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Miki Johnson: Did Aina meet with any resistance at first?
Reza Deghati: To give you an image, in 2002 we announced we were going to have a photography courses. There was no telephone, no electricity, no satellite, no running water. I said, it doesn’t matter, we can do it. Two days after we announced the courses, we had 500 people who signed up. We gave them a paper to write their resume on, told them what that was, and how to write it. We spent a few weeks reading the resumes, sorting out 55 students for interviews and we posted that list. The next Wednesday we had 700 people show up. Everybody said, “I didn’t see my name, I thought maybe there was a mistake.” The people in Afghanistan are like a dry sponge. They need every single drop. You cannot imagine how fast-learning they are.
In which city in the U.S. can you bring in seven girls who have never touched anything like a camera, train them, and in nine months they can make a documentary that is nominated for an Emmy award? These are the people who can change their own country much more than we can. And the enthusiasm of those people…You have to be there to see the eyes of the women who listen to the radio. Or when we distribute the magazine, see the whole village come to thank us.
During the first ever Afghan presidential election, everyone was saying, it’s going to be very tough. People won’t show up. And to the astonishment of the whole world community, it was the smoothest election. When all the world’s communities were astonished, Afghanistan’s foreign minister in a press conference said, “One of the reason our country understands democracy, is thanks to AINA.” These are the impact the organization is having now. But for me, the real outcome is 20 to 30 years from now.
MJ: What has been the biggest challenge Aina has faced?
RD: The real challenge and real problem is how to get funding for this project. Because when you are a pioneer, and you have a new idea, many people don’t understand the idea, or they think it’s not matching their organization’s mandate.
So I thought, “Well Reza, look in the mirror, you are a photographer, see what you can bring in.” I made a big auction in 2002 of 50 of my prints and two cameras I used to have with me in conflict zones, a Leica and a Canon. I was trying to send a message to all my colleagues saying that we need to be more involved. We are in contact with this population and we know how they are suffering and we have to give back to them. So from that moment some of our projects started attracting donations. But there were times when some projects, or the whole organization, were not getting funding. So then I started putting in all my income. When that wasn’t enough, I put in 100% of my savings, and did more auctions — three auctions up until now.
The reason I was doing this was that I believed this would be one of the big things the world needs in the 21st century. I believe training these local journalists will help create the big change. The main challenge was helping people understand that giving educational tools to children is more important than just building schools. But every time I found myself explaining this to someone and another NGO was talking about building a school, at the end they were writing checks to the people building schools, not building minds.
We have done 12 issues of our children’s magazine. Every time we have money, we print 40,000 copies and distribute them free everywhere. This costs 50,000 Euros, about $60,000. Think of 60,000 dollars in front of one day of U.S. military operational cost — and then think about what the result of these 40,000 magazines could bring.
Another challenge for me is explaining the importance of what we are doing to people in other countries. They say, “Our children have bookshelves that are full of books and magazines. They don’t mean anything.” So when I tell people about these children’s magazines we print, it’s hard to imagine what their importance is. But we’re talking about our magazine being the first ever printed color material ever seen in the whole village. Once we brought a single copy of the magazine to a whole village. When I went back after three weeks, 150 people had gone through that magazine. Fifty children had learned by heart some of the stories. That’s one of my challenges, how to explain to people how important these projects are. Or how many children’s lives do we save with one radio by helping women understand what the causes of child mortality are.
So how do we deal with funding? The National Geographic mission program is one way. But who is the second? National Geographic is not for profit. It’s not a foundation with deep pockets. This year they have to cut millions of dollars out of their budget. And we want to expand to other countries, also. The whole project is like a toolbox. When we go to a country and see a government that doesn’t like one of our projects, we can have a tool that is matching every country in the world, because of our concept of a toolbox. We can go to Cuba, Syria, Burma and be accepted by the government. That’s the whole concept. And by working and living in those countries, I’ve come to realize how you can get through those problems.
MJ: What can photographers and photo industry professionals do to help?
RD: We have launched Aina photo agency. If all the magazines in the world would look first at Aina Photo’s website when they are looking for pictures from Afghanistan, or if we can find a way to promote Aina Photo’s website, it will help its operation. So I’m talking to photo buyers first. If we sold one picture per day, at say $200, it would help the whole agency to run. If we can bring magazines in the world to understand that if you buy pictures from them, you are helping, because we are training more photographers now. You just helped train more photographers. And editors don’t take money out of their pockets, they get good pictures. If you give one assignment to an Aina photographer, instead of sending one person from Paris, you save hotel, interpreter, guide, and security fee. You save a lot of money. You gain by saying : I got better pictures, the pictures I wanted. But also in other parts you have a better conscience.
For photographers to help, when I launch this whole international organization, I will need membership. I’m going to ask all my colleagues if they want to help this project by becoming a member. This is a new form of social networking internationally. Many photographers are passing through Afghanistan, so I invite them to come to Kabul and give a lecture. In return they’ll get a lot of help. One of the projects I’m thinking of launching will be an international worldwide auctioning of prints by famous photographers who want to help this project. Like I did.
As a photojournalist I have observed an important thing, that most coverage of world events — especially in places like Afghanistan –- is done by white men between 30 and 40 year old. All those male journalists do interviews with Afghan men but have no access to the lives of the other 50% of the Afghan population. What about Afghan women’s stories? Who can tell them? Even if you have one or two women journalists there, the minute they have their own male interpreter and bodyguards, they cannot go inside the houses. They may be able to go inside some open-minded families’ houses, but they are are only talking to a tiny percentage of Afghan women. So who is the best to cover Afghan women? The Afghan women themselves.
This was how we started the Aina video project for Afghan women, asking them to make documentaries. The first ever documentary like this was called Afghanistan Unveiled. We trained seven Afghan women to hold a camera for the first time, and nine months later their film was shown on PBS, the National Geographic channel, more than 20 international channels, at festivals…everywhere. In 2005 it was nominated for an Emmy award as one of four best foreign documentaries. It was because the story was totally different from what we’d heard before. The women knew where to go and who to talk to and how to express themselves. We also had one of Aina’s former student, Farzana Wahidy, who got the National Geographic All Roads honor. She was the first Afghan female photojournalist to receive this award.
In these ways we continued to develop the idea that Aina was founded on. Then one day the UN came to us saying, Reza, what would be the best tool to send out messages to the maximum number of people in the villages and cities? Obviously, as a visual person, I came up with this idea, which was used before in many countries a long time ago, of the mobile cinema project. We have mobile units going from village to village, school to school, with big screens and nice projectors. And Aina students make films that are informative and educational. It connected the population immediately and the whole cycle became local.
We also created a children’s magazine designed to provide both children and their families with important information. It’s not an entertainment magazine; it’s about understanding each other and the whole world, which is especially important in this part of the world. so little-by-little this children’s magazine and women’s radio have become our main projects.
I think that the 21st century needs a new humanitarian organization, and for me this is Aina. I call it a “third-generation” humanitarian organization. It’s not giving people bread; it’s helping them to make their own bread. The big difference between all the existing NGOs and what we are doing is that we want to train local people, help them to become independent completely, to take their countries in their own hands — and then we leave.
So today, after almost nine years in existence, here are some very brief figures: Aina has trained 1,000 Afghans, three to four hundred of whom are women. The first Afghan independent media, called Kabul Weekly, is still going on, and it’s highly respected. We launched an Afghan women’s radio station; we launched a kids’ magazine; we have this production unit making films. And we created the first Afghan photo agency, AINA Photo Agency. It’s an independent photo agency, whose shareholders are the photographers that we trained. They are the owners of their own agency. Kabul Weekly is 100-percent independent media that seldom needs outside help.
By creating a national messaging system, we’ve created all the tools now to replace these psychologists we would need to help people in war-torn countries heal. But the biggest result will be long term. When you start educating women and girls, you are educating the next generation of mothers to educate their children. And we not only trained 1,000 people who then found fantastic jobs, we also created jobs.That’s why Aina, as the first of this kind of organization in the world, has such a positive outcome. That’s why in 2009, with the help of the National Geographic Mission Program and for which they named me a fellow of the National Geographic society, I’m going to launch an international organization to bring the most important aspects of Aina to other countries.
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.
In 1983, I was a photographer for TIME and LIFE magazines. At the time, Afghanistan was occupied by the Russian army and was closed to the media. There were all these refugees, and the terrain was so difficult. My first assignment was in Kabul, and it took me three weeks just to get there on foot, which is only 150 miles from the border. Then I realized immediately how important that story was, and how little the foreign correspondents could do to cover it. The country is huge — if you have to go on foot, it would take three months to reach the other part of the country. I also realized there would be no media that would accept a correspondent being there for six months on foot to do the story. TIME, CBS, and other media were giving a couple days to a couple weeks maximum.
When I came back from Afghanistan, I thought to myself, the only way to cover the whole thing would be for Afghans to do it themselves. I thought, so let’s train some photographers. I went to refugee camps, explained my idea, and started training people and giving them cameras. This was all on my own. The following years I went to South Africa, under apartheid. Again, I realized how hard it was for foreign correspondents to cover, because the government was blocking entrance to journalists. So I thought the best way would be to train younger people living in the townships. I began training them, and the whole time I was also covering the story from the inside. It gave me a totally different perspective. Because usually when I went somewhere to cover a story, I was finding myself with the same group of photographers in the same hotels. The local people would be better storytellers.
The second thing, which was much deeper, came to my mind later, when I was in refugee camps especially. I realized there are two different destructions in wars. One is material destruction: buildings and bodies. That’s what we photograph. The houses that are destroyed and the people who are suffering the loss of part of their bodies. But the reality of wars and conflicts is that there is another trauma — the destruction of the human soul, of culture, and of human connection. One day, I was reading in a newspaper that there was a shooting in a school in the United States. And what really took my attention was that all the police went to the school immediately, and then the ambulances. Then a group of psychologists was sent because people had been traumatized by this shooting. And that was just one shooting. What are we doing in conflict zones? We are only helping to rebuild the material destruction. But we don’t care about the psychologists that are needed.
In humanitarian efforts, 99 percent are just for buildings. The United Nations and NGO’s help to build schools, roads, wells, and to make the artificial legs. But where is that group of psychologists for countries that have been in conflict for years and years. Where are the psychologists and who can they be? I realized, you can’t send American or French psychologists to talk to Afghans or Cambodians. It has to be from inside. But you also can’t send psychologists to talk to people one-on-one. So I thought maybe the best tools were media and communication tools. If they were used collectively, maybe they could replace these psychologists.
At that moment, I also saw there was no opportunity in these countries for a group of people, journalists or artists, to express themselves. We need to help them to express themselves. We need to train them and give them the tools, which are all the tools we use in the West: cameras, video cameras, and computers. They don’t have access to these. This was one main thing that brought me to Aina.