India is at the Top of My List: Khyber Khan

India is at the Top of My List: Khyber Khan
Khyber Khan's drone shots of Afghanistan are a rage, Photo Credit: Khyber Khan

We caught up with the award-winning UK-based cinematographer and photographer on photography, travel, and Afghanistan, his place of birth

Prannay Pathak
January 24 , 2021
18 Min Read

He shares his name with a major historical mountain pass in Central Asia. And his shots of Afghanistan's gorgeous mountainscape, plentiful valleys streaked by rivers and glaciers, unexplored villages and vineyards, and cherubic children, do that name thorough justice. Having been transfixed time and again by photographer and cinematographer Khyber Khan's grand visual documentation of the country, we decided to reach out to him for a chat.

 
 
 
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A post shared by Khyber Khan (@khyberkhaan)

Who is Khyber Khan really? What's your relationship with Afghanistan?

I am a filmmaker, photographer and mountaineer based in the UK and I currently work in these roles. I was born in Kabul, a city high up in a narrow valley between the Hindu Kush mountains. Due to conflict and everything that comes with it, my family and I were displaced like millions of other Afghans and so I spent most of my life, away from Afghanistan. All of my education was based outside of my home country. I lived in Russia then we moved and settled in the United Kingdom. Being away makes you feel that I need to do something for my country. Like other Afghans in the diaspora, there is a sense of responsibility and maybe some guilt to help the country or the people.

 
 
 
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Throughout the years I developed a passion for film and movies and my first exposures to film were from Bollywood and Hollywood. I can recall that from a young age I longed to see Afghanistan on the big screen. Even then I wondered why there was more focus on showing a war mongering Afghanistan instead of epic landscapes, ancient history, vibrant culture and the strikingly diverse people of Afghanistan. What the media shows about Afghanistan, is an incomplete and one-sided story. The industry wasn’t and isn’t doing Afghanistan justice and so I wanted to use my passion to showcase to the world that Afghanistan is a geographical and archaeological haven. This led me to pursue film and cinematography.  

 
 
 
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It’s been a childhood dream of mine and now my personal mission has become to create a thriving image of Afghanistan and I would say this describes me and my relationship with Afghanistan. 

What are your thoughts on the immediate future of travel in Afghanistan? It is unfortunate that it often ranks an extreme-risk destination according to some surveys...

Well, it depends who is ranking Afghanistan as an extreme-risk destination. It’s typically the news that shows the country and this is how people form their opinions and surveys. Tourism in Afghanistan exists on a nano scale and it is building momentum slowly. During my time there I came across tourists and visitors from the west so there are still people coming.  In recent years, I am noticing a pattern of tourists from different areas of the globe coming together to travel throughout Afghanistan.

 
 
 
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The people that are attracted to Afghanistan go willingly because it’s traveling off the beaten path. We are seeing more and more emphasis in the media on trailblazers that go somewhere no one has gone. So a lot of travellers are looking at conflict zones like Syria, Iraq, parts of Iran and central Asia including Afghanistan for their next travel adrenaline rush or moment of peace.   

Also I want to add that the way neighbouring countries view and perceive Afghanistan is different compared to how the West does. It likely has to do with the fact that the traditions and cultures among Asians are similar compared to the West and there is a deep history between people in these nations.  

Afghanistan holds immense potential for tourism. Geographically, Afghanistan is home to canyons, alpine lakes, valleys, plains, rivers and high altitude mountains. Archeologically, it houses some of the world’s oldest ruins. The Buddhas of Bamiyan is just one area. It has thousands of years old monasteries, ancient cities with remnants still being uncovered. It’s arguably a giant natural outdoor museum waiting to be discovered.

 
 
 
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In its heydays during the '50s to the '70s, Afghanistan was frequented by “hippies” from the west. But as the war grew, the tourism went away and the narrative of Afghanistan changed from thriving to bleak. It’s really the last 40 years or so that has caused impactful instability. The history and tourism past is old. So if we remove the conflict, Afghanistan is naturally a top destination for adventure and thrill seeking tourists. Its landscape, history and cultural significance speaks for itself.  

The pictures one sees on your Instagram feed—and your work in general—convey a grand sense of scale. You often capture places from up above, revealing gorgeous mountainscape, plentiful valleys streaked by rivers and glaciers and the vast potential for adventure and exploration in the country. How much of it is a conscious attempt, and why? Or is it just your style?

Thank you for asking this question. I wish I could capture the energy of the scenes I have photographed. It might be a paradox but Afghanistan gives one a major sense of peace. Most tourists say they enjoyed the simple life and the serenity of nature.

 
 
 
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In 2016, I went for a project to shoot a music video in for the first time so I thought about taking a drone with me. During those times the drone tech was new. No one had done an aerial film before and I just decided to take a chance. I was excited to capture Afghanistan aerially. So I began to capture shots and that led to the creation of Unseen Afghanistan. To my shocking surprise, it went viral and was featured on NatGeo and other major networks, nominated and won awards. It was all quite overwhelming but it solidified my purpose. My passion for aerial shots took off from there which led to me creating Unseen Afghanistan 2.0 in 2018.

Capturing aerial shots of Afghanistan also taught me alot about my country and I am always awestruck by all the sights it offers. Afghanistan’s landscape and nature has boundless and uncharted range, especially for visual arts. It makes for a really good background in cinema. The second highest peak of the Hindu Kush range mount Noshaq at 7492m is located in Afghanistan and is just one example of Afghanistan's nature magnificence.

Would you agree that if concerted efforts are put in place to foster greater domestic and international tourism, it could help the country realise its true potential? Or would it not be safe yet for the citizens and the visitors?

 
 
 
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Yes, I would agree with this. Because if we look at the history of tourism in Afghanistan, when the country is stable it is a destination spot by default. I gave the example of the western hippie movement of the '60s and '70s and how people flocked to Afghanistan because it is a hidden gem. Afghanistan put Steve McCurry's work in the spotlight especially with his photograph 'Afghan Girl'. So these things are just simple examples that a little bit of attention on Afghanistan would fuel and fan the tourism flames.  

I am finding that travel bloggers and Instagram influencers are giving a lot of exposure to Afghanistan. Since the release of 'Unseen Afghanistan' in 2016, I have been receiving many messages with people sharing their desire and motivation to visit. And I have noticed that more travel bloggers are coming to the country compared to before.  

 
 
 
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As a citizen, if you’re not in government and don’t attract attention to yourself, then it's easy to blend in and travel around unnoticed. As visitors, there is some limitation in movement and you can be localised to certain cities for security reasons but that risk taking is the traveller’s choice. I’ve seen and heard stories from people that have taken the risk and have had an adventure of a lifetime.. 

Read: Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul

Have you had any experience working in India or even travelling here? How was it?

I have not visited India and it is top on my list! We have a shared geography and history with India. As an Afghan and neighbour, I would love to visit because of the similarities in culture, tradition and even religion. India and Afghanistan have shared mostly positive relations with each other and India’s diverse landscape and culture is impeccable. So I want to visit not just as a traveller and artist but as a fellow Central and/or South Asian person. 

What would you say is the best place in the world to shoot? 

I think everywhere on Earth makes for good shooting. It also depends on what the artist wants to capture. Is it landscape, portrait or lifestyle? Every corner of the world has it’s unique beauty whether it is the people or the culture or the land. But I would say that Central Asia makes a flawless backdrop and in my opinion it’s underrated in mainstream tourism and cinematic arts and culture.  

Read: Kyrgyzstan Chronicles: A Biking Holiday

Quite a few of your phone shots are absolutely stunning. Your take on the phone photography vs purist camera photography debate?

 
 
 
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Well, initially, I began in cinematography and film, so by trade I am a filmmaker. Photography developed later on as a result of what I came across in filmmaking and creative projects. So for me, both phone and purist cameras are visual storytelling tools that achieve the same result except obviously a purist camera is less pixelated. The camera lens is an extension of the eyes and imagination, so the shot begins not with a camera, but with the vision. 

In a place like Afghanistan, the iPhone is more practical and it is more accessible and functional on the go. If I had to choose, I would pick camera photography but the nature of the shooting place dictates that. I have worked with DSLR cameras a lot too but what you see on Instagram is things I have come across on my trips and typically I had my iPhone or drones on standby.


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