Earlier this December I headed to Asia House on New Cavendish Street, to see ‘Pakistan: Behind the Headlines‘, an exhibition of photographs commissioned by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Located in the basement were two rooms lined with A3 and larger prints of previously little documented areas of humanitarian crisis.
The artist behind these pieces, Sa’adia Khan met me to talk through her role, insight and personal highlights of working with MSF and showcasing part of her native country (a full interview with Khan will be published in the New Year). The commission is designed to explore the realities of the people of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and of Peshawar in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and prioritise a humanising lens as well as coverage of the very real narratives of terrorism and conflict in this region.
FATA is normally inaccessible to many Pakistanis, including journalists as it is a remote region bordering Afghanistan. However, the current inhabitants of this locale continue to suffer at the hands of sectarian violence and militancy with access to healthcare chequered by resource as well as physical barriers in the form of checkpoints and identity surveillance.
MSF have been working in FATA since 2004, supporting a children’s hospital, administrative centre and running an emergency obstetrics clinic in the region which has enabled many pre-term mothers to safely deliver healthy babies into a far from stable environment. Working with professionals in the region, MSF prioritised these people and through this commission are ensuring that these people are heard and seen. I ask Khan how it feels to have her work exhibited for the first time outside of Pakistan, and by way of answer she leads me to the below image:
The largest print of the collection, its prominence is supported by a deeply problematic and complex story. The far settlement is the Durrani Camp for displaced people in FATA, which is home to two thousand men, women and children. It is nestled in the shadows of mountains to one side with a graveyard to the front centre of the shot. Those who call this camp home have often lived here for up to seven years since they were left destitute following militant rampages, while others were forcibly displaced by such activity. For some, this is the only home they have ever known.
Conditions in the camp are very basic, which is located a few miles from the MSF supported hospital which is also the only provider of free at the point of use and easily accessible healthcare in the region. The situation within the camp is too politically charged for MSF to be based within its environs, but Khan and her team wanted to experience and relate the lives of those within it. The reality? No electricity, limited natural light, and common disease burden characteristics of respiratory infections, asthma and conditions associated with bitter, often sub-zero temperatures.
Most moving perhaps in Khan’s description of her work is her constant return to the fear and trauma that play across the faces of her photograph’s subjects and that she encountered in her actual, physical experiences with these displaced people.The below series picture the experiences of Muhammed Ali Shah, 12 from Upper Kurram Agency who was making his way to school with friends when he stepped on an improvised explosive device. Noone has laid claim to planting this device nor cited a motivation, but such tragedy and violent aggression is latent in the FATA region. While Shah has survived, and was able to receive emergency treatment from two affiliated MSF clinics, his life has been irreversibly changed. Khan recalls how Shah shared with her his love of cricket and how he hopes to be a teacher in the future. The Etch a Sketch pictured below became critically important to Shah during his recovery progress, with Khan keen to capture his quiet moments in which the self-confessed best handwriter in his class re-learns the skill.
Khan’s favourite piece is that shown immediately below. The tree acts as a visual boundary between light and dark, obscurity and visibility, female and male. She highlights the role of the young boys (the sons of the women wearing burkhas) as chaperones for their family, and the humbling disparity of her own provision with multiple layers and sturdy boots against the Pakistani winter compared to their thin cottons and shoes.
For all the shared fear, cold and continued violence, Khan has powerfully showcased the Pakistani’s living in FATA as they really are – vulnerable and in need of all the world’s eyes and activity to help them to see a different future world.