Accepted Paper:

Afghanistan's Photographic Heritage: The Khalilullah Enayat Seraj Collection and Transcending the Visual Limits of a National Imaginary  


Shah Mahmoud Hanifi (James Madison University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper considers the visual heritage of Afghanistan using photos displaying the everyday life of the modernizing King Amanullah (r. 1919-1929) and his court. The analysis treats this archive’s value for the historical imaginary of Afghans, and its limits as a source of national inspiration.

Paper long abstract:

The Khalilullah Enayat Seraj (KES) is a rich and unique collection of photographs of Afghanistan held at Williams College (Massachusetts, USA) under the stewardship of the Anthropology Professor David B. Edwards (see KES is a cornerstone of Afghanistan's national visual heritage. This digital archive of 1,261 images provides a wealth of data about the material conditions (clothing, food, transportation), architectural environment (domestic and public spaces), and social life (official and personal interactions) of the country's ruling elite during the reign of King Amanullah (1919-1929). Amanullah is typically celebrated as a progressive liberal reformer who operated in an inhospitable tribal tradition-bound environment. His reign generated a sharp increase in foreign travel from and international access to Afghanistan, as well as a series of political, economic and social reforms including the formation of a representative assembly, the establishment of private banks and trading companies, and legislation relating to the unveiling and schooling of women. The dramatic reforms undertaken by the modernizing urbane king are normatively narrated as giving rise to a rural tribal rebellion that resulted in Amanullah's abdication, flight from the country, and a reversal of some but not all of his initiatives. Today in Afghanistan modernist ideologies and teleologies are once again losing traction. The KES images of Amanullah, his family, confidantes, associates, and various groups of locals and foreigners in public and private settings provide abundant and timely opportunities to re-envision an important period of Afghan national history in light of epistemologies and ontologies critical of modernity.

Panel P08
Photography in/of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan: historical and contemporary perspectives