Since Humans of New York — the photoblog created by street photographer Brandon Stanton — became a worldwide sensation on Facebook, similar pages have sprouted up all around the globe. Humans of Karachi (HOK) is one of many pages that’s been inspired by Stanton’s approach, which combines candid portraits with firsthand quotes from the pictures’ subjects.
Khaula Jamil, the woman behind the project, is no amateur street photographer. A seasoned photojournalist, Jamil started HOK alongside her more hard-hitting assignments, which have taken her to Malala Yousafzai’s hometown of Mingora, Swat, and deep into rural Pakistan. Her assignments often focus on women’s health issues, but it’s clear from HOK that Jamil has a knack for telling a wide range of stories. Since its inception in 2012, the project has been a huge success: it’s given rise to a large Facebook community, and helped to paint a more complete picture of a city marked by violence and unrest under Taliban rule. Women in the World caught up with Jamil via email to learn more about her approach to HOK, and her work as a photojournalist in Pakistan.
Women in the World: How has being a woman shaped your work as a photojournalist and photographer in Pakistan?
Khaula Jamil: It is actually fantastic being a female photojournalist in Pakistan. My personal experiences have been great. In fact, several organizations prefer sending women out in the field because an immense amount of work is done on women’s health-related issues in Pakistan. A woman can document both men- and women-related problems, but men are often not allowed to speak to women in the more conservative parts of societies, where a lot of the development organizations are active, so for that they require females. Also, I do a lot of street photography and gathering visual stories from all over Karachi, so I have always found that I gain access to certain areas because I am a woman. It would not be right to give a blanket opinion that it is better to be a female, but I think the idea that you have to be a man to have this career in Pakistan is a misconception many people have. I’ve gotten some pretty great international assignments and I know being a woman has been one of the criteria for getting them.
WITW: Have you ever been challenged or felt unsafe because you’re a woman carrying a camera?
KJ: I have been lucky enough to have never felt unsafe despite the fact that I live and work and move around primarily in Karachi, which is famed to be one of the most violent cities in the world. It may sound odd, but I feel safer being a woman and doing the work that I do, as opposed to being a man. Again, I speak for myself only. I know many young women who wish to pursue my line of work but are very scared and conscious about going on in the field alone.
WITW: What are the issues facing women in Pakistan today, that you see reflected in your photos?
KJ: Pakistan is rather large and diverse. There are several issues women face but they differ depending on what part of the country you belong to or where you fall in class and society. There is resistance in educating the girl child, resistance in letting women work in some parts of society, a lack of awareness about women’s health and family planning, and the fact that honor killings still happen in parts of the country. A lot of my work that is commissioned revolves around women’s health in rural parts of Pakistan where there is very little access to information and medication for expecting mothers and women.
WITW: Can you tell us about a photography assignment or project that is especially meaningful to you?
KJ: Two years ago, I was commissioned by David Guggenheim to go to Swat (a Northern region of Pakistan) to photograph the house where Malala lived, and document her school, her neighborhood, and trace her walk to and from places she would frequent. I was essentially documenting the life she used to live for the film that was being made on her, and I just kept thinking of her and what she must have been thinking about while going about her life before everything changed. My guide had so many stories from every nook and corner about those places, from when the Taliban were there and all that went down during that reign. It was a very interesting and moving experience.
WITW: Humans of Karachi is based on the same concept as Humans of New York. When you saw the project, what compelled you to start something similar?
KJ: I saw the Humans of New York project in May, 2012. It had already been four or five years since Brandon had started it, but I think the world noticed it in 2012 and a lot of the other pages following his trend started popping up. I saw Humans of Tel Aviv go up, and then Amsterdam. I actually kept waiting for someone to pick up Karachi. A few months went by and a friend told me my work was very similar so why don’t I just do it? And so I did. Karachi is a place that suffers from what writer Chimamanda Ngozi refers to in her Ted Talk [as] “The Danger of a Single Story.” Only one story is being told about Karachi and it’s by people in the international media, and it’s a very violent and negative one. Within that violence there are brilliant stories of hope, inspiration and perseverance. Humans of Karachi is an attempt to bring those forward to a platform, following Brandon’s formula so that the world can see the alternative narrative of a place that is home to 18 million people who speak over 100 different languages and have some magnificently inspiring lives.
WITW: Describe your approach to photographing people.
KJ: I smile. That is my first approach. Then I greet them and chat with them about anything (their work, the weather, life, etc). I never make them feel like they are under interrogation or that I want something from them. My camera is never front and center because sometimes I will walk away without even taking a photograph. My main objective is to be respectful and make sure the person in front of me is in no way threatened or uncomfortable by my presence. I need them to trust me and respect me back. I will never take their photograph if they tell me they do not want to be photographed. Sometimes people refuse, but they are just shy and want you to coax them and convince them. Sometimes they really don’t want it — you have to be perceptive enough to know the difference and never disrespect their feelings.
WITW: Your photos are very intimate. How do you think you’re able to get your subjects to be so open with you?
KJ: One has to be a good listener. An attentive person who is genuinely looking interested in what you are saying will have you opening up in no time. I usually get into the conversation by asking them what they think about something. It could be anything. Gradually, the conversation starts to flow and I ask more personal questions. I pick up on their vibe a lot also and go with my gut about how to change the approach from person to person.
WITW: What leads you to the people in your photos? How do you choose them or find them? Is there something about them that stands out?
KJ: For “Humans of Karachi” I think instinct plays a big part. You have to assess the situation a bit because these days, people are cautious. After you engage with them they are the most friendly people ever, but you have to be sensitive about how you approach them. As far as what stands out, it could be something as simple as what they are wearing or if they are doing something interesting. We have so many street professions here that are so interesting, simply walking up to them and having a conversation about that almost guarantees an evocative story. Living in a multi-ethnic, highly diverse city, you are never at a loss for interesting characters.
WITW: What have you heard back from your subjects in Humans of Karachi? Do you ever receive letters or messages?
KJ: Because I try my best to stick with the format of it being a street project, most of the subjects in my photographs on HOK are people who do not use Facebook. A lot of them are maybe on it, or know someone who uses it, so they always tell me they will check it out but I don’t know if they actually do or not. A majority of them just smile and wave off even wanting to see what I clicked as I turn and show them their photo in the view finder. But yes, the more educated, tech-savvy college kid or the professional who is always on the Internet will always check it out, because what happens on HOK is that people start tagging the person in the comments. So then that person responds to the people who leave comments for them and will inbox me a thank you or something sweet like that. Generally the overall response to the project has been great — I think a lot of stories have resonated with people even from other countries who at times have written to me saying they never thought they could relate so closely with people from Pakistan and how important it is that I continue to keep telling these stories.
WITW: Can you tell us about one of your favorite or most powerful photographs of a woman or about a women’s issue? What did you learn from that story, or why is it your favorite image?
KJ: This is a tough question since there is more than one. But the stories I am most interested in as far as women issues go are those in which women are defying stereotypes, especially in Pakistan. For example, two years ago, Ayesha Farooq became Pakistan’s first female fighter pilot, I fell in love with some of the images that showed her at work. They may seem like ordinary images to the rest of the world but they stand for something huge in Pakistan. They stand for equality and womens rights. She, and others like her, are a symbol of changing times and an inspiration for women who want to touch the skies (both literally and figuratively.)