"Frame by Frame" Tells the Courageous Stories of Photographers in Afghanistan

Tabasum Wolayat. Photography by Susan Ely.

Tabasum Wolayat. Photography by Susan Ely.

On February 23 the Metro NY chapter hosted a screening of Frame by Frame, an investigation into free press in post-Taliban Afghanistan by directors Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli. A discussion with Scarpelli and special guest Afghani student, Tabasum Wolayat, followed the screening.

The film was born when Bombach and Scarpelli learned that, during the reign of the Taliban, taking photos was a crime. In 2001, when the regime fell from power, the beginning of a free press emerged and journalists and photographers suddenly had the opportunity to share what they were witnessing with others. In 2012, the directors traveled to Kabul for two weeks to discover more, returning to the city in 2013 to move the story forward.

When they first arrived in Afghanistan, Scarpelli and Bombach approached four photojournalists who appeared especially willing to take major risks and followed each of them as they worked to expose the truth of what was happening in the country. “Unfettered access with all the photographers was essential for what Frame by Frame became,” says Scarpelli. “A story about four human beings.”

It was an important time to visit. “Since the Taliban was ousted from power in 2001, a media revolution had unfolded in Afghanistan,” Scarpelli says. “Newspapers, magazines, radio stations, and TV stations had popped up all over the place.” But the free press was still in danger because of a government transition to a new president, U.S. forces and foreign media bureaus pulling out, and dwindling aid – which was key to the buildup of the press.

“Everyone was just so moved,” says UN Women USNC Metro NY president Mary Luke about the audience’s reaction. “It was a real window into life in Afghanistan. And Tabasum speaking really added another level to the film.”

Tabasum Wolayat was 12 years old when her Northern Afghanistan town fell under Taliban rule. “It wasn’t so much terrifying as it was disappointing,” she says of her experience. Growing up in a liberal household where the focus was on education, she realized that the opportunities her parents wanted for her were being taken away. “My dad said, 'It will now be a different time for you women. You must not laugh loud. Do not go out randomly. You must wear a burka. That was a shock for me.'” She recalls watching heartbroken as he burned books one night, destroying what he loved in order to protect his family.

The downfall of the Taliban meant that Wolayat and her siblings could once again pursue their educations. She moved to the United States to study at Middlebury College in Vermont, and after graduating she went on to receive her master's in anthropology from Oxford. She then returned to Afghanistan and for the past two years has served as the director of admissions at the American University in Kabul.

She acknowledges that life in Afghanistan hasn’t been perfect, both under Taliban rule and after it. And she knows that it will be a long time when people will trust the free press. “It was hard for people to believe in free press during the Taliban and after the Taliban,” she says. “Press is funded by whom? Not everyone believes that’s it’s free press because they don’t believe it’s unbiased.”

Now, despite the dangers that still exist, she has chosen to return to Afghanistan and help bring back the country that she loved as a child. But one of the most important things she explained to the film’s audience was that even if life isn’t perfect in Afghanistan, people can still find happiness. “She said, ‘we eat together, go to school and enjoy being with each other,’” says Luke. “It isn’t just bombs and people falling apart.’”

Tabasum Wolayat, Mary Luke and Mo Scarpelli. Photography by Susan Ely.

Tabasum Wolayat, Mary Luke and Mo Scarpelli. Photography by Susan Ely.

Mikki Brammer