Portrait of a City

An intimate view of Kabul’s arts scene

Students draw and paint in the library of the Center for Contemporary Arts Afghanistan, or CCAA. Lorenzo Tugnoli
Students draw and paint in the library of the Center for Contemporary Arts Afghanistan, or CCAA. Lorenzo Tugnoli

OVER THE LAST THREE DECADES, Afghanistan has been visually over-represented. Cast against a striking landscape, images of war, poverty and inequality in the country have filled the pages of international newspapers and magazines. In 2011, Lorenzo Tugnoli, a freelance photojournalist, and I, an independent researcher and writer, started working together, looking for an unexplored narrative space within Afghanistan. The result of this collaboration is The Little Book of Kabul: a book that depicts a portrait of Kabul through the daily activities of artists who live and work in the city.

The Little Book of Kabul was released in 2014, in a limited-edition print run of 500 signed copies. The research and production for it was partly supported by a crowd-funding campaign. We self-published the book to guarantee our full autonomy in its content and aesthetics.

Through 20 short stories and 47 photographs, The Little Book of Kabul provides a close-up view into the lives of three protagonists: Kabul Dreams, an indie-rock band; Rahim Walizada, an interior and carpet designer; and the Center for Contemporary Arts Afghanistan, or CCAA, a contemporary arts school. Around these central figures move other characters, including visual artists, musicians, poets of the Pashto Poetry Society and actors of the Afghanistan National Theater.

For almost two years—from August of 2012 to July of 2014, when the book was published—Lorenzo and I lived and worked in Kabul. The choice to work independently gave us the privilege of time. Our proximity to the artists allowed us to build trust with them, and the borders between the professional and the personal began to blur. These friendships allowed us to appreciate the human dimensions that informed the artists’ creative practices. Our interactions with Rahim Walizada turned us into witnesses of his diverse entrepreneurial attempts, from the construction of his dream house to several—not always successful—business investments. The timeline of our project coincided with that of the production of Kabul Dreams’ first album; Lorenzo and I began working on the day they started recording, and finished at the same time as their album’s launch concert. And at the CCAA, thanks to the interactions we had there for our book, we found ourselves giving lectures and mentoring students. These close relationships with the people featured in The Little Book of Kabul helped us understand the difficulties that artists there face when negotiating with their surroundings, and with prevailing social customs and constraints.

One image that is a result of this slow approach is a close-up that Lorenzo took of Arifa, a student at the CCAA. She is wearing a burqa folded over her head, her eyes are closed and she smiles peacefully; sunlight shines in diagonally from a window. Arifa was posing for a photograph that was being taken by one of her colleagues; the lens of her friend’s camera can be seen on the left side of the frame. In Afghanistan, it is very difficult to take a photo of a woman at such a close distance without making her uncomfortable. This shot was possible because, at the time it was taken, we had already spent a lot of time at the CCAA, and the students there knew us well.

The quest for moments like these was crucial to our collaboration. Our decision to collaborate on this project came at a point in both of our careers when we felt the urge to question the scope of our professional languages. For a photojournalist like Lorenzo, the challenge was to move beyond visual stereotypes. He shot the images for The Little Book of Kabul in black-and-white film with a Leica M6 camera. Working with film, which is costly and time-intensive, pushed him to think more deeply about what he was shooting, and how. This labour meant taking time on every shot—different from the fast pace required of photographers working on newspaper stories. Meanwhile, for an academic like me, the challenge was to leave behind the jargon of international aid and development to produce a new narrative that was both rigorous and poetic. To achieve this, I put my notebook away, choosing to remain in the moment rather than constantly gathering factual evidence.

Reflecting on The Little Book of Kabul more than two years after its release, it is clear that the work captured a unique moment in the city’s life—a vibrant phase that is now past. The United Nations recently declared 2016 to be the worst year for civilians in Afghanistan since the US invasion in 2001. Many of the people featured in the book have left the country in search of a safer life and better professional opportunities. Our book can be read as a glimpse into what the city once was, in the hope that better times will soon allow the arts to flourish there again.