From the Repressive to the Honorific? Ethics, Photography and the Anjirak Afghan Archive

Murdoch Stephens (Massey University, Wellington, New Zealand)

Summary of the Project

In the summer of 2009, I recovered 1179 photos from the Anjirak Afghan Prison in Yazd, Iran. These photos documented Afghan refugees who had been detained by the Iranians between 1989 and 2005 for, allegedly, not having correct or up to date papers. Since then I have worked to both understand this collection of photos and to work out what to do with them. This article uses Alan Sekula’s discussion on photography as honorific or disciplinary, as well as wider discussions of archives and identity, as a theoretical construct to explain my response to the wide range of issues prompted by these photos.

First I will give some background on the circumstances surrounding my finding of these photos, my subsequent attempts at thinking of them as a collection, and discussions I had with a range of NGO workers, Afghan refugees, curators and academics about how to handle this archive. I will discuss some of the initial ethical problematics that framed my possession of these photographs, locating this reflection in the wider discourse of auto-ethnographies that diverge from traditional scholarly approaches

Following that I will describe Alan Sekula’s splitting of the function of photography into the honorific and the disciplinary. This discussion will lead into a broader consideration of the theoretical concept of the archive. Having set up this opposition I will pose the question: can photographs that once served to document criminality ever over to the sphere of the honorific? I will offer some examples where such a project has succeeded, or partially succeeded, before discussing my progress, to date, with the Anjirak Afghan archive.


Anjirak. In August 2009, while travelling overland from India to Europe I happened upon the Anjirak caravanserai, northwest of Yazd, Iran. The caravanserai had once offered refuge to Silk Road traders as they made their own overland excursions. I later learned from some locals that, in 1980, it was converted into a prison for people detained during the Iran-Iraq war. Following the end of that war, in 1988 or 1989, the caravanserai imprisoned Afghan refugees whose papers were not in order.

The next room, moving counter-clockwise through the building was littered with ashes and a few partially burnt documents. Little could be discerned from the remaining scraps of these documents. The next room, however, amongst dust, broken glass and other rubbish were thousands of documents and photographs of Afghan refugees imprisoned at Anjirak. While most of the images were of single men, one in ten were of families (see Figure 1, below, for an example). I took seventy of these photographs. Two weeks later, still captivated by what remained in that room, I returned and took another one thousand, one hundred of these photographs, predominantly of families, though some were of single men and women. I’ve discussed this process in more details elsewhere (Stephens 2013) so will merely say that, with the utmost care not to be detected with these images, took them out of Iran and back to my home country of New Zealand.


Auto-ethnography and inductive research

Methodological Challenges

I did not go into Iran searching for data or stories of Afghan refugees. As such it might seem glib to try to frame the collection of these images as a matter of academic inquiry. Despite the lack of intentionality in both the collecting of the visual material for this archive and in seeing this as an exercise within an academic sphere, there is a strong history of scholarly writings on the auto-ethnographic and confessional that I can locate my experiences within. For example, Routledge’s (2002) self-reflexive analysis of his fieldwork under the assumed name of Walter Kurtz in Goa, India. Within communication studies the autoethnographic is broadly discussed in both Ganesh’s (2014) discussion of confessional fieldwork and a broader overview of qualitative methods in Tracy (2013).

As Tracy (2010) notes, much scholarly research proceeds from a deductive framework: materials – whether visual or otherwise – are explained with reference to existing theory. The existing theory, in deductive cases, sets the frame and context in which the material or data for study is collected. But in my case, as with many other auto-ethnographies, circumstances conspire to offer a subject, and perhaps material, for study that is understood to be interesting but is not embedded within a particular theoretical frame. In this second case, the scholar engages in inductive reasoning to formulate a theory based on the circumstances they find themselves in. Tracy (2010) notes that scholars in a qualitative tradition often find it difficult to publish on inductive accounts as the structure of their research does not fit with the typical structure of the dominant deductive frame. As such, these scholars tend to adjust their research to make it appear to have emerged out of a deductive framework, placing a theoretical overview first and then working down to their particular empirical observations that are presented post-factum.

One challenge in the case of the Anjirak Afghan prison photos is that it is not possible to inverse the relationship between theory and observation so as to explain these images. The methodological process of trying to understand the place of these visual materials in the world worked through, and continues to work through, a very long series of theoretical associations. I have spent a lot of time trying to think through the ethical implications of my own relationship to these images and the people represented in these images as well as the implications of showing these photos in a public space. This question of ethics, as with Routledge (2002), never ends with the realisation that one is compromised, but demands an answer to what should be done or not done, given the complexities.

Theoretical Framework

For this study I will consider one of the actions that I took to try to do justice to those represented in the Anjirak Afghan refugee archive. That action is to culminate in gifting this archive to the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University (ACKU) and attempts with researchers at that institute to contact families of those in the photos. To understand some of the limitations of this process I will consider the two categories of photography formulated by Alan Sekula: the honorific and the repressive.

On Sekula and archives. In ‘The Body and the Archive’ Sekula (1986) draws upon Michel Foucault to posit two historical uses of the photograph. The first use is the honorific: a portrait of the subject is commissioned by the person to be photographed, or their relative, with the aim of capturing the likeness of that person so they can be remembered. With the advancement in photographic technologies in the 1850s, Sekula notes, even the poorest of people would be able to recall loved ones who had departed.

At the same time, the photograph also became a tool of the police to identify stolen goods and record the likeness of criminals. This second use of the photograph is repressive and fits within the techniques of disciplinary power described in Foucault’s (1977) Discipline and Punish. Sekula describes how a range of archivists situated photography amongst other seemingly benign technologies such as the filing card as a means to know and track criminality in 19th century France.

Embellishing Sekula’s work with more examples and queries for the archive, Tagg (2012) considers the example of the ‘counter-archive’:

“In the erstwhile German Democratic Republic, in post-Ceausescu Romania, in Argentina after the Dirty War, and in Cambodia after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, archives have been recovered from ransacked offices, waterlogged barns, prison camps, and garbage dumps and, with patient forensic archaeology and conservation, turned around so that they have begun to speak again, this time of the guilt of the interrogators, torturers, executioners, spies, and informers” (p.32).

It is within this tradition of the counterarchive that I can most readily locate the Anjirak Afghan archive. However, the limitation of the counterarchive speaks only to an inversion of photograph as a repressive apparatus of the state. Though Tagg also describes the Wikileaks archives as a work of counter-archive the question that has oft-plagued Foucauldian theorists is not adequately answered: if this is resistance, what theory of power might explain it? Tagg is right when he notes that the “counterpractice is a replication of the practice” (p.34) but the hopelessness of this approach leads to a rejection of the archive that would also destroy an honorific function. Echoing Lenin’s attitude to the state as an apparatus, he asserts, “The archive, too, cannot be taken over but has to be smashed” (p.34).

Research Questions

Can the Anjirak Afghan archive move from the repressive to the disciplinary?

Methodological Potentials

For Tagg (2012) the institution as the home of the repressive use of the photograph is something to be overcome. For a long time I felt a similar challenge in locating the Anjirak Afghan archive within established institutions and was determined not to exhibit them in any traditional fashion. However, through my discussions with curators in New Zealand and those at the ACKU I’ve come to feel that there might be a space whereby the connection to a local community in an institution, like the ACKU, could play a role in the construction of a collective memory. This optimism, though without explicit reference to an institution is echoed in Tagg’s (2012) appraisal of Susan Meiselas’s work in Kurdistan that seeks “to build a collective memory with a people who have no national archive” (Meiselas, 1997; p.29).

Looking forward, the Anjirak Afghan archive offers the potential of having photos taken and/or used in a repressive capacity be reclaimed as honorific. That is part of the task set by the ACKU who will work with me to publicise the archive and consult with Afghans who may have had family detained at Anjirak to (a) give them some insight into what has happened to their families, if they do not know, and/or (b) to offer them a copy of the family portrait.

Methodological Limitations

I anticipate that many of the challenges associated with this task, in particular the cultural and language barriers between those represented in the photos and myself, will be bypassed by my gifting the archive to the ACKU and working with Afghan researchers, as well as other organisations such as the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation. I also anticipate that that change of custodianship will not solve all the difficulties that could be encountered: for example, traumas associated with displacement may return with the promotion of the archive. Even if family members of those detained in Anjirak come forward of their own volition, that is not to say that they will be able to separate themselves from feelings associated with the repressive production of the image. No honorific photography, I counter, is without a connection to loss. The complexity of the our relationship to a departed relative need not be visited on the medium with which the memory is rekindled, particularly if the medium is the only or most recent image we have of the honored one.


Foucault, M (1977) Discipline and Punish: the birth of the prison. London: Penguin Books.

Ganesh, S. (2014). Unraveling the Confessional Tale: Passion and Dispassion in Fieldwork. Management Communication Quarterly 28(3), 448-457.

Meiselas, S. (1997) Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History. New York: Random House.

Routledge, P. (2002) Travelling East as Walter Kurtz: Identity, Performance and Collaboration in Goa, India. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 20(4), 477–98.

Sekula, A. (1986). The body and the archive. October, 3, 3-64.

Stephens, M. (2013). Anjir: The Little Fig. Afghan Scene Issue 112.

Tagg, J. (2012). The Archiving Machine; or The Camera and the Filing Cabinet. Grey Room 47, 24–37.

Tracy, S. J. (2010). Qualitative quality: Eight “big-tent” criteria for excellent qualitative research. Qualitative inquiry, 16(10), 837-851.

Tracy, S. J. (2013). Qualitative research methods: Collecting evidence, crafting analysis, communicating impact. Malden: John Wiley & Sons.

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