When I was told I would be going along to photograph government schools for the School Outreach Program, I was very excited - when it comes to photography, children are the most powerful portrait subjects. They turn to the lens and meet its glassy eye with unapologetic expressions, resulting in pictures that are almost perfect representations of who they are. Unlike adults they don’t hastily search for the appropriate smile, or think about how they want to be remembered - they hide nothing because they have nothing to hide. So when we finally set out, I knew I would find a treasure of photo opportunities in these children’s classrooms and playgrounds.
But of course, like any treasure, the schools were well-guarded – wherever we went, the administration was wary of the camera, afraid that we would snap pictures of their dilapidated buildings and report that to the media. It took some convincing and Mariam’s (Project manager) contagious enthusiasm to finally win the trust of these principals and teachers. Mariam spoke to the administration and appeased them. Our aim, she said, was not to highlight the inadequacies of government schools but rather to bring a little bit of color into the dusty classrooms of the children who studied there. Soon the schools were all opening their doors to us, and once we looked past all the cracked walls and broken desks, we found something quite unexpected: bright-eyed children and teachers all working towards better education; an effort that was so genuine that Mariam and I often found ourselves reminiscing about our own schools and classes.
We noticed that in spite of their poor conditions, these teachers and children shared the same respect for their studies that we had learned in our schools. They eagerly looked in their dictionaries, recited their mathematics tables, and read out loud to their fellow students. We went to a small girls and boys primary school whose principal had made such noble efforts at progressive teaching that Mariam and I started calling it the Cool School. Here the children were taught not only basic subjects, but also other lessons of everyday life, like how to deal with domestic issues, tolerance among each other, and even the importance of planting trees and being responsible citizens.
Every school we went to, children seemed happy and eager to learn, but also full of mischief and energy. As I took their pictures they giggled and laughed, sometimes shying away from the lens, and sometimes clambering around to take a closer look at my camera, then looking altogether delighted when I showed them their own pictures in the camera’s display window. On the way back, Mariam and I were brimming with excitement about the Outreach Tour, and we couldn’t wait to return to the schools and show them what we have in store.
The Citizens Archive of Pakistan’s School Outreach Tour kicks off on the 25th of July, 2009.