I must admit that I don’t know enough about Pakistan, and what I do know I’ve learned from the news – which we all know is always accurate. It’s shameful really and slightly embarrassing on what little we know. So, I’m very excited that I got the opportunity to speak with Myra Iqbal. As a female photojournalist living in Islamabad Pakistan I was so grateful that she was willing and able to share why she chose the path of photojournalism and why the return to Pakistan.
You are currently living in Pakistan, and working as a photojournalist. Is working as a photojournalist something that you’ve always wanted to do?
I picked up photography on a whim, it wasn’t a Henri Lartigue kind of first love and there most certainly wasn’t a ta-da moment that led to my pursuit of it. Once I picked up a camera though, the transition to photojournalism was more organic. I felt the need to explain the duality of living in Pakistan and studying in America, not by drawing differences but in trying to understand the familiarity and unfamiliarity of what was around me.
Is there a specific reason why you chose Pakistan?
I was born and raised in Pakistan and while I had traveled quite a bit, I never felt the need to challenge my identity until I moved to Savannah. In a long-ensuing battle after graduation, I allowed my heart to lead and found it beating violently for a whiff of home again.
You studied at the Savannah College of Art and Design. What did you study? When did you graduate?
I got a BFA in photography at SCAD and graduated in 2011.
Why did you decide to go to SCAD? You probably could have gone to any art school in the world. Why travel across the world to study in little old Savannah, Georgia?
I still don’t quite know how I ended up in Savannah but I am grateful for it because I would have missed out on experiencing that chunk of America. It was an America I was entirely unfamiliar with and I loved it.
Before you moved back to Pakistan I recall that you moved to New York for a short while. Am I correct? Why did you travel there after you graduated? I’m only asking because it seems like a lot of those who first graduate from art school tend to travel in that direction.
Most aspiring artists gravitate to New York – it is one of those cities that makes you dream big, push hard and come to terms with your limits. I got an extension on my visa and had the most liberating six months split between the chaos of Brooklyn and the richness of Harlem, interning for the Huffington Post and standing tall like an adult for what felt like the very first time. It is an experience I will always romanticize and retell in exaggerated prose. I left when I realized that we cannot choose were we belong, we just sense it. It was difficult being back in Islamabad at first, but I am content now and making work I am proud of.
You currently work for the Express Tribune in Pakistan. How long have you worked there?
It has been just about a year since I started at Tribune and it is a love-hate relationship, as all jobs go. I’ve grown quite a bit since and have much more clarity about my future.
I noticed that the articles that you write vary. You’ve written articles about schools for women, street children, new cafes, and even gallery openings. Do you like having that type of a balance?
I was hired as a news photographer initially but did a few stories here and there when I was needed, mostly covering local events until it was pretty much slapped onto my job description. People think photographers don’t need words to express themselves but sometimes there is something beyond the captured moment, a voice, a struggle, a kind of latitude between the photograph and the story that only words can bridge.
Do you get to choose what you write about?
In newspapers, there are everyday events that must be covered to fill pages and there are features that one works on in the time one can find. I get to choose what to write about when doing features which is what most reporters strive for, that chance to tell a story they actually care about.
I don’t want to get to political, because I know that probably when you speak to people in America and they find out that you are a photojournalist in Pakistan that’s all you probably talk about. Pakistan is constantly in the news in this country, but it’s never good. When people think Pakistan they think terrorism, Osama Bin Laden, protest, etc. I’m actually quite amazed that it is so vibrant, and full of art and culture. I am ashamed that I only realized that by reading through some of the Express Tribune articles. So, what is it about Pakistan that keeps you wanting to live and work there?
Pakistan is home; it is the center of my universe to which I will almost always gravitate. I am open to living in others place for work though. In college I realized I was a kind of ambassador for Pakistan, though I represent only a miniscule percentage of its population, I am also Pakistan. I could resent people for their pre-conceived and media-induced perceptions about Pakistan but it would be hypocritical because if I didn’t live here I would think that there is no life in Afghanistan or Iraq or Africa. Life goes on everywhere, which is a truth that is perhaps too distant to those whose lives are not uprooted too often.
Women in Pakistan tend to deal with a lot of issues. As a female photojournalist is your job made more difficult because you are a woman?
There are very few, if any, full time female news photographers in Pakistan. In a sense, that has given me an edge working here. It has been difficult but not for the kind of reasons that foreign media would like to portray. The battle is not as much about gender as it is about traditions and expectations. Women struggle everywhere in the world and perhaps that struggle is amplified here but I come from an educated, open-minded family that has supported me even when they did not understand any of my ambitions. The voices supporting me are far louder than the ones putting me down.
Do you ever have free time to photograph for yourself, and not just for your job?
I don’t have much time to photograph for myself though fortunately, I have the latitude of working on the kind of stories and photo-essays that I am interested in for the job. Only when things slow down in the news world though, which is rare! It’s a catch-22 of sorts.
Do you want to continue in your current field, or would you like to try something else?
I am mostly definitely sticking to my guns, ha!
Interview by Sonseree´ V. Gibson