30 January 2023

A visual ethnography of Afghan Kyrgyz migration routes

As part of his doctoral research, photographer Tobias Marschall spent eleven months between 2015 and 2019 walking paths of the Afghan Pamirs, attending migrants’ online and Central Asian nodes and advocating for their repatriation. His thesis engages with the image of the Northeastern tip of Afghanistan as an ultimate frontier, its diverse and broad mobilisation spectrum as well as the trade, pastoral and migratory movements which the image informs and foreshadows.

How did you come to choose your research topic? 

The Afghan Pamirs have a remarkable reputation in Central Asia as the last but inhospitable refuge for Kyrgyz pastoralists who established camps since the colonial event of border delineation and discontinuous enforcement. Afghan Kyrgyz feature in this imaginary as an eminently endangered ethnic group surviving in an extremely remote environment. Back in 2015 and after two years’ research plus a semester fellowship at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, I was curious and eventually able to cross the assumedly forbidding border to explore the link between this static image and the movements it inflected.

Can you describe your thesis questions?

Central to many projections, the image of endangered Kyrgyz nomads trapped in time by modernity’s vicissitudes on “the Roof of the World” (Bam e Dunya in Dari) is not just source of local fame and legend. The Afghan Pamirs’ supposedly exceptional remoteness is a powerful trope. This thesis asks: How to contend with the image and notion of the Afghan Pamirs as an ultimate frontier? Especially, what photographs and analogies are apt to grasp the elusiveness and multiplicity of spaces, circulations and interdependencies? Rooted into global frontier imaginaries, the image extends beyond supposedly intangible outcomes. The effects are many. 

What was your methodology?

Conducting independent research in fragile, ambiguous and conflict-ridden situations as well as establishing safe pathways for advocacy and communication determined the format and content of my ethnographic inquiry. Following migrants’ and herders’ daily activities after the surge and subsequent announcement of foreign troops’ withdrawal proved challenging for many reasons. More than forty years of war and conflict durably affected patterns of politics. They also inflected divergent and cumulative paths of intervention and resistance, drove fragile lines of integration and shaped highly fungible modes of exchange and communication. The general discontent among the population with the central government policies, the levelling-down of major aid and development projects, notwithstanding the problematic integration of Taliban elements into the Afghan National Army drastically altered my motility in a dangerous setting marked by ambiguity, uncertainty and contestation – even among inhabitants themselves. Strong incentives led important actors to turn to alternative factions of the conflict, which however mostly translated into remarkably peaceful and oft consensual decision-making processes. 

Walking with, attending to the many ways Afghan Kyrgyz lives are affected by the extreme political and climatic environment within and beyond Afghanistan’s borders shaped the eventual multimodal form of the thesis – mobilising both text and images. The thesis elaborates on a visual and walked ethnography model to stress the relational, mobile and subjective dimensions of the construction of the ethnographic document. Returning each year for a definitive though limited time was decisive to elaborate tentative solutions to the ethical and deontological challenges of conducting research in a risky setting. The edition, circulation and mobilisation of images (also by photographs’ subjects) turned out to be central to addressing and communicating the effects of war and migration, whose complex ramifications extend beyond conventional boundaries (local-global, national-regional, religious, ethnic, etc.). This thesis translates an attempt to reconcile the aesthetic traction of images with ethical, deontological and analytical considerations. The use of specific devices to explicit these interactions enabled me to address ethical issues at the same time because photographs are treated here as an event and a relation.

Did your visual ethnography yield “photographs and analogies apt to grasp the elusiveness and multiplicity of spaces, circulations and interdependencies”? 

More than a century of military and scientific exploration, adventure, scholarship, documentary – and tourism more recently – shaped the imaginary form and concrete contours of the Afghan Pamirs’ boundaries as they are predominantly drawn today. Through the study of three central movements of daily life (borderland trade, pastoral economy and migration), I located the effects of their imagination in the wider framework of the successive military and humanitarian cum documentary interventions that deeply, and most violently, affected the social fabric in the Afghan Pamirs. The ambivalent proximity in monographs, photographs, and documentaries of Afghan Kyrgyz as an irreducible and endangered ethnic group reflects their allochronic dislocation as both object of contemplation and subject of state or violent power. There is a continuum of remoteness, from impressions of radical alterity to banal encounters across distance and difference. In this imaginary, the more remote in space, the more backward in time, and this can be both positively or negatively assessed.

Nevertheless, the performance, ascription and imaging of remoteness and alterity is not a straightforward process only imposed from the outside. It is also mobilised by its subjects and subjected to contestation from many sides. Remoteness is a power relation where the staging of difference is central. Instead of absolute or total disconnection, remoteness translates a complex relationship with knowledge production, geopolitics and the state. In spite of all the declared hardships such as drought, war, rampant opium addiction, and economic collapse in a forbidding terrain, people remain throughout the years. The thesis raises the almost inevitable imaginary association of endangerment with salvage prerogatives when violent events (such as the 1979 migration to Pakistan, 2007 livestock losses or 2021 failed migration to Tajikistan) dislodge the observer. Events prompted me to act and subject my own position to the powerful images and tropes at hand. Mediating leaders’ words and images does not necessarily imply their unreflected endorsement. Instead, it reveals anthropologists’ vulnerabilities, including my own, facing few fragile mobilisation opportunities in a violently contested and dangerous settings.

What could be the policy implications of your thesis?

In 2018, the death of the then leader (khan) of the group, Er Ali Bai, profoundly affected my research dispositions as I was unable to request assistance from Kabul. Vehemently criticised by elders, I choose to film interviews with Mullah Abdylhak and other political figures and publish them in Central Asian media. Vocal contestations of my ultimate objectives during the central phase of my inquiry prompted me to adopt a problematic advocacy position towards the essentially ethnic programme of repatriation to the Kyrgyz Republic. Most of my media and policy-oriented engagements are directed since towards informing on the humanitarian situation in the Afghan Pamirs – such efforts remain the object of contestation. Because of the volatility, ambiguity and contingency of peacebuilding pathways in Afghanistan, I remain convinced of the value to carry out independent research grounded in vernacular language and longitudinal forms of engagement.

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Tobias Christophe Michael Marschall defended his PhD thesis in Anthropology and Sociology in October 2022. Professor Jean-François Bayart presided the committee, which included Professor Alessandro Monsutti and Eccellenza Professorial Fellow Till Mostowlansky, Thesis Co-Supervisors, and Associate Professor Mark Westmoreland, Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, Leiden University, The Netherlands. Tobias Marschall graduated summa cum laude..

Citation of the PhD thesis:
Marschall, Tobias Christophe Michael. “The Image of Remoteness: Mobility and Alterity in Eastern Afghanistan.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2022.

Access to the PhD thesis:
Members of the Geneva Graduate Institute can access the PhD thesis on this page of the Institute’s repository. Others may contact Dr Marschall at

View photos from Dr Marschall’ fieldwork and read news articles about his research at the Institute:

Banner image: excerpt from a photograph by Tobias Christophe Michael Marschall.