Photographing a Madrasa in Afghanistan / by james longley

During the 42 month I lived in Afghanistan up to this year, my time was split between documentary filmmaking and photography. I was always searching for ways to make images that would convey a more enveloping and immersive sense of the Afghanistan I was experiencing. One thing I started working on was multi-exposure panoramic photography. 

[click through image to see full panoramic photograph with detail views]

The idea was to make a still image that would convey an entire scene and show a full location, rather than the traditional approach to photography that tends to narrow the field of view and focus on a single subject or composition. Afghanistan is very much a communal society, not a society based around the supremacy of the individual. As such, I felt that often the most appropriate way to picture the place was create broad, sprawling portraits of scenes with many subjects rather than singling out only one. As they live in what is generally a shy society, I got the sense that this was also the aesthetic approach with which Afghans themselves felt most comfortable. 

[click through image to see full panoramic photograph with detail views]

As amazing as moving pictures are as medium, sometimes the best way to really see something is to cut away the ephemeral qualities of motion and freeze a scene in time. Photography still has the mysterious power it has always had, despite how ubiquitous electronic imagery has become. A good photograph is still just as exciting to make, and just as difficult.

[click through image to see full panoramic photograph with detail views]

I had been exploring around Deh Sabz, a mainly Pashtun district just outside of Kabul known for its shrine and many large brick kilns, when I came upon a madrasa teaching the Qur'an to local children in the shadow of the Ziarat-e Gheybi Baba Shrine. Inside the madrasa children of all ages sat crowded together in several rooms heated by iron stoves, swaying backward and forward as they recited. 

The mullahs in the madrasa initially did not allow me to make a photograph. They claimed that photography was against the teachings of Islam. It took perhaps twenty minutes of persuading on the part of my Afghan translator before they changed their minds and allowed me to take one complete panoramic image inside the madrasa as the students studied the Muslim holy book. 

In the end, I only had a short time to make the photograph, which is composed of a number of digital image panels that are then stitched together. The finished image, printed at a large scale on heavy matte archival paper feels to me less like traditional photography and more like the paintings I used to look at in art books when I was the same age as these children. We traveled back to Deh Sabz a week late to bring them a large print of the image as a gift to thank them for allowing us to make the picture. I hope you enjoy it as much as they did.