When you can’t actually get a good shot, take a video

We were at breakfast in New York — Sake wine was flowing, sugary black waffles were rolling off the spoons and fat-covered people were devouring imaginary biscuits — when I wanted to switch off…

When you can’t actually get a good shot, take a video

We were at breakfast in New York — Sake wine was flowing, sugary black waffles were rolling off the spoons and fat-covered people were devouring imaginary biscuits — when I wanted to switch off from talking about my new film about Afghanistan and hit “play” on my phone’s video-player. I was traveling with a few staffers and in a rush to do some press.

No big deal. It was 10 a.m. on a Sunday, and I was sure I had a moment for some creative working.

Except that cellphones in Afghanistan are much harder to use in the snow and deserts. At 25,000 feet I had the choice of walking around with my tent, scarf and vest — clearly needing someplace to eat — or traipsing through villages where cell signals were, typically, weak, if not nonexistent.

I discovered that video, not photos, was the best way to show viewers. Viber, Whatsapp and other similar applications worked fine. So did using my notebook — bright sunlight didn’t phase me, but the glow from the backlight sometimes meant hard seconds to catch my breath.

The decision to switch to video was of course, very, very dangerous, but when I was able to demonstrate an amusing, natural camera effect that could make all those watching want to follow along, I got lots of comments and feedback. Back home, the phrase “by email” was a synonym for spoiler alert, but here, it is just the best.

It was only after a few weeks of this, though, that my instincts started to guide me. That was when I met Amna Beit Zahoor.

Shared a film with her, knew who she was, wished she was here

I emailed Zahoor about my film and, in a light-bulb moment, she decided to see it. She loved it, and shared it with me. We’d immediately hit it off, and because I knew her name, I’ve stayed in touch with her ever since. We’re continuing our work together, producing an episode about Afghanistan for HBO and with aid group Free the Children. We’ve filmed together in Yemen, witnessed Afghanistan’s female empowerment struggle, and traveled with Congo’s Esther Messika as they walked 18,000 km between villages.

So from that and other experiences like them, I’ve learned:

*** If you are a working person traveling with a laptop, smartphone or otherwise carrying a video camera, and you have no idea of how to use it in an Afghan environment, please, please find a local translator or guide.

*** Don’t try to film everything on your phone — or to film yourself. An extra hour to get camera ready for your big interview will make all the difference.

*** Tell the world what you are filming. Take your time editing, but show your work!

*** This isn’t about politics; it’s about sharing real life. Americans should believe and learn from it. Afghanistan really is a place where politics is malleable — and love is sometimes more tangible.

*** Travelers should not forget the locals. They love your stories, and will share your experience with others.

*** If the Taliban get you in your hotel, please speak to the staff. They can make a difference in your wellbeing and even in your ability to film.

*** It’s easier to travel in Afghanistan and around the world with peace in your hearts than against it. A good enemy is one with an insatiable need for attention.

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Wahid Mujtaba is now the news editor for Tell Kabul Time, a website and independent magazine covering Afghanistan and Pakistan. He previously led the Afghanistan-Pakistan bureau for The Wall Street Journal and was a contributing editor for The New York Times. This post first appeared on the website of Tell Kabul Time.

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