Pakistan in focus: Eagle photojournalist brings South Asia to the Berkshires

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PHOTO GALLERY | Pakistan In Focus

When it comes to Pakistan, Eagle photojournalist Stephanie Zollshan has been able to look beyond the headlines and get a closer glimpse at daily life there through the lens of her camera.

The experience came in snapshots, mostly through arranged meetings and observations from the window of a moving van, as she toured there for approximately 10 days this spring.

Zollshan is the second Eagle staffer to have earned a fellowship through the International Center for Journalists' U.S.-Pakistan Professional Partnership in Journalism.

Her group of six exchange fellows visited the capital city of Islamabad and the southern coastal city of Karachi, after a pre-travel briefing in Washington, D.C. The entire immersive experience spanned from May 9 through 24.

When she found out she had been accepted into the program, she said that most people asked her if she was afraid to go there. But Zollshan said fear was among the last emotions to cross her mind at that time.

"For me, any opportunity to travel — I'll just go. It doesn't matter where it is," she said. Thanks to her parents' support of their family having a global experience in life, Zollshan's previous explorations have led her from the mountains of Peru to the sacred sites of Israel, among other locales.

"That's a big part of the reason why I'm a photographer — to show someone what it's like to be somebody that's not you. I want to show people what's it like in places they may not be able to go and show them what's on the other side. To me, it's a privilege."

Aside from news about the revered national pastime of cricket, the 70-year-old South Asian country tends to make international headlines for cases of corruption and border rifts with India.

And while it's true that these things are happening, Pakistan has proven to the photographer that it is more than Malala and murder, more than terrorism and tanker explosions, more than bombings and blasphemy laws.

"There's a small percentage of people there who become radicalized, but the last thing the majority of Pakistanis want is terrorism. But of the terrorists that do exist, a lot of people also feel like they don't have the power to do anything about it," Zollshan said.

The International Center for Journalists' exchange program between Pakistani and American journalists is, for now, supported by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and is designed to give journalists a better understanding of the culture of each others' newsrooms and countries. While in Washington, D.C., the group got to meet one of the newest delegates to the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, Ambassador Aizaz Chaudhry, who took his current post in March.

According to a press release about the visit, the ambassador told the group that "perceptions about Pakistan are trailing behind and there is a need to look at Pakistan with a fresh perspective," and said that the country "has made tremendous progress on security and economic fronts and is on the path of sustainable economic development."

After fielding several questions about the state of security, peace making and economic investment, Chaudhry said he appreciated the existence of the exchange program, concluding that, "Such exchange initiatives promote harmony and better understanding about different cultures and faiths and bring people from both the countries closer to each other."

Throughout the duration of their exploration of Pakistan, Zollshan said her group pushed to have the most authentic experience possible, but some borders served impenetrable. Due to security concerns — which are very real in some parts of the country — their travel visas were restricted to Islamabad and the Sindh province in which Karachi is located. Their highly organized itinerary was orchestrated by program manager Zainab Imam, a former Karachi resident. The group's travel was mostly done together, with limited free range to roam in pairs or in individual excursions. Their government transport came with precautionary armed guards embedded with them.

Still, the photo gallery Zollshan created from her experience offers a broad view of the regions she was able to see, and a taste of the stories that people have to offer there. "I got really good at taking photos from the window of a moving vehicle," she quipped.

Zollshan shows us architecture that ranges between makeshift food and craft stalls, concrete brick and mortar constructions to immaculate mosques and sleek towering hotels.

She shows us people in all states of living: browsing bookshops and textile stands; traveling in family units piled atop a singular motorbike and in the beds of trucks; performing for concerts and participating in a local fashion show.

She's also seen families being called to prayer for Islam, and met a family of outliers living with their children in a nearly abandoned Hindu temple.

Aside from the group's guards, she said "a man holding a bubble gun was the only gun I saw."

That man, for inquiring minds, kept "guard" of an information stall welcoming visitors to Saidpur Village, a more than 500-year-old revitalized former slum, located in the Margalla Hills in Islamabad. "There's a river running through it, and areas with restaurants with twinkling lights, a museum of history, and kids playing in the streets. It was beautiful," the photographer said.

'You have to have real conversations'

Zollshan took it all in, from meeting rooms to mountainsides. "With a lack of tourist stuff, you have to have real conversations about the real issues the country is going through," she said.

Though they had some luxuries, like world-class hotels and exceptionally warm hospitality from many of the people the group met, Zollshan's observations about the country are hardly filtered through rose-colored lenses.

"Like in the U.S., women's issues are huge there, but in a different way," she said.

Both countries continue to deal with issues like sexual harassment and gender parity when it comes to workplace wages. Pakistan's policies for safety and equity among women are still developing, but both countries struggle to keep them enforced.

When Zollshan had her own experience of a male executive in Pakistan making advances on her — he tried to kiss her — Zollshan said she was surprised by how swift the response was to the report of the incident. The man was fired before she left the country.

However, asked whether she thinks the response would have been different had she been a Pakistani woman, Zollshan said, "I probably wouldn't have reported it."

The photojournalist said she took an interest in the work and messages publicized by an organization called Media Matters for Democracy, which range from ethics to encouraging greater incorporation of women's issues and voices in reporting to protecting journalists as they strive to attain a broader freedom of expression.

"We can't hold their newsrooms to the same standards as in the U.S.," said Zollshan. "There, free speech isn't a thing. We take it for granted [in the U.S.] We can say whatever we want and report on whatever happens. They can't."

Like in the U.S., women are underrepresented in the Pakistani media, particularly in the workplace. "Women get the 'soft' stories, even though there's been a female prime minister and fighter pilots," Zollshan said.

While Pakistani journalists are focused on covering a broad range of national issues, women are more likely to cover schools and arts than bombings or political showdowns. One area where every journalist is equal is in facing threats and harm for exposing truths. Zollshan observed how, even at larger media outlets like Dawn and Geo, journalists use pseudonyms or file stories without bylines when covering matters in more violently conflicted provinces like Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (where famous female activist Malala Yousafzai is from) and Balochistan (where kidnappings are frequent).

According to the international Committee to Protect Journalists, there have been 60 reported cases of journalists being killed since 1992, with countless others being regularly attacked and threatened.

Another part of broadening her worldview on journalism during the trip included Zollshan just being amongst her U.S. counterparts. "I didn't only gain insight into what it's like in Pakistan, I gained insight into what it's like being an editor in Modesto, a crime reporter in Indiana, a television reporter in Connecticut," she said. Zollshan described it as a "like-minded" and fairly liberal group, and together they fielded continuous questions from their hosts and newfound Pakistani friends. Artists, journalists and diplomats alike were curious to hear their perspective on current events in U.S. politics.

"There was a lot of asking about what the hell's going on there," she said. Each visiting journalist grappled with how to give a solid, clear-cut answer.

'It's not always us versus them'

Zollshan said that in some ways, Pakistani politics and culture is as equally challenging to decipher.

"I felt like we weren't always getting the real story ... that, in a way, we were getting a very sanitized view of Pakistan," she said.

At the same time, the photographer acknowledge how easy it is for Western consumers to have a limited view of Pakistani life and culture.

She referred to a photo she happened to take of a woman named Shaista Yasmin, project coordinator for Uks, "a research, resource and publication center on women and media," based in Islamabad.

The group was visiting a beach, during a particularly windy day. To shield her eyes and keep her hair immune from the blowing sand, Yasmin pulled a scarf over her head. Zollshan snapped a portrait of the woman laughing in the elements.

"If you look at that photograph on its own, she looks conservative, fully covering her head. But she is not. I mean, she walked through a mosque without a head cover," said Zollshan.

The photographer said this is the lesson she's learned in this experience, to take things in through deeper perspectives.

Using the example of women's rights again, Zollshan said that, "When you look at it, Pakistan is making advancements where we're making a lot of backslides in the U.S."

Asked what impressions she hopes to leave on the South Asian country, the photographer said, "That it's not all you versus me, it's not always us versus them," she said. "I hope they'll remember that they met some Americans who don't see them all the same way."

Staff writer Jenn Smith can be reached at 413-496-6239.


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