This photographer builds a street box camera that has been used for 100 years in Afghanistan

Published June 8, 2021, 10:42 AM

by Noel Pabalate

It prints black and white photos in minutes by applying an old art principle of photography

Cameras have evolved drastically over the years, from the 16th-century room-size camera obscura (Latin for darkroom) to the present miniature camera on smartphones. With humanity’s desire to capture images of reality in an instant, numerous models with different technologies have been developed. One of them is the street box camera, or what has come to be known as the Afghan box.

Popularly called in Afghanistan as kamra-e-faoree, which means “instant camera,” this 19th-century photography device mostly found on the streets of Afghanistan, used primarily for portraiture and ID, is both a camera and a darkroom that produces black and white prints in a couple of minutes. As it’s facing extinction in Afghanistan due to the influx of digital cameras, lifestyle photographer Jovel Lorenzo had the interest to build one in the Philippines from scratch during the quarantine months of October to December last year.

Photographer Jovel Lorenzo and his street box camera.

After intensive research online, designing his own model, and searching for affordable parts in the e-market, Jovel was able to assemble a 12in x 21in Afghan box. “I exerted a lot of effort in crafting the camera,” Jovel, who has been a freelance photographer for 20 years now, says in Filipino. “It underwent trial and error, too. But it’s a product of my love for photography. I’m happy I was able to build one that works perfectly. And it gives me fulfillment every time I see the prints.”

A positive result of the lockdown, the heavy handmade device brought out in him once more the basic technique, advanced skills, and in-depth imagination and creativity in photography as a form of art.

Since the creation of his street camera box, Jovel has been trying different ways to produce the best outcomes. To get familiar with the equipment, he takes portraits of people interested in having black and white photographs outside his wife’s ceramic shop Home Love Point in Pasig City. He also came up with a project, dubbed “Island Quarantine Series,” a result of his two weeks quarantine when he visited his hometown Tingloy Batangas on December. The portraits of his chosen 14 subjects represent island life and how the pandemic has affected them.

The black and white photos he took for the ‘Quarantine Island Series’ project.

Although using the camera entails a tedious method, Jovel made the handling of the tool look so easy when we had our photo session. “It took me a lot of practice to master the manual mechanism. But the real challenges here are: How you pose your subject, read the available light, calculate the aperture and speed, operate the camera, and compose the photo in your mind. And those things are what make this art exceptional,” he explains.

The classic camera is already a sight to behold and it makes you feel excited once it is in front of you. As a subject, directed by a veteran lensman, holding the pose is the only hard part you’ll do. But while you feel like a mannequin, witnessing how Jovel operates is definitely a treat. After he releases the shutter button, excitement arises even more. And as you get hold of the black and white photograph, it gives you the surprise of a priceless masterpiece.

One of Jovel’s subjects for the ‘Artist Series’ project, known theatre and film actor and his brother Jojit Lorenzo.

Currently, Jovel has an ongoing project, the “Artists’ Series,” where he aims to take portraits of people from various art forms such as theater actors, painters, sculptors, and fellow photographers among others. Apart from it, he will hold a private photo session using the street box camera every Wednesday this whole month of June at the Photokitchen. As a photography enthusiast, he wants people to own an artisan portrait and experience how photo sessions were done hundred years ago.

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