"...whatever you have been taught, whatever it is you read or think is true—you have to be able to forget about it completely in order for new knowledge and experience to come in. Otherwise you get stuck in your ways, thoughts and opinions. The mind and heart can’t grow that way."
—Lukas Birk, Photographer and Storyteller
It's been said that through the eyes of an artist the world is seen—not for its polarizing and conflict-ridden ideologies, but for the spirit of the time as experienced on a human level. Artist Lukas Birk works with both historical photographs and objects as well as creating new artworks rooted in his on-going world travels and personal history. Using both as a means of storytelling, such works bare witness to lands and people intimately associated with regions of conflict. Providing a unique experience and snapshot for the viewer into worlds otherwise closed off.
1. Craftspring is involved in Central Asia—so we thought we would first ask you to speak about your work, not in its global, but its local context. How would we understand what the main function of photography is in Afghani culture? Is photography thought of as an art form locally and how is that supported?
The answer to this question could easily fill a book and I could only write a small part of it. But from my perspective, photography—the art—has changed significantly since the introduction of digital materials and the camera phone. Through the research on the Afghan Box Camera Project with my colleague Sean Foley, we have heard many stories of the old days were photography was not only a craft or art, it was magic! The box camera photographer would carry his big wooden camera across the mountains into remote villages where people had neither seen a camera nor an image of themselves before. As if to enchant their magic box, photographers would do spells and long motions with their arms before the images appeared from the belly of the camera. There is a nostalgia and sadness around these old photographs—back when they were hand tinted and coloured— they produced art. The art now is gone. Every 5 year old can take a picture now. There is no magic. Art photography in the Western sense has not caught on yet.
2. How would you describe the daily life of the Afghani photographers you encountered?
Photographers are craftsmen. Their daily business is portraiture in the studio, which is still very much in demand, but this is functional photography. Photoshop has become as much a part of the business as digital printers. No photographer uses film anymore and the last box camera photographers we worked with stopped their prolonged work in the last 5 years. I would say it is not that different from a photographer’s work in the West now. Although once in a while a special request for a post mortem image retouching job would come their way. Usually this means that an old box camera photograph needs to be turned into a colour photograph—the magic of Photoshop…
3. The first time I saw a photograph developed in my high school’s darkroom I was transfixed by the wondrous, magical phenomenon. Are their any local stories, mythic or otherwise, that speak to this mystery of light?
Besides bringing the magic to remote villages—clever box camera photographers played their tricks with customers. In the 1950’s, ID photographs—due to the introduction of a national identity card with an image—were in very high demand. Kabul trained photographers would travel to all corners of the country and they could make hundreds of photos a day. We were told the story how one photographer offered his male clients the option of wearing a turban, a pakol (flat woolen hat) or a simple white hat for the photograph. In less than 10 second he produced the finished photo from his camera. How did he do it when the fastest of the fast needed about 2 minutes? The photographer had pre-produced hundreds of copies of a male subject photographed with these 3 types of hats. The villagers had never seen themselves on a picture and often they were quite blurry so his trick went unnoticed.
4. We love The Afghan Box Camera project and your beautiful book. These photographers bring to the world an Afghanistan as seen from the eyes of the Afghani people. Portraiture, even as used for government documents, still brings forth the spirit of the subject. How do you think these portraits affect the notion westerners have of the Afghani people?
Certainly one element of the Afghan Box Camera Project is to tell Afghan history from the eyes of the photographers. No matter what political system or situation a place is in—people have to continue life, to work and to make a living. No matter how bad your facilities or conditions might be, you still have to apply the craft you have been trained in. The photographers have taught us how much you can do with really very little. Creativity is not bound to availability of materials; it’s about making something different with what is available. The stories and photographs from the project are just the way we encountered these great craftsman and I hope that the warmth we have been given is reflected in how we presented them and their work. Does that change the views in the West about Afghanistan? I hope so. We tried hard to avoid any stereotypical and media twisted views on the country and people. We channeled the photographer’s experiences in to the project rather than our own.
Street scene in Kabul, Afghanistan photographed using the Afghan box camera
5. On the Afghan box camera website, some of the portraits are displayed with the negative and positive images side-by-side. I was first struck by the intense symbolism of that juxtaposition. How do you see the relationship of the negative to the positive image as representing a bigger global misrepresentation of Afghani identity?
Well, that makes me smile a little. I am a photographer so I have never thought about it in this way. It’s the process, the magic, and the explanation of how one step leads to the next. I think the misinterpretation is a very complex subject and I am certainly not an expert. As I once heard a Sadhu say in India, “you want to know what it is like for a Sadhu to live for 20 years in the forest. Well, come and live with me for 20 years in the forest then you will know what it is like!” Reality is only the reality we perceive now. Not the story, not the supernatural, not the representation. Only if you are there can you form your own opinion and ideas. Everything else is a misconception—even a well intended project like the Afghan Box Camera Project. Although, it is totally fine if you acknowledge it as such.
6. With the increasing global unrest, the imperative for a new and more humanizing perspective of Afghanistan is vital. How had/has knowing this affected the project and your relationship to telling the stories of its people? And what would you say is the natural propensity of your storytelling?
I certainly see myself as a storyteller. Not only with the work I am creating but also in how I communicate my experiences to others. There is a little bit of a self-appointed Ambassadorship to it all. That goes for Afghanistan and for all the other places I have lived and worked in. We need face-to-face story telling and exchange—now more than ever! The global accessibility to knowledge and facts about other countries and cultures allows us great insight, but it also creates the sense that we know it all, even if we have never been there, never talked to anyone from there. It’s a false sense of the world, the people, the beliefs and so on.
7. Can you share with us one of your favorite stories you heard as told by a local.
There have been so many fascinating stories. Asad Ullah, a photographer and Sufi from Kabul told us the most inspiring stories of how he would carry his heavy box camera on one shoulder and the large tripod under his arm and crossed the Hindukusch mountain range. He was a traveller and funded his passage that way. If you have never seen what a box camera looks like…it is very large and very heavy! Asad, now about sixty, presented us with his impressive biceps to confirm the truth of the story. They are wonderful people with sparkling eyes and hearts of gold.
8. And from your personal experience, what story has changed you?
In Afghanistan? A key experience was traveling to the valley of Bamiyan in 2006 for a project about tourism in conflict areas. There was something so unexpected in this valley—the sight of the destroyed Buddhas— the stories— it triggered something in me. An understanding that whatever you have been taught, whatever it is you read or think is true —you have to be able to forget about it completely in order for new knowledge and experience to come in. Otherwise you get stuck in your ways, thoughts and opinions. The mind and heart can’t grow that way. It was a difficult realization and a difficult journey.
9. Your 35 Bilder Krieg project of “un-archived” photographs taken by your grandfather during World War II has much in common with the Afghan Camera project—especially as a sort of memory of the older analog techniques of photography—capturing an older relationship to time. The images seem almost suspended, as if silent reminders of a time past and its stories. You also like to work with Polaroid. Is your work somehow, which seems anchored in older photographic techniques—a rejection of our current digital culture? What is the relationship of your work to time, the time of the image, the use of photography as memory?
There are several aspects of why I use a certain medium or have a certain interests towards a subject. All lead to the question, “what can make us feel something”. Storytelling is all about making someone or yourself feel something. Certainly I first have to feel “it” for myself before I am able to pass “it” on or distill “it” in a specific form. I need a tactile element to my making—digital photography, computer, etc. gets boring—but I have never been bored of taking a Polaroid or box camera photo or snapping away with a crapy, fully-automatic film camera from the 80s.
Unpredictability is important for me too. Right now I am archiving photographs in Myanmar—going through thousands of photographs and deciding what I think is of value and tells a story. I could never do that on a computer. Holding the images, seeing the print quality, the deterioration or how the image had been framed tells me so much about the maker of the image. The success of the Afghan Box Camera Project comes from the same source—the need for tactility.
10. In one of your online interviews with Crave, you noted that you were first introduced to photography by your father, who himself was first taught by your grandfather. Can you talk about this inter-generational aspect of your work? Is this part of the reason you work with and are attracted to older photographic techniques?
In a way, I am continuing a journey my father started almost 50 years ago; that of a travelling artist who combined his interest in history with photography. My father was a hobby scholar of Islamic art and I spent my childhood summers in Turkey, Syria, Jordan or the south of Spain looking at bricks, towers, tiles and colour. That stuck with me. I always envied the adventurous journeys my father went on in the 70s and the photos he took in that period.
On the other hand, at that time it was impossible for my father to travel so extensively and to create so many different outcomes such as websites, books, exhibitions etc. as I am doing now. That is one of the reasons why I published 35 Bilder Krieg, because my grandfather, and even my father, would have never thought of doing it. I decided to publish once a year a small book or booklet from my family archive to keep that inter-generational interest in photography alive.
All images copyright of Lukas Birk