The market on the outskirts of Kabul was crowded with vendors selling everything from shoes to fresh fruit out of stalls, packed tightly together as to not let an inch of potential retail space go to waste. Neighborhood clients pushed their way along the sidewalk and even on to the street. It was a typical Tuesday morning in this Khair Khana market — except for the presence of me, two other foreigners and two Afghans with a video camera.
Abdul Wali Hayat and Haroon Nusrat — both in their mid-20s and working for the non-profit, non-governmental Counterpart International in Afghanistan –stopped in the market to practice a few of their newly-learned video production skills. “Inshallah” (“God willing” in Dari and Arabic), they would be able to capture the busy life in the market and use it in a short, online documentary.
Wali and Haroon had to get permission from a police commander and his team who were walking the beat that morning. Once the commander had agreed, Wali and Haroon repeated “Tashakur,” or thank you. They also had to reassure shopkeepers that they would not interfere with their business or do things that were not permitted in this conservative society.
The small camera was a strong magnet for kids (who always crowd in front of the lens). When the kids came, we knew that it was time to move on.
All this just to get what is called video “b-roll,” which is supplemental footage that is intertwined with interviews as part of a documentary. In the end, maybe 20 seconds of all this footage would appear in the video.
Although successful in their first endeavor, Haroon and Wali did not imagine that this would be the start of their Tuesday. Twenty-four hours earlier, they were sitting in a conference room packed with 36 people who were learning the basics of how to take photographs and shoot video in Afghanistan.
While Afghan media professionals do learn these techniques, it is unusual for people who work for non-profit organizations to receive this type of in-depth training on visual communications techniques. Monday’s training was special since it sought to provide and share these skills with Afghan non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
Organized by Counterpart International-Afghanistan’s office, as part of its Initiative to Promote Afghan Civil Society, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the communications seminar was a smart idea. The appetite was tremendous (indeed, we ran out of space in the training room!), and NGO staff traveled from many different parts of the country.
Their commitment in the six-hour course was evident. Afghanistan’s security situation — particularly outside the capital — makes travel difficult and even dangerous. Moreover, many NGOs in the country have only a few staff members (but big demands for their services), so for each of these organizations, giving up a person for a day is a major commitment in itself.
Although they had varying levels of education and experience, none had been trained in communications before. About half said their organizations required them to do some communications work, such as preparing newsletters and field reports.
Led by David Snyder, a U.S. professional freelance photographer whose client list is dominated by NGOs, the morning training session consisted of practical information about how to get the best images from typical situations encountered by civil society workers. Though he has held similar trainings elsewhere for other NGOs, this was the largest group and his first time in Afghanistan.
Right after lunch, I handled a one-hour session on how to shoot video. Honestly, at first I was skeptical about training so many people. Having organized and managed training seminars for professional journalists in Latin America and the Caribbean, I knew it was a lot of new information for people to absorb.
My concerns were unfounded. After several hours of instruction, the Afghans were sent out for an hour to take photographs of everyday life in the surrounding neighborhood. When they returned to the meeting room, we could see that the basic techniques of good composition had resonated with them. In fact, some of the photos were very good.
The following day, Haroon and Wali put to work what they learned about video. By the end of Tuesday, they had set up and filmed three interviews. They ended the day of shooting at about 3:30 p.m. by taking us up a hill overlooking Kabul to shoot more b-roll.
It is here that they were reminded of one lesson that was not taught in the classroom but demonstrated earlier in the day: video cameras attract kids. Fortunately, I knew this so I came prepared with individually wrapped chocolate bars, and our spectators were quickly satisfied.
One final lesson of the day (and not part of the lesson plan): Always give out the chocolate bars when you’re leaving since even the sight of candy tends to draw more children (and you don’t want someone to be left out).
Photo by David Snyder for Counterpart International.