Shut your eyes for a moment and imagine Afghanistan. What do you see? There’s a high probability that you picture a rough mountain terrain, Taliban fighters with guns, military bases or explosions. Our brains form these subliminal visual associations through the onslaught of aggressive imagery that accompanies news headlines that have unfortunately become common about Afghanistan. The story of the incredible beauty and rich cultural diversity of this country seldom reaches our eyes amid the clatter of violence.
Last year, two childhood friends, French photographer/sociologist duo Varial & Nadjari, embarked on a photography journey to introduce us to a sublime aspect of this country. Their project, The Wakhan Journey, took them on a 24-day trek with 100 pounds of supplies and equipment, including foldable solar panels on donkeys and horses, through the Wakhan Corridor, a remote region tucked away in Afghanistan bordering Tajikistan, China and Pakistan.
The Wakhan Journey debuted as a multimedia exhibition at the Milk Gallery in Manhattan, with large-scale photographic prints that Duggal had the honor of producing. A theme that metaphorically and literally runs throughout The Wakhan Journey is discovery—there’s the first encounter with remote Wakhi and Kyrgyz tribes who have hardly ever been captured on film before, the tribespeople who see an image of themselves for the first time on Polaroid, the peculiar “image degradation” in Polaroid film the photographers discover when they’re shooting at high altitudes and, finally, the grand discovery by the audience of this extraordinary place and people living peacefully in one of the most tumultuous regions in the world.
The Wakhan Journey pays a unique digital homage to analog photography—with the aid of the Impossible Project, which has kept the iconic Polaroid film from extinction, the photographers start their journey by shooting Polaroid portraits of the villagers and giving them as gifts. Inspired by the massive excitement these portraits draw among the community, the photographers stage a formal digital portraiture session where people are shown holding their own Polaroid portrait—an analog portrait within a digital one. The digital portraits show the subject in high-contrast black-and-white, holding a color Polaroid portrait, a technique that separates the subject from the rough terrain and allows us to get to “know” the subject intimately. It was also the ephemerality of the Polaroid that makes the photographers keep a trace of these unique pictures that degraded almost instantaneously.
Varial & Nadjari describe it this way: “Photography is about stopping time, so we just wanted to keep a memory of that. These portraits pay homage to the importance of photography again. In the age of being able to send a picture every living moment of our lives, this rarified world of portrait photography combining analog and digital takes a role of immense meaning.”
Starting their journey with the gift of a portrait to tribespeople no doubt helped endear them to the community. “The notion of gift and counter-gift in sociology is the basis of human interaction. Part of the responsibility of the photographer is to understand where the whole notion of the counter-gift is.” This is one lesson from Varial & Nadjari that I wish any globetrotting photographer would take to heart.