Nobody knows where they are but at least everybody knows them. When we finally track down Ali Ahmad (above right) and his elder brother Aref (above left) they're not so surprised.

"We're famous," says Aref.

"Everybody knows Ali Ahmad-e-Qala-e-Nau!" says Ali Ahmad.

Ali Ahmad and Aref are from Qala-e-Nau north of Herat. Along with their elder brother, Asad Ullah, they were taught how to use the box camera around fifty years ago by Khalifah (boss) Karim in Qala-e-Nau. Karim learnt his trade in Iran.

Nineteen years ago the two of them moved to Herat from Qala-e-Nau. Aref kept a regular pitch in the Pay-e-Hasar area of the city while Ali Ahmad set up close by in Shar-e-nau.

This period - it was during the communist time of Najibullah - was one of their most profitable, according to Aref, because of the large numbers of government soldiers that needed to be photographed, and so trusted were they, he adds, that they were allowed inside the barracks to work. They also photographed prisoners in jails. More recently in the time of Karzai they earned a good living taking photos for student cards, travelling to schools in the districts around Herat.

It was also around this time that the Herati Photographers Association was restarted. The president of the association, Maher, nominated Ali Ahmad as head of the kamra-e-faoree section with responsibilities such as checking prices of materials and making collections if any of the other photographers were sick.

Kamra-e-faoree photographers license issued by the Information & Culture Department, Herat.

Nine years ago Aref stopped working on the camera, and Ali Ahmad was left to travel on his own to schools in the districts, photographing classes on pre-arranged days. He made the negatives of the schoolchildren on the spot but the positives he made at home, photographing multiple negatives at one time (see a video of the process here). The following day he would return to the school with the finished photos, and could easily do a few hundred a day, he recalls.

Below are the images of two school children photographed next to one another by Ali Ahmad which he later cut in two to make separate portraits.


Ali Ahmad believes he was offered the school photo work in the first place because of who his father was: Mirza Rostam, a well-known mullah in Qala-e-nau. It also helped him to avoid trouble. Twice the Taliban arrested him for taking photos for no particular reason, he says, but when they found out who his father was, they released him.

Now Aref works as casual help in the local hospital while Ali Ahmad, the last box camera photographer in Herat, works in a bakery.