Photographing Pakistan

Pakistan is one of those funny countries where I tried so hard to get a trip there for years, and since that first visit I've gone back twice. And I'm going again next week! I thought I would go that first time and it would be a one time only thing - but here I am again all nonchalant about catching a flight to Lahore like it's no big deal. But really it has become so normal these days. 

I always get asked questions about safety and being afraid when I travel to Pakistan and truthfully it feels as safe as anywhere else I've traveled on a shoot. The only difference I find from my other trips is that I have to keep my head covered in the more rural communities and I have to wear long sleeves, we tend to not linger in any one location for more than a few hours, and I can't go wandering off alone. But having said that I've never actually felt afraid of anyone or any situation, I mean at least not afraid of the people. Shooting down a mine isn't exactly a relaxing experience but at least that's a threat I'm subjecting myself to - it's entirely my choice.

We travel along a pristine motorway to our locations, we stop for KFC, chat about where serves the best brownie in Lahore, and I laugh about a chain called Butt Sweets because I basically have the humor of a 14 year old boy - although that also may be sleep deprivation. It all feels very... normal. And it makes me think of how influenced we are by the news, and how much that dictates our fear. There are problems, but they're not "news" as such, they're just ongoing situations - similar to the ones we find everywhere these days, even on our own doorsteps...

The people I'm here to photograph though, they live truly harsh lives. The coal miners are stuck in a way of life that is so isolated and lonely. The women raising their children in a slum and spending their days collecting garbage, they have bruises on their face and they looks so, so exhausted. But from the moment I arrive they're all smiles, the coal miners try to look serious for their photos but they burst out laughing and soon everyone is in fits of giggles, including me. The women are serious, but as soon as you show an interest in their story they're keen to show off their kids and their home - making each other laugh while the little ones hang off my arms trying to look through my view finder to see what I'm seeing.

If I've learned anything from shooting for charities over the past few years, it's that the adverts you see on the bus or on the TV - there's so much more to the life behind that sad looking photo. And that photo, while it's true, the picture it paints is sometimes a disservice. It's too one dimentional. A life in need of help and support is not always a life without love and laughter, it's not all misery and despair, more often its a life without choice or opportunity. And making change isn't about giving things or solving problems; it's about clearing some room for freedom, for opportunity, and giving people the chance to have some options, to make an informed choice.

p.s. my Q&A post is coming up next so keep an eye out! And if you have any last minute questions about my work, or photography or anything, leave them in a comment below.

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Travels in Pakistan, Part Two. Working as a Documentary Photographer.

Working as a documentary photographer overseas is definitely an amazing job. I love sharing all of these photos with you, and I love that I get to snapchat and instagram all of my adventures as I go along - and I even half enjoy the quest for a good wifi connection to upload everything. But there are a few things about my work that I don't share very often...

Going to places where people rarely get to travel is something I will never get tired of - but there's a reason people don't go there. And there's a reason not many people chose this line of work. I've heard time and time again from the freelancers I have worked along side that so many people want to get into this line of photography or filming, but once they actually try it, they have a change of heart. That's because it's not easy - physically, but also mentally. 

Each time I come back from one of my trips it takes me a while to digest what I've done. Climbing down a mine shaft when your mind is saying "uuuuh, are you sure about this?", forces you to shove aside your fear. But that's only temporary, and it always comes back, sometimes when you are at the bottom of that mine. And there's no time to panic because "you have to get to work, and these miners work in these conditions all year so you can manage it for a few days..."

On this trip I decided to snapchat a story that I have never shared before. I wanted to share the reality of why I travel overseas, because all my work is need based, but I don't often share that need. I talked a bit about child labour in India, and I have shared a few malnourished animals, but I don't often share the hard stuff - the reason that I am there.

I wanted to tell you the story of an donkey that we found that was missing part of his leg. Due to the state of his wound he had probably been like that for weeks, and he was standing beside an old water point which he had probably remembered and come back to hoping to find his owner. Animals that are too wounded to work are often abandoned. As awful as this scene was, it is by far not the worst I have come across - for animals or for people.

In these situations I am usually powerless to do much, but I do what I can and hope that however they end up, they find some peace. This time we were traveling with a vet team, so there was a solution and some hope for this little donkey, so I have included a photo of this scene in this post, at the very bottom but I have cropped out the leg wound.

I did delete it off my snapchat however, because I thought it's not fair to show something so awful when I'm pretty sure that's not what keeps you all coming back to my blog, or my instagram or my snapchat. It felt like a bit of a sucker punch, and that didn't seem fair. I'm sure you're all aware of animal suffering in the world and you don't need me shoving it in your face.

But I did want to mention it because, as much as I enjoy sharing my work travels here and often talking about them as adventures, you know how much I always like to be honest about how things really are. It is an adventure, but it's a job too. 

It can be scary and traumatic, it is always exhausting, frustrating, heartbreaking... it's difficult in many ways. But each time I go I feel stronger, and meeting those people and telling their stories is what keeps me going back. I hear so often "you are so lucky" - and for sure luck plays a part, the travel is great, the adventure is wonderful, but the chance to tell a story that needs a hand coming to light? With every photo that I take, that becomes more important to me.

 

 

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Travels in Pakistan, Part One.

What it's like to travel in Pakistan: I'll admit, it's not the easiest. Especially traveling there for work as a photographer, the visa process is long and the security briefings can take even longer and can be somewhat alarming. Not sleeping for a few days for the sake of getting in and out of an area as quickly as possible while packing in as much photography as you physically can, not staying too long in one location, never committing to a time to be somewhere, being cautious about tagging your location on social media until well after you've left - it can definitely get inside your head. And not without reason, it's not always a safe place to travel for anyone. But...

Just look at how BEAUTIFUL it is! 

Of course it is important to travel with a lot of caution, but I felt safe the entire time I was there, safer than I have felt in countries where there is no travel advisory warning. The people are nothing but friendly, I didn't get stared at like I have been in other countries, and I had no problems with taking pictures at any time. 

On my previous visit to Pakistan I only stayed in Lahore, and seeing as my only prior understanding of the country was what I had heard on the news, I was shocked by how progressive it was! My flight landed close to 4am, and being a bit delirious with jetlag, I thought for a second that I could almost have been driving down a highway in Canada. So I was a little annoyed at myself for forming opinions of a country I hadn't visited before.

Now when I think of Pakistan, I think of incredibly kind people, stunning natural beauty, mountains, and an incredible culture so rich in tradition that evidence of it is absolutely everywhere. 

And sure there are frustrations. I mean, wearing a head scarf in 100% humidity is a challenge, and having to be accompanied everywhere (even to the bathroom) is a peculiar feeling. But when you have the opportunity to visit places that you won't often find in a guide book, you kind of don't give these things a second thought. And being respectful to another culture's customs is so important, especially when what you are asking for in return is complete access to the lives of others to photograph their every move.

Compared to my other work travels, this one was definitely the most difficult - I'll get into why in my next post. But on the other hand, it was by far one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had. 

 

 

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The Friday Edit

A place for those little things, and thoughts in between.

Pakistan! Did you catch my trip on Instagram and Snapchat? It was intense. I was only there from Sunday to Thursday, sleeping less than five hours a night and working constantly - but it was amazing. Can't wait to share some photos in a post!

The highlight of the week was definitely shooting down in a coal mine. One of my most challenging travel experiences so far! And definitely the most challenging place I have ever photographed.

Catching some amazing sunrises and sunsets.

Such kind comments from friends, family and internet friends about my work. I often bypass pride in myself and my work, and pride in myself for putting myself in the situations that I do to get the photos that I get. I just don't really stop to think about it. It's such a great feeling to get a reminder once in a while that it's good to be proud of yourself sometimes.

Road-side cups of chai and paratha for breakfast. So delicious, probably because of all the butter and sugar.

Meeting some amazing people - from vets to coal miners. Getting to talk to people who live a life that is so very different from my own is an experience I will never get tired of.

Asking my friend Ashleigh for advice on what to wear in the more rural parts of Pakistan, and hearing the words "frumpy tunic" said in a Glaswegian accent. Also wearing said frumpy tunic and a headscarf for three days straight - not fun. I have a new found respect for women who have to cover up at all times, even in 45 degree heat and swampy humidity.

Having a lunch time Byron burger date with Adam today. He doesn't often come to my neck of the woods during the day and we never get to each lunch together, so it felt like such a special treat.

 

 

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Pakistan Travel Diaries: Photos from the Road Part Two

Here are the last of my photos from Lahore! You can see part one of my Pakistan Travel Diaries here. I'm sorry it's taken me so long to get these published. Since I've set myself the more manageable task of blogging three times a week (instead of five, which was just too hard to manage with my work schedule) I have found I've got a backlog of posts. Especially travel posts! I want to post about my every day life and share everything from my travels, so that's why I'm mixing my content up a bit and some of these photos are from a while ago. I hope you don't mind me posting older stuff up here!

But anyway, back to the actual point of this post, Pakistan!

In the evenings after coming back to my hotel in Lahore I would sit in the window and watch the sunset. I've mentioned it before, a lot, but the quality of the light on the other side of the world just makes me feel so alive. Traveling for work is an amazing experience but it can sometimes be a bit lonely, especially after a few weeks have gone by. I usually bring along some of my favourite movies and whatsapp family and friends back home before bed.

I only spent three nights in Lahore but at least twice a night the power would go out throughout the hotel for a few minutes. I would sit there on my bed in my pajamas with just the light from my phone and my whatsapp convos for company, trying not to think about the plot of every horror film I've ever seen where a girl on her own gets murdered in a hotel. The backup generator would kick in eventually though, and all would be right with the world until another power outage would catch you between floors in the lift!

Even though I could only take non-work photos from a car motoring along the highway, I kind of like the way they turned out. These photos are a glimpse of what daily life is like in Pakistan for some people traveling to and from their homes - along one stretch if highway at least. Businessmen, gypsies in their camps, garbage pickers waiting for the dump to open, children on their way to school. 

The only shots that were planned and where I had the time to set up my camera properly were the sunset shots, which I got from my hotel. And the photos of the different coloured chicks I captured thanks to my awesome driver, who pulled over and timed his speed just right so that I could get as many photos as possible. Weaving in and out of the Lahore traffic trying to get the perfect shot is an experience I will never forget! These chicks, I learned, are destined to become presents for little children during the holidays. To which I said "aaaawww that's sweet", and then Ahmad replied "yea, except most of them only live for a few days, kids can be really cruel". Sooooo, not so sweet then. I'll take all the chicks please! And forget what customs has to say about it. 

Pakistan Travel Diaries: Photos from the Road Part One

Pakistan is unlike any country I have ever been to. It really surprised me! I thought working there would be both a lot harder and a lot easier than it was - I know that doesn't make any sense, but I guess I mean that all of my preconceived notions of what I thought it would be like we're turned on their head. 

For example, I expected to be stared at and to have to wear a head scarf. All the girls at work get stared at a lot when they travel and personally, it's never really bothered me, I'm curious about people as well. But something about the way eyes followed me everywhere around my hotel in Lahore felt a little different, a little more uncomfortable - though I encountered nothing but friendliness. I can't say why I felt uncomfortable, I certainly didn't feel threatened but it did feel... different. Also I was the only westerner in my hotel, so maybe that thought got in my head a little.

Also, I didn't quite realise how much films, tv and the news had formed a lot of my opinions. But when I arrived in Lahore at 4am and the highway to my hotel was exactly like a highway in Toronto would be like with well kept roads, signs, flower displays on roundabouts, etc... I was a little baffled. I expected something a bit shabbier. Shame on me, I know, but don't judge me too much. Ok, maybe judge me a little. I know Lahore isn't representative of all of Pakistan, but it was a beautiful, modern looking city.

Having said that there are donkey carts all over the place, gypsy camps on the side of the river (which sometimes has water and sometimes doesn't, depending on whether India feels like turning on the tap - apparently), and a fair bit of poverty. There's also a law about how late you can celebrate your wedding, I think it's up to 10 or 11 at night and after that you have to either take it into your house or end the party - it was explained to me that this is for energy conservation and maybe a little to do with noise as well. There also seemed to be a real contrast between life on one side of the river compared to the other - my hotel was on one side and the clinic was on the other side. 

All of my photos to share are from the road, that short time I spent between the clinic and my hotel. I did visit a shopping mall but I thought I probably shouldn't lug my camera around, and also one shopping mall very much looks like another wherever you go. So all of my photos are shot on the move as I crossed the river twice a day. I had to wear a head scarf when I sat in the front seat of the car and my amazing colleague Ahmad was really patient with me when I asked all my dumb questions about sheep (but, I mean, just look at this thing). He took me out for chocolate cake and coffee at the end of the day and is just over all one of the coolest people I know. He's a pro at slowing down the car so I could get better photos and really calm about telling me to put my camera away when we came to a toll crossing, security check or police barrier.

I'll share part two of my photos, and my thoughts on my visit to Pakistan next week. I also have more from India to share over time, so I do hope you like travel posts!