Interview: Thomas Damgaard about "Afghan photographers’ tales "

Afghan photographers’ tales

By Christina Reventlov

The photo exhibition Afghan Tales documents new sides of Afghan culture and everyday life. One of the originators of the exhibition, Thomas Damgaard of Commerce & Culture, here presents the background of the exhibition.

Images of war leave a clear trace. And the Western presentation of Afghan culture is indeed highly characterised by war, terror, oppression of women and the Taliban. But there is another reality, and this is the one that Afghan Tales aims to capture. Not through the lenses of Western European photographers but through the local Afghan photographers’ recordings with many – and often unexpected – facets.

Afghan Tales is about challenging people’s notions about Afghanistan. The local Afghan photographers present their national culture in a notably different way than Western photographers. Through their view of Afghanistan, we can have our understanding of Afghanistan nuanced and broadened, so that we see whole new dimensions of everyday Afghan life’, says Thomas Damgaard.

Together with his partner Morten Nilsson, he is the originator of the exhibition Afghan Tales.The idea for it arose out of a wish to be able to tell a more nuanced cultural story than the one typically conveyed by Western media.

To him, the exhibition offers the opportunity to give the Afghans a voice for themselves to define their reality and history, while at the same time providing the Afghan photographers with a platform from which to strengthen their international networks.

The image as cultural understanding

Thomas Damgaard expects that the exhibition will both surprise and challenge Danish notions of Afghanistan and provide a deeper insight into a country in which Denmark has had a military presence for nearly ten years. He thinks this is an important exhibition since our cultural preconceptions significantly influence the way we act:

‘The understanding we have of Afghan culture is important. We have had a lengthy engagement there due to the war. We have an image of Afghanistan and based on this, we form our opinions. We are actively involved, and therefore we are also obliged to understand the country on its own terms’, says Thomas.

Asks more questions than it answers

Thomas Damgaard stresses that the exhibition does not have a political aim. It is a photographic exhibition, allowing Afghan photographers to communicate their stories, ideas and messages. And despite the fact that these works have been made by local Afghan photographers, they do not come across as one joint story. In fact, the exhibition touches on many different themes and represents a variety of photographic styles.

In 2010, Thomas Damgaard and Morten Nilsson founded Commerce & Culture, a socio-economic enterprise to support and promote photographers in the Global South.


The story behind the exhibition
Thomas first got acquainted with Afghan photographers at the end of 2011 when he, Morten Nilsson and their enterprise Commerce & Culture were invited to Afghanistan by The Danish Centre for Culture and Development and The Danish Embassy in Kabul. The purpose of this visit was to contribute to the development of Afghan photography. It was in this connection he made contact with a network of the best local photographers and initiated the founding of the organisation Afghan Photography Network (APN).

APN is a professional network of photographers, aiming, among other things, to improve the working conditions for photographers in Afghanistan and not least to safeguard their copyrights. At the same time, APN works to support the photographers in further developing their material and their networking opportunities. It was through this that Thomas discovered the quality and depth of Afghan photography that would later provide the point of departure for Afghan Tales:

‘These photos represented a broad conception of the state of affairs in Afghanistan. Far broader than what is usually being communicated. After all, this is often all about war and nothing else.”



More about Afghan Tales here