By GIRLWITHABOOK Board Member, Jennifer Ciochon
“Hello, my name is Asif, I am from the ISI. Can I have your itinerary so I can follow you?” That’s basically how I pictured the conversation as a man from Pakistan’s intelligence agency approached our guide in Muzaffarabad, Kashmir in northern Pakistan. We were at a student’s house interviewing her family when he just showed up and discreetly introduced himself to our guide. Of course his name wasn’t really Asif but I suppose he needed to tell us something since he openly followed us on his motorcycle as we visited schools and people’s homes. He was our shadow for those few days. I wonder if we should have offered him tea.
That was surprisingly our only encounter with someone from the government (that I am aware of). We had entered on research visas with the purpose of research on education. We intentionally kept it vague and we never mentioned the j-word (journalists).
Before leaving for Pakistan, everyone worried about our safety. Lena and her family were obviously nervous for Olivia and me - two very visibly white people. My background is Polish and Scottish. You can’t get any whiter than that. And of course, there are my cameras which make me stand out even more.
I knew before leaving that I wouldn’t be able to roam about the streets and markets to photograph people living their daily lives. I knew our movements would be restricted to hopping in and out of the car, even just to go five minutes down the road. Just because we couldn’t see any threat didn’t mean it wasn’t there.
But our time in Pakistan was incredible. Thanks to Lena’s family and all of their friends and connections, our time there couldn’t have gone more smoothly. Her family and friends embraced us as they were eager to show us the Pakistan they know and love - the side of Pakistan that is never shown in the news since only terrorism, disasters and oppressed women in black burqas seem to interest western media outlets. And sadly that is what many in the world imagine when they think of Pakistan.
So what was it like as a white female photographer to be in Pakistan? Our generous hosts in Karachi - our first stop in the country - were also basically our body guards. We did exactly as they said. But naturally after being whisked away in their car from point A to point B everyday, stepping out of the car only to enter the building as quickly as possible to avoid attraction, I grew itchy to photograph and wander.
With enough discussion, a day to do some street photography was arranged. Of course they weren’t about to let me loose and wander freely. We drove to certain areas, pulled over, let me out so I could do my thing for a minute, then hop back in. This isn’t usually how I do it, but I was grateful I was able to do that.
How people react to being photographed always varies from country to country. I had been working in Tunisia before and in the cities people generally loved being photographed. But in Pakistan, how would people react to being photographed, and by a white woman at that?
One of the first times I hopped out to photograph, I had asked this street vendor if I could take his photo. He shook his head saying no, and I respected that. But then, a man (or friend?) nearby jested with him saying he should have let me photograph him.
Other than that, people were surprisingly open or indifferent to me photographing them. I wasn’t sure what to expect to be honest. But naturally I was happy and relieved.
I know we only scratched the surface in Pakistan. Now that we are out of Pakistan, people still ask if it was safe. I always tell them we had an incredible time and we never felt threatened (not even by that ISI guy - which amused me more than anything since I always imagined spooks exhibiting a bit more discretion than that). Yes we had to be careful, of course we did. But it didn’t stop us from loving that country. Every person we met, from Lena’s family and friends to the people we interviewed across the country, it made our experience in Pakistan. And it is for the people we met and the friends we made that makes me want to come back again, hopefully for longer.
Below is a slideshow of photos of day to day life from Karachi, Lahore, Rabwa and Muzaffarabad.