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When I started photographing 30 years ago, all the photojournalists in the world, we all had almost the same tools: one Nikon camera. When you went to cover African or Asian countries, they had the same camera. The writers and journalists had only a pen and a notebook. Everyone had the same things. But in the last 30 years, we went through an information revolution. We in the west are the first ones who have access to these new tools. We are the ones getting the best laptops, cameras, and video cameras. In the meantime, considering how expensive it is not only to buy this equipment but to be trained on it, we are leaving the whole other part of the world — non-western countries — behind.
Their journalists and artists and poets don’t even have money to buy a pen and a notebook while we have access to the top technological materials. So how can they connect to us, or their own nation, if they don’t have tools? So I thought, each country needs just a few hundred people to be trained and to get those tools. If we can help them, train them, and give them access to tools, we have connected the whole humanity of the world together again.
My other observation was that one of our main tasks is to say that democracy is the best way of having a government. We are trying to spread democracy. The only way to achieve that is to let the people themselves make democracy. You cannot force people to be democratic. And the best tool for democracy is freedom of speech, which needs free media. If there is no free media, there is no democracy.
With those three observations in my head, and running from one conflict to another, I started thinking, “What will be the 21st century’s new organization that could bring all these elements together and effectively help solve those problems?”
I had started training local photographers when I was going on assignments, in ’86 in the Philippines, and then the former Soviet Union. Then I went to Bangladesh to help Shahidul [Alam] start his own school, and I was the first teacher in that school. Afterwards I went to Beijing for three years to teach in the university and train professional photographers. This was how I began to realize the answer to my question: Create an independent media and culture center in each country, where a couple hundred local journalists and talented young people would be trained to have access to new technology. We would train local people, not as a school, but as a job training center. The idea was to start media projects immediately, like independent magazines, children’s magazines, women’s magazines, a radio station for women. Then in the meantime you have people who are trained launching their projects.
When I wrote all those ideas down, I was looking for one country that would be the pilot country, which I would use as a laboratory for the whole thing. It was 2000 and the obvious place for me was Afghanistan. First, because it was the darkest place of humanity: the Taliban were there, Russians had been there, there was civil war, and Al Qaeda fighting them. Plus, the world had totally forgotten them for 10 years. So I thought Afghanistan would be best place for a pilot project. And this was the whole start of AINA.
The official launch was in July 2001 in the north part of Afghanistan, in a rebel region, when the whole country was under Taliban. Then suddenly 9/11 happened. Everything changed. The Taliban fled and we entered Kabul and started a center there immediately. We were the first NGO that started a project there after the fall of the Taliban.
In Afghanistan during the pilot project, I realized that the people who would have an especially big impact would be the women journalist. During the conflict, my hatred of the war made me think that if women could take more control of the media and government, we could grow toward a more peaceful world in a century or two. So this was how we started saying, let’s start having much more women in the training, especially in Afghanistan.
That’s how we launched Voice of Afghan Women, which is a radio station. By doing this, I realized how important this tool is, and how it reaches millions of Afghan women in their remote homes. They cannot read. They cannot even go out. They cannot have access to magazines or books, but radio can be brought to them in their homes. So we launched this women’s station and started distributing small transistor radios to remote places, 5,000 of them. Now from just one radio, information is going to the whole village.