In the hills outside Islamabad in Pakistan, 16 students trekked over to the village of Bunni Behk intent on testing out their freshly-honed ‘photo empowerment’ skills on the students at a Developments in Literacy school that straddles the side of a valley.
By FATIMA NAJM
Co-Founder of BAT partner Creatives Against Poverty
Photo empowerment is Trust partner Creatives Against Poverty’s (CAP) process of taking pictures that empower the perceived victims of a crisis by turning them into the protagonists in their own stories. It is a way to amplify the voice of near-voiceless. It is a participatory photography project where CAP trains professionals in the human rights industry to consult with the community they are aiming their cameras at.
This workshop is now live with CAP and British Asian Trust mentors supporting DIL participants live with their photography and English writing skills. DIL is a British Asian Trust charity delivery partner.
The ’students’ we are referring to are the frontline officers in a constant struggle against poverty and injustice. They are charged with delivering education and opportunity to 16,000 students by establishing relationships of trust with grassroots communities across some of the most remote regions of Pakistan. They are witness to heinous human rights abuses and they must work with the communities to keep the children on track and in school, supporting them to overcome the trauma of a father killed over a tribal feud, or a sister subject to an honour killing.
They must be ready to do everything from serve as moderators in a jirga or community court of elders, to organising a medical intervention for a particularly sick child, to convincing entire communities that see education as evil that learning will lift them out of poverty.
“Our families are always afraid that educating us means losing us,” said one grade seven student as we turned her classroom into a photo skills workshop. “They think we will become confident and talk back to them, and then we will be bad wives, and no one will want to marry the girls who are educated. But our teachers call meetings and explain that education will just allow us to be better behaved, to be better human beings and yes, even better wives. We can read signs now, in case of emergency we can help.”
These are the stories that Developments in Literacy officers were learning together at the two-day photo-empowerment workshop run by me and my photographer-physicist husband Gustavo Mana in Islamabad.
A caption-writing and news feature style writing workshop complemented the photography workshop and we had an excellent oral session on how to tell a story in one session in the vans on the way to and from the village of Bunni Behk.
Some of the participants had struggled against serious odds to get to the workshop. The field officers from Lower Dir understand the issues of their own extremely conservative community because they are subject to the same traditions and rules when they step out of the house.
“The male members of our family are not pleased that we come to Islamabad, they are worried and are not aware of what happens here, which makes them afraid for us, and also they do not want the community to talk about us as roaming too free.” The three young female officers stood firm in their resolve to join their colleagues in the workshop.
They insisted to their fathers that the photography workshop would help them showcase the way students struggle to study despite their parallel lives where they must engage in backbreaking rural work, and how there is still a lot of work to be done to dispel the forces of ignorance in their area.
The sun stayed with us, dissipating the winter morning mist, helping our participants understand the magical elements that early morning and sunset light add to the process of photography.
The most useful things they learnt according to the students: “That you don’t need a fancy camera, that you can turn off the flash and use natural light if you know some tricks. Also we learnt what facts you need to tell a story with captions and photos in brief.”
What they wished there had been : “Another field trip to practice the practical side of photography further.” What they really enjoyed: “The sharing of stories, learning from each other, the teas and all the laughter when we went wrong/ took silly/awkward photos.”