Photographic Diplomacy: A Tribute to James A. Cudney


James Cudney with his Cine-Kodak Special II camera.
Kandahar Province, 1956
Courtesy of the Cudney Collection

A number of images selected for In Small Things Remembered were taken between the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s by photographer James A. Cudney. During the course of Meridian’s research, Cudney photos appeared repeatedly in collections ranging from the U.S. National Archives to the Afghan Embassy in Washington, D.C. Meridian was fortunate to locate Jim’s widow, Margaret, and learned of a remarkable treasure trove of negatives still in the family’s possession.

In 1953, Cudney left a job with WNBQ-Chicago to teach electrical engineering at a technical high school in Afghanistan. He was concerned that the rigors of this new position would mean setting aside his passion for photography. However, upon reaching Kabul with his wife and one-year-old daughter, Cudney was promptly sent to the Helmand Valley with the U.S. Ambassador to document future sites for development projects. Captivated by Afghanistan and its culture, he began to capture the country’s beautiful landscapes and people on film.

Within two years, Cudney had been hired by the precursor to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as a Communications Media Specialist and later became a Program Officer. He had a special way of using his skills to open doors. Soon he was helping both Americans and Afghans in promoting education, reclamation, tourism, and other initiatives through photographic media. Always seeking better ways to communicate, he and co-worker Roxor Short developed a simple solar-powered slide projector that could be used in remote Afghan villages without electricity. Cudney also traveled widely in Afghanistan, taking pictures that were published in several books.

Cudney related to people from all walks of life – from rural farmers to the King of Afghanistan with whom he developed a close friendship. As official photographer for the Afghan government, he covered the visit of Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev in 1955. Cudney also recorded the visits of U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon in 1953 and American President Dwight D. Eisenhower six years later.

Completely enamored with Afghanistan, the Cudneys remained for 11 years and three of their children were born there. Afterward, Jim was posted in Iran, Vietnam, and Washington, D.C., but the family’s affection for Afghanistan never waned. After retiring from USAID in 1975, Cudney became Far East Program Director of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and was responsible for the Philippines, Indonesia, and Bangladesh. During his long career, characterized by an unwavering passion for photography, Jim’s work included diplomatic service and board leadership for numerous nonprofit organizations. He passed away in 2009.