The Disappearing Afghan Box Camera

3 minute read

The Afghan box camera—a homemade wooden device known as the kamra-e-faoree, meaning “instant camera”—has been used to preserve memories in Afghanistan for generations. It is part of the local landscape, with street photographers dotting city thoroughfares. It is itself a part of Afghan history, having been briefly banned by the Taliban, but these days, the box camera is in danger of disappearing. Fewer and fewer people know how to make and use the traditional tool, which uses no film but can both capture and develop an image.

Lukas Birk and Sean Foley, an Austrian artist and an Irish ethnographer, respectively, had discovered the box cameras while visiting Afghanistan on research trips. They learned that the devices, which came to the region in the early 20th century, were being replaced by their digital descendants among photographers who could afford it—or lying unused by photographers who couldn’t afford to refill on photographic supplies. The art of the karma-e faoree had been passed down through families, but Birk and Foley thought that this generation was going to be the last.

They were both struck by the importance of the cameras in local history and the poignancy of the medium’s persistence, and were also interested in the potential stories to be told when Afghans were photographed by other Afghans.

But the photographs produced by the cameras were the real draw. “We’re both visual people,” said Birk in an email, “and box camera photography is a feast for the eyes.”

So, in 2011, funded by a Kickstarter project, the two traveled to Afghanistan to begin research on a project about the Afghan box camera. The website they produced from that trip features box-camera tutorials, profiles of itinerant photographers and examples of box-camera photography and traditional hand-tinting from Afghanistan and the surrounding region. But the 2011 trip was not the end of their exploration of the box camera. Birk and Foley have started a Kickstarter page to raise money for another trip to Afghanistan, slated for this spring, with plans to produce a book with the additional material.

“Right now we can still talk about it as a living form of photography, maybe for another couple of years, before it will completely disappear,” Birk said.

Those interested in the box camera technology, which allows the photographers to snap and develop their pictures all at once, can watch a movie about it below. (Birk notes that he is doing his best Werner Herzog impression as the narrator, hoping to evoke the style of vintage ethnographic films.)

Find out more about the Afghan Box Camera project here or donate to the project’s Kickstarter fund here.

Kabul, 1996.Teun Voeten
One of the oldest kamra-e-faoree photographs found by the Afghan Box Camera Project: the grandfather of Abdul Satar, a photographer.Courtesy Abdul Satar
A paper negative and finished portrait by Qalam Nabi.Qalam Nabi
A portrait by Rohullah.Rohullah
Qalam Nabi, Afghan box-camera photographer.Afghan Box Camera Project
Qalam Nabi takes a photograph.Afghan Box Camera Project.
An image of a customer projected onto the focusing plate of Qalam Nabi's camera.Afghan Box Camera Project.
The finished product from Qalam Nabi's camera.Qalam Nabi
Copies of Qalam Nabi's work.Afghan Box Camera Project.
Qalam Nabi walking with his camera.Afghan Box Camera Project.
Rohullah focuses his camera.Afghan Box Camera Project.
Rohullah fixes an image.Afghan Box Camera Project.
Rohullah's photographs.Afghan Box Camera Project.
A retouched image by Asad Ullah.Courtesy Asad Ullah
A box-camera photo brought in by one of Asad Ullah's customers to be retouched.Courtesy Asad Ullah
The box-camera photograph from the last slide, reworked digitally into a color portrait.Asad Ullah
Qalam Nabi tints a photograph.Afghan Box Camera Project.
A hand-colored portrait.Muhammad Karim
A "retouched" digital portrait of a young man.Asad Ullah
A striking digital portrait by Asad Ullah.Afghan Box Camera Project.
Images decorate Baba Sher's camera. Most are of Hindi movie stars.Afghan Box Camera Project.
Mia Muhammad.Afghan Box Camera Project.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Lily Rothman at