For over 150 years, photography is how we record visual history. But one thing that totalitarian regimes hate more than anything else is the exposure of truth. For a country like Afghanistan, during the Taliban era (1996-2001) it was illegal to take photographs. Try and wrap your head around that, especially since there are millions of people around the world who are probably at this moment using their cell phones to take pictures of interesting sights, delicious-looking food, or (most likely) themselves. Frame by Frame, a documentary by Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli, explores how this media blackout affected Afghan culture and the challenges that Afghan photographers still face in the daily lives.
Frame by Frame focuses on four Afghan photographers: Najibullah Musafer, who risked his life by taking photos during the Taliban era and now teaches photography; Massoud Hossaini, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who has taken photos on the front lines of battle; Farzana Wahidy, who is both Hossaini’s wife and an accomplished photographer in her own right and focuses on Afghan women in her photography; and Wakil Kohsar, whose work encompasses images of poorer areas of Afghan as well as opium addicts.
Though there is a far less oppressive government in place in Afghanistan now, memories of the Taliban era aren’t easily replaced. Photographers still risk their lives by capturing images of life in Afghanistan, and photographers fear that another political upheaval could lead to another blackout. In one of the most frustrating sequences in the film, Wahidy is not allowed to take photographs of women and children who are victims of “self-immolation” because a doctor fears retaliation against the hospital if those photos become public. It’s made clear that many of these burns are not likely self-inflicted, and the actual stories are far more heartbreaking. Westerners have probably not seen this side of Afghanistan, and seeing how in some cases little has changed since the media blackout is chilling.
Frame by Frame is shot in the moment — we follow Hossaini as he rushes off to take photos of the aftermath of a suicide bombing — and we also see the photographers explain the stories behind some of the most significant photographs (including Hossaini’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo). Bombach and Scarpelli effectively demonstrate the fear that these photographers face in their daily lives through the harrowing imagery of the film.
The balance of the film’s four photographers is a little off — most of the focus is on Hossaini and Wahidy, and while Wahidy’s story is the most fascinating because she is a woman in a society that often has little or no respect for women, it seems Kohsar has a fascinating career. However, in the film he is presented more like a supporting character, not a lead (he hints at one point at a professional rivalry with Hossaini, but this is not explored in-depth). Despite this, his work with drug addicts is just as relevant to Afghan society as Wahidy’s work on women’s issues.
It’s scary to think that the four subjects of Frame by Frame could find themselves in prison (or worse) for the important work they do. It’s impossible not to have anything but total respect for these photographers, and I’m very thankful to Bombach and Scarpelli for creating such a riveting documentary to tell their stories.