Vision To Visuals: Wakhan Journeys

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. The Wakhan Journey was exhibited in three sections at the Milk Gallery—the “Traces of Time” series contained the large-scale black-and-white portraits, the second section in a multimedia space showed video portraits shot in a village on the border of China, and the final section was the classical photography gallery—a transition from the conceptual and symbolic to the literal part of the journey.

When I first met Varial & Nadjari, I was so enthralled by their passion and commitment to tell a positive story of a “desolate region” that I personally sat through each meeting with them at Duggal to ensure that the design of the final exhibition did justice to the gargantuan effort they had undertaken to bring us the beauty of Afghanistan. Marina Stark, a senior member of our creative team, worked closely with both of them, testing their works on several print substrates, then finally helping them choose a digital metallic paper for their black-and-white prints to create what Varial & Nadjari describe as a “mineral feeling” in the image. We printed and installed the final works, the sizes of which ranged from 18×24 inches to 4×6 feet. Their works were produced on metallic paper, archival mounts behind nonreflective plexi and anodized aluminum and gallery bracing with aluminum tube braces to prevent warping over time. For the Polaroids, we choose deep matte paper, and it was unlaminated, which is unusual when the paper is surface-mounted. The images were enlarged to 4×4 feet to render an ethereal painterly manner and represent the effect of the “high-altitude degradation.”

The opening ceremony at the Milk Gallery drew more than 1,000 attendees from across the art and entertainment worlds, with the most notable attendees being Afghanis who were as surprised as anyone there to discover the Wakhan region and its splendorous beauty. ”

“We are positive storytellers,” stated Varial & Nadjari. “We want people to think about things differently. We had two layers of intention for the exhibition—to challenge what people think of a country by showing them another version that they never had access to and, secondly, to create a reflection on our own relationship to images—not only by showing another perspective, but also to show how people react to the images. And then we want people to contemplate on the fact that if Afghanistan had not gone through years of war, it might all still look this beautiful.”

Seeing the final works in the exhibition made me feel very proud of having contributed to shedding a positive light on a region on which many have given up hope. And this kind of acknowledgement about our work from the photographers filled me with great pride about the Duggal team: “We had a great chance to work with Duggal. We realized working with them that printing is very much an integral part of the artwork—the way you print a picture and the paper you use totally defines the perspective the viewer will have.”

Added Varial & Nadjari, “We were not suspecting the degree of finesse and fine-tuning that you can have in the printing process. The team at Duggal really understood our vision, and they found the best material to express our vision—the results were truly mind-blowing.

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