Photojournalism has a complicated past. It came to prominence in the latter quarter of the 20th century riding on a tide of Western fascination towards images that uncover the ‘truth’; although in retrospect, this “truth” was little more than an aestheticized poverty. This frequently exploitative medium can result in photographs that exist in an emotional vacuum, inspiring pity and awe in the mind of the western consumer of images; while offering very little understanding, care or dignity to the subjects themselves. Frame by Frame follows the rise in photojournalism in Afghanistan following the removal of the Taliban-imposed ban on photography. For the film’s main characters – Najibullah Musafer, Wakil Kohsar, Farzana Wahidy and Massoud Hossaini – photojournalism is a way to write their communities, culture and political realities into history. With their Kickstarter funded short-turn-feature length documentary directors Mo Scarpelli and Alexandria Bombach have produced a highly polished and empathetic piece, that effortlessly positions their voice as secondary to the subjects, whose day to day striving to create meaningful images fuels the film.
Frame by Frame does well to ground the political context of contemporary Afghanistan in its long history of invasion. The Russian occupation is established as the point of modern social-political turmoil for the country, rather than the amnesic Taliban–centric recounts that dominate much of mainstream western media. While many interviewees express a fear that once US troops leave the free media will once again become endangered, the film does not present freedom as a concept synonymous with westernization. The main characters all explicitly emphasise that speaking about and to their own people is the chief motivation in their work. This positioning of the western gaze as having less importance than their immediate local audience is humorously encapsulated in a sequence in which an Afghani radio interviewer has to repeatedly ask Massoud the name of the little award he won, being the Pulitzer Prize for photography.
Married couple Farzana Wahidy and Massoud Hossaini emerge as the documentaries key protagonists. The film grounds them first in their mundane married life, shown in brief charming scenes in which we see them supermarket shopping, renting DVDs, and arguing over which of ‘The Hangover’ movies they have already seen. These endearing sequences help establish the characters as ordinary, which renders their extra-ordinary bravery and selfless compassion in their work all the more astounding. As the film then splits off into their respective narratives, a link is sustained in terms of the closeness and ongoing emotional vulnerability these photographers share with their subjects. For Farzana this is in her ongoing work photographing women in Afghanistan, a project she hopes will reclaim external notions of what it means to be female in this part of the world. In capturing female athletes mid exertion, veiled women in prayer at a mosque and the results of self-immolation at rural hospitals Farzana meets opposition from patriarchal authorities at every turn. In one astounding piece of footage we see the head of a burns unit tell Farzana that she shouldn’t be investigating women’s issues, directly stating that the news she should be documenting must be about men only. Farzana’s resilience is matched only by her empathy for her subjects, comforting abuse survivors as she interviews them, ensuring her photographs do not reveal their identities.
Conversely, Massoud’s story centres around his Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of the ‘girl in green’. This image shows a 12 year old screaming surrounded by bodies following a bombing at a religious ceremony in Kabul. For Massoud his increasing fame and success due to the image is always anchored in the reality of the community the bombing affected, the girl depicted and her family. The film follows his visits to the family, reflecting the close relationship he has developed with them having searched in the immediate aftermath of the explosion for her sister, who now suffers ongoing internal damage. This emotional dimension to Massoud’s work repositions the role of a photojournalist from the passive observer and documenter to an active member of the society, whose participation in fighting oppression manifests itself on artistic, practical and inter-personal levels.
The film’s aesthetic draws largely from the formal qualities of the subject’s own photographic styles, employing heavy use of wide angle lenses, depth of field experiments and a rich colour palate. Filled with gorgeous slow pans the film avoids heavy movement, preferring instead subtler camerawork that speaks closer to photography as a medium. Each main subject is introduced with a tableau-style profile shot, which appears as a suspended-moment mid scene in the character’s respective shooting environments of the day. This is overlayed with the characters name, before we return to the action at hand. The lush cinematography – by both Scarpelli and Bombach – employs extensive landscape shots that capture the physical beauty of Afghanistan, which so rarely shown in a western media that renders the country nothing but rubble. Frame by Frame really falls flat in the soundtrack. The violin-heavy tear-jerking tracks feel excessive in a film that is already filled to the brim with emotion. The melodrama of these musical choices detracts from the otherwise painful realism of the film. Thus by over-sentimentalizing these stories some of the raw intimacy of the interviews is lost, and an unfortunate distance is created.
All in all, Frame by Frame is an incredibly genuine narrative, that could only have been crafted by directors who have a very real admiration for their subject’s own work and experiences. The documentary is a story about storytellers that operates as homage to the Afghani photojournalists it follows. Intending to extend their voice across a new platform the film works to further fight the erasure of Afghani resistance and activism on the world stage, challenging the idea of Afghanistan as a victim nation, void of any internal cultivation of a national image and identity.