a number of newspapers and magazines in which photographs were used, but the names of photographers were not mentioned.


 Pashtun Jagh magazine in 1972

Another example of using a photo in a magazine that is a description but the name of the photographer was not mentioned.



Using a photo on a magazine mid page

Another example of using a photo in a magazine that is a description but the name of the photographer was not mentioned.



Jondon Magazine in 1972

Another example of using a photo on a magazine mid page


Mohammed Daoud Khan

Daoud Khan (1973-1978) loved art, culture, photography and sports. In 1976he imported television set and accessories from Japan to Afghanistan.


Mohammad Daoud Khan

During his reign, a number of young people were sent to Japan, Iran, and Bulgaria to learn photography, filming, singing, decorating, makeup, and television techniques. 

The first professor of photojournalism



Abdul Hamid Fayaz, Professor of Photojournalism, University of Kabul

Sources say, Abdul Hamid Fayaz is the first professor of photojournalism to teach academically at Kabul University. He is also the author of a book entitled "The Fundamentals of Photojournalism".[6]

Kabul's photograph studios
During this period, Kabul's photograph studios sought to diversify their photography work and to use artistic elegance to make their work more attractive. For example, influenced by the high-profile Cowboy[7] films of that time, young people wore cowboy costumes that included a cape, a suede or leather jumper, a leather museum, glasses, and a double-edged cap (available in the photo gallery). They would get it. Alternatively, two people dressed in two outfits, standing in front of each other in the studio, recording an emotional scene in the offensive situations.


Publications and Photography in Period of Daoud Khan



Jondon Magazine in 1973

 Pashtun Jagh magazine


During this period, cameras were increasingly available to photography enthusiasts. Photography was common and the number of photographers in Kabul increased.


Photography during the communist regimes
During the 16-month reign of Nur Mohammad Taraki (1978-1978), news photography, documentary, art, and memento were more popular in the history of Afghanistan photography.
Photographers recorded the moments and scenes of revolutionary marches and slogans and printed those photographs in newspapers and magazines, and their films broadcast on national television in Kabul and the provinces.



Kabul students march in 1977

On the other hand, Soviet scholarships were many at the time. People could also go for short or long periods of recreation, often after returning to their souvenirs. Of the 3 or 4 Russian companies which were producing cameras, the Zeenat company was the best one which amateurs and documentary photographers used its cameras. The number of publications was increasing and the photographs were widely used. However, photographs were printed without mentioning the name of the photographer.[8]

Jondon magazine in 1977

Nur Mohammad Taraki and Hafizollah Amin after Eid Saeed Prayer at the Khalq's Holiness Mosque

Hafizollah Amin


Studio photography and snapshots
At the studio was black and white photographs were taken, which was given to the customer after 24 hours. Black-and-white snapshots were also delivered to the customer within 15 to 20 minutes by box cameras that were photographed on the crowded sidewalks of Kabul and Afghanistan's provinces.

the studio photo, which had been retouched

Polaroid Camera

News and documentary photographers of government usually took photographs of held meetings for print publications, but freelance and documentary photographers did not do much.

Babrac Karmal

During the reign of Babrac Karmal (1986-1988), short-term and long-term scholarships and courses increased. Short-term recreational trips were also arranged for party members and some government employees. These trips and importing a large number of cameras for sale made the camera market in Kabul and the provinces more vibrant than ever before, where most families interested in photograph and photography could buy a camera with less money.
During the reign of Babrac Karmal, all kinds of arts advanced well. Many paintings, calligraphy, graphic, and miniature exhibitions were held in Kabul and other cities.


Dr. Najibullah

Kabul Deh Mazang, Effects of Civil War in Afghanistan, Photographer: Najibullah Mosafer

by Fayyaz, the professor of Photojournalism, Kabul University, 1987

Example of Documentary Photographs of Afghan Photographers in 1987

Example of Photographs by Afghan Photographers in 1987

Afghanistan Magazine photographers were Mustafa (Vaziri) and Anvar (Safdari).


Mentioning the photographers' name
In this period, one of the major developments in Afghanistan photography is the mentioning of the photographer in magazines.

Colored negatives
Colored negative rolls imported to Afghanistan by the students in Russia For the first time. Of course, there were also colored negatives before, during the reign of Zahir Shah, Mohammad Daud, Nur Mohammad Taraki, Hafizullah Amin, and Babrak Karmal, but only because of the high price, only the wealthy public officials, businesspersons and rich people could afford them to use. Some rich magazines also used these types of negatives. These types of negatives were not in the Kabul market, and the rich imported them from abroad travels.[9]
During the reign of Dr. Najibullah, there was a colored magazine called ''Afghanistan Emruz'' that featured both back pages and some of its internal pages. It was the first colored magazine to be published with high quality colored content and photographs and had great followers.
At the time, filmmaking and color prints were only available in Kabul's photo studios, but in other cities, these technical facilities were not available. Printing color photographs was not that professional. Photo printing was done with enlarger handheld machines, which were usually laborious, require high skill, and usually had considerable waste.



Professor Sabbatullah Majdadi


Professor Sabbatullah Majdadi, leader of the Afghan National Salvation Front and Hamid Karzai

Professor Sabbatullah Majdadi was the first President of the Islamic State of Afghanistan after the Mojahedin victory in 1992. That period was two months.


right to left - Mohammad Qasim Fahim - Hamed Karzai -Professor Sabbatullah Majdadi - Ustad Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf - Ahmad Gilani - Kashaf - Salaheddine Rabbani - Hedayat Amin Arsala & Shahrani


1.    Najibullah Mosafer, unpublished notes entitled "Afghanistan's History of Photography"
2.    (ISNA, Iranian Students News Agency, Wednesday, April 2015)
3.    BBC website, Ali Karimi, 20 April 2012
4.    BBC 07 February 2014
5.    Bateman, Thomas, Snell, Scott A, Management: Competing in new era, McGraw-Hill Companies, Fifth Edition, New York, 2002.
8.    www.Afghan Box Camera Project.htm


2.    Previously it was thought that the first oil paintings were by European artists of the 15th century. However, new discoveries show that oil painting dates back to about 15 centuries ago and relates to Bamyan (Author).
3.    BBC Persian Web Site: May 11- 2014
4.    BBC Website 20 April 2012 - Ali Karimi
7.    A copy of the book, possibly the original pre-print version, is available at the Afghanistan Information Center at Kabul University (ACKU).
8.    Unpublished article in the History of Afghanistan Photography, Najibullah Mosafar
9.    Najibullah Mosafer, personal experiences and observations