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Phototheca Afghanica

(safeguarding and identification of old photographs from Afghanistan)

Main objectives:

  • Improving the knowledge on recent Afghan history, from the time of Amir Sher Ali Khan to President Da’ud Khan among Afghan students, politicians, etc.
  • Strengthening the consciousness of Afghan national identity
  • Collecting and securing old photographs and other original pictorial documents
  • Digitizing the above mentioned documents
  • Research on the background of the above mentioned documents
  • Detailed description and identification of the above mentioned documents
  • Translation of the descriptions into Dari, Pashto, English, German or French
  • Installing of a database for the above mentioned documents and the descriptions
  • Investigation about Copyright problems
  • Publication of the above mentioned documents in printed and/or digital form

A parallel project could also be started on ethnographic objects and activities.

Short description of the project:

In Afghanistan war and civil war lasts now for more than 30 years. About 75 % of all Afghans, living today, were born or brought-up in wartimes and only few had the chance to receive a qualified education. Their families were thriven out of their homes, became refugees and lost most of those belongings, which were handed down over generations. This was not only a material loss, but – even more important – also a loss of knowledge on culture and traditions. The traditional way-of-life and social networks broke down. The chain of the oral transmission of traditional knowledge was cut, by the death of the elders and flight into refugee camps in exile.

On such a background, bare of recognized Afghan values, it is not surprising that hardline Islamistic organisations from abroad are quite attractive for youngsters, as they provide to this un-rooted young people an easy understandable ideological basis and a strong frame for life. Afghan culture is today in a very bad situation: alternatively Communism, religious extremism and the present ‘internationalism’ tried and still try to eradicate traditional values and replace them by standards of their own.

It is most refreshing to see, that TV-series like chaikhana at TOLO-TV, where old men and women speak about the past, find an interested audience. The common interest in this “good old times” is also present, where old photographs are to be seen. Unfortunately such pictures are mostly of very bad quality and even in serious scientific publications the descriptions are missing or often far from correct.

35 years of experience with historic Afghan photographs at the Swiss Afghanistan Institute showed the importance of such documents. Old photographs from our archives provided the basis for reconstruction of historic buildings – or at least provide an impression of the former houses, bazaars, streets ant whole areas. Only few original photographs are still at hand today inside Afghanistan. Many were lost during the war. However, there are piles of photographic albums, taken at Communist times from the houses of the former royal families, which were stored at safe places. Unfortunately they are barely inscribed and in bad condition, as nobody knows their content and how to safeguard them professionally.

During the past ten years, at the Afghanistan Institute in Switzerland, in close co-operation with Afghan and international experts, some 5.000 old photographs were secured and identified (place and date of the picture, personalities and events presented). This work provided us with the necessary experience and is a solid basis to establish the project of Phototheca Afghanica on a broader level.

One part of the project is to safeguard and elaborate descriptions for the tens of thousands of photographs collected at the Swiss Institute, and to make them accessible for research. The other part of the project is to start a co-operation with relevant Afghan institutions. With the help of Afghan historians, students should be trained to identify and to describe photographs and other documents.

This will be directly related to practical work with computer programmes, as well as with bibliographical, historical and ethnographic research, writing of concise descriptions in one of the Afghan languages and translating them into English, German or French.

The aim of the project is not only the physical safeguarding of old photographs and related documents, but also to create awareness of the rich cultural heritage of the country and making use of this knowledge for the reconstruction of Afghanistan and its society. For this reason, the photographs and the relevant descriptions have to be accessible for research, as well as for the general public, by exhibitions, publications, via internet or on CD.

In general, the project should also be seen as a contribution to re-create a sense of Afghan national identity, as well as some self-consciousness of the Afghan people. In addition it could help to build-up a positive image of Afghanistan in the outside world, based on the awareness of the rich cultural past of the country.

Sketch of practical steps:

  1. Prepare an inventory of existing photographic albums, collections, pictures, prints, negatives, glass plates, etc.
  2. Scanning and digitizing of all the available material
  3. Physical safeguarding of the original photographs and prints, by mounting them into folders of special acid-free paper with chemical buffering
  4. Physical safeguarding of the photographic albums, by professional storage into special acid-free cardboard boxes. As soon as digital scans are existing, the albums themselves should no more be handled and used for research
  5. Individual description of every single photograph, with identification of place, date, personalities, buildings, events, bibliographic references, etc.
  6. Translation of the descriptions into English, French, or German
  7. Providing accessibility by adding descriptors from a specific thesaurus on Afghanistan’s nature, culture and history
  8. Assembling of data-bases with research facilities by albums, photographer, source, period, object, personalities, buildings, regions, activities, etc.
  9. Preparing security-files of all collected data for Kabul and Switzerland
  10. Organisation of exhibitions in- and outside Afghanistan (University, schools, museums, Afghan embassies abroad, etc.
  11. Installation of a website accessible via internet with the descriptions and thumbprint scans of the photographs
  12. Elaboration of rules for scientific and commercial use of the photographs, problems of copyright for prints, etc.

Securing the past for the future
Why the Swiss Federal office of Culture (FoC) supports the preservation and disseminating of cultural heritage.

The visual heritage of Afghanistan
Photographs which tell of the times before the turmoil in Afghanistan are practically non-existent. Radical ideologists targeted the cultural roots of the country in the past decades and destroyed millions of images to make space for their own beliefs. Today, after thirty-five years of war, exile, collateral and intentional destruction, the country lacks a visual heritage with which it can display the achievements of the past to younger generations: something which is worth protecting; something on which a positive national identity can be based upon; moments of pride.