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May 7th, 2009

Teaching journalists in Kabul – big plans and how you can help

Posted by Reza

In 2001, world-renowned photojournalist Reza Deghati (known simply as Reza by most) founded Aina, an international non-profit organization based in Afghanistan that cultivates a well-trained independent media in order to promote democracy and to help heal post-conflict societies. In this post he outlines the organization’s successes and ways photographers can help it grow. Don’t miss his earlier posts about his experiences as a photojournalist in war-torn countries and how journalists can heal war wounds.

Image courtesy Aina.

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.

Image courtesy Aina

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.

Photo courtesy Aina

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.

If editors bought one picture per day, it would help the whole agency run.

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.


  1. May 7th, 2009 at 8:32 am

    Baya Agarwal

    Brilliant initiative. I would be really keen to watch the documentary mentioned in the post which was nominated for Emmy awards.
    If you could send me any online link available it would be great.


  2. May 7th, 2009 at 8:49 am

    Miki Johnson

    Hi Baya,
    Thanks for asking. I added the link to the story, but here it is, also:

    The documentary is called Afghanistan Unveiled. I hope you have a chance to see it and share it with friends!


  3. October 14th, 2009 at 10:43 am

    REZA: A rare photo exhibition by Reza in the Valley of Panjshir, Afghanistan « FiftyCrows Blog

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