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“Greatest challenge is gaining the trust of your subject”

Interview: Sa'adia Khan

“Greatest challenge is gaining the trust of your subject”

Last week, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) held an exhibition at Alhamra Arts Council, Lahore. This was followed by an exhibition in Karachi and preceded by exhibits in Peshawar, Islamabad and London in 2016. All the photographs at the exhibition were taken by Sa’adia Khan, a photojournalist and videographer who works with the MSF.

To take these photos, Khan travelled across Pakistan, from Macchar Colony in Karachi to Nawagai tehsil in Bajaur Agency, FATA. The News on Sunday asked her about the difficulties she faced while capturing images for ‘Pakistan Behind the Headlines,’ her future projects and her early influences.

The News on Sunday: Most of your work for the exhibition was uncaptioned. What led to that decision?

Sa’adia Khan:We took the decision to leave the images uncaptioned so that visitors would have more time to explore each image. We thought this would create a more immersive experience. Rather than getting caught up in spending a majority of their time reading about the depiction in each image, we wanted them to engage with the images on their own terms. 

TNS: The photographs that spoke the most to me were a series of connected images from Bajaur Agency. Each picture in that small series was an entire story. Can you tell us more about the series?

SK: The series of images you are referring to were taken in the Nawagai tehsil in Bajaur Agency. [The series had one image of the tehsil from a high vantage point which was great for a macro perspective.] It also had a photograph of the former governor of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, a powerful and well respected man whose family has held various positions in government over decades, talking to a resident of Bajaur Agency. The former governor also enjoys the status of a tribal elder and that is why the power dynamic between him and the second man can be seen very clearly in the photograph.

I always ensure that I am as low-key and non-evasive as can be. I will observe as much as is possible before even thinking about touching my camera, let alone taking my first shot.

The ex-governor directed us to a mountain where marble is being quarried. There we met and photographed a man who has been quarrying marble for more than 30 years. He has spent the majority of his life in the mountains. He is seen wearing rundown sandals while wielding a huge hammer to crush rocks, when asked why he was not wearing more appropriate footwear he replied that the boots made him feel hot and that he was used to wearing the sandals and rarely got injured.

TNS: I learned that you have personal college of coloured burqa photographs, some of which were part of the exhibition. What inspired this collection?

SK: I saw the multitude of different coloured burqas as something of immense beauty and vibrancy, which is what I am hoping these images depict. I saw beauty and freedom in what may look like oppression to others. As long as the choice to wear one was personal, rather than forced or coerced, I see beauty in them.

I myself wore an abaya and niqaab many times whilst on assignment to take the images that were exhibited. My experience was liberating as well eye-opening. A future side project based on these images is something I would very much like to explore and expand at some point in the future. 

CHAMAN/MSF

TNS: The exhibition is titled ‘Pakistan Behind the Headlines.’ To me, the headlines are violence, terrorism and corruption, and behind them is misery. What do the headlines and the stories behind them meant to you?

SK: Violence, terrorism, corruption and misery are not what wholly represent Pakistan. Pakistan is multi-faceted and a deeply layered and textured land. It is a country of diversity, immense beauty, of people that are kind and considerate and will always go that extra bit to accommodate their guest, of languages as diverse as on any continent, and ultimately of a strength and perseverance barely matched anywhere in the world today. The people of Pakistan are not only resilient but also brave, fearless, talented and adaptable to their changing environment.

Having lived in Pakistan for over a decade, and before that having spent many years travelling and visiting family here, I have had the good fortune to see Pakistan and understand it on a level far from that of someone just visiting the region. I have experienced the bad and the good of all that Pakistan has to offer, and in my humble opinion you can only truly see and appreciate all the good Pakistan has to offer after witnessing the bad.

Sadda 29

TNS: What is your greatest challenge while photographing. You’ve been diagnosed with dyscalculia. Does that make adjusting aperture and shutter speed the most difficult bit, or could it be safety/security concerns?

SK: In knowing and owning your disability, which in my case as you rightly stated is dyscalculia, I feel it has given me a strength and clarity which I may never have had had I not got the diagnosis.

Safety and security is never an issue when working with MSF, and we are always well looked after when travelling to and from an assignment as well as for the duration of our stay.

For me personally, the greatest challenge is in gaining the trust of the subject whom you wish to photograph. I always ensure that I am as low-key and non-evasive as can be. I will observe as much as is possible before even thinking about touching my camera, let alone taking my first shot. It is essential not to disturb the flow of the hospital or medical facility and paramount to always work around situations and accommodate accordingly, rather than expect that I should be accommodated to. This has always worked in my favour, and has always assisted in capturing mesmerising and thought-provoking shots.

TNS: All art needs inspiration and influence. Who, or what, has inspired or influenced the photos this exhibition displayed?

SK: To capture a moment in time and effect change is the intent that motivates me to shoot in an unobtrusive manner. Photographic stories can alter perceptions and, at best, change lives — this inspiration is around us in every shape and form but we have to open our eyes and ears to it. Don McCullin is a renowned British photojournalist from whom I derive inspiration. I also draw inspiration from photographers shooting varied genre such as landscape and portraiture such as Danial Shah and Salman Alam Khan.

Maham Javaid

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