The lessons I taught in Afghanistan have remained consistent mantras to my work back home in the United States. Even though my job titles have changed over the years, my work has remained the same. I used to tell my students: Everyone has a story to tell, and it is up to you to make their story heard. It is a lesson that echoes from photojournalism to UX development. We are all storytellers creating experiences people will remember, no matter what the platform may be. In the end, it is the end user of our product that affects change.
Hopefully, this is a story that you will remember.
It’s not every day that you get a chance to fly half-way around the world to work on a media start-up project with two National Geographic Photographers. That is exactly the opportunity I was offered while attending Kent State University at the end of 2002. It was just over one year after 9-11 and US Allied Forces had just taken the city of Kabul, a few months earlier. Safety was not guaranteed.
Being in Afghanistan changed my worldview. I met the most incredible people. I saw the most incredible places. I even traveled to the front lines, in the middle of the night, to interview a warlord with Massoud Hossani, one of my students. Massoud would later go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his work a few years later.
Afghanistan taught me, sometimes you just need to step out and take a chance. I have never regretted that decision.
AINA Photojournalism Institute
My primary job in Afghanistan was to teach photojournalism to 19 students, 6 days a week, 12 hours a day. Our formal classroom was held inside a former Taliban prison. Photography was illegal six months prior.
I taught my students everything from the basics of image design to Photoshop to advanced photojournalism. For many of them, photography was completely new to them. It was illegal most, if not all of their lives under the rule of the Taliban. Their cameras were fully-manual-Russian Zenit cameras with no built-in light meter. I had to teach them how to calculate the correct exposure mentally. Their results gained them international attention. The students graduated from Aina Photojournalism Institute, a year later. Some stayed to teach the next year of students, others helped form Afghanistan’s first photo agency, while others moved to work for the AFP and the Associated Press.
Afghanistan’s first photo agency
After returning home from Kabul, I was able to set up the first Afghan photo agency using Digital Railroad’s (PaaS) product in 2004. It was the first of its kind. The web platform was in its beta stages and needed help testing its product in real-world situations. The Digital Railroad platform, although extinct today, was a pioneer in its time. It allowed the recently graduated students of AINA Photojournalism Institute to sell their work around the world to publications such as the Guardian, the New York Times and the Washington Post.
The photo agency exists today, with the help of Webistan, a photo Agency based out of France. My students still run the office in Kabul.
Celebrating Our Success
After almost a year of intensive work, the entire team at AINA celebrated the achievements we were able to accomplish together. We put 19 students through a very intensive photojournalism course. We completed weekend photography courses for more than 50 students who operated satellite photo departments throughout the country. We helped Afghanistan’s only museum document all their sacred artifacts, including the ones destroyed by the Taliban (their work was later featured in the Smithsonian a few years later.) We helped the World Press Photo team put on a photo exhibit while the curators of the exhibit chose not to attend due to the security threats. My class and I ignored the threats and hung the photos on printing presses once shut down by the Taliban. The photos included famous pictures from the 9/11 attacks.
A few years after I left Afghanistan, my students began blazing their own path into the international media market. Some continued on as teachers in my place, teaching new students the art of photojournalism, while others took over the new AINA photo agency. Others looked higher and began to work directly with AFP, the Associated Press, and Reuters.
They have been given awards including prestigious National Geographic awards for photojournalism and awards as incredible as the Pulitzer Prize. More recently, four of my students were featured in the documentary called Frame by Frame.
The best part of my work in Afghanistan is seeing the students I once taught, tell some of the most important stories of our generation. Their success continues to be my biggest reward.