New York-based photographer Sabreen Jafry didn’t intend to do a series on Pakistan. She went into her trip with the idea of capturing as much as she could. She, like most Pakistanis, hates the American image of the country. She figured she could challenge it. Represent it as she saw it and, in the process, discover the things she saw.
The resulting project, Ghalat Fehmi, translates to “misunderstood.” During a conversation with me, she describes her frustration with the projected image of the country.
“When you bring up the notion of the place, people’s brains flood with misconceptions of what that place is based on what they’ve been told,” Jafry said. “Only when you talk about that place more are people able to see beyond what they’re told to think.”
There are other aspects of misunderstanding that are worth considering. She told me that going into the trip she was both nervous and excited.
“When we arrived, my mom stopped me before security. She said, look around. Everybody looks like you. Have you ever felt that way?” Jafry said.
It is surreal, existing in that liminal space of a hyphenated identity. A liminal space where you know your heritage lies in one place but your self has been raised in another. That hyphen bridges two worlds, neither of which provide a sense of belonging. In both worlds, you are othered by the parts of yourself marked by the culture of the other – your appearance, your traditions, your demeanor, your clothes.
You try to find belonging on the bridge. You seek understanding of either side. You are shocked that even when the people look like you, you sense disbelonging. You seek a way to see yourself from both angles. You consider your experiences on each side of the two parts that are meant to make a whole and in the meantime accustom yourself to belonging in that liminality. You learn to appreciate yourself as the bridge.
I don’t know if these are the ideas Jafry hoped to capture in the photographs. We talked mostly about how she found photography and then film. About how she loves the way film captures color so nostalgically. About the joy of falling in love with photos you forgot you had taken. These images feel authentic in their search for new understanding, honest in their endeavor to find beauty not as a voyeur but as a person seeking corners of her ancestral history to make them a part of her own.
It is easy to fall in love with the way Jafry captures the quiet quotidian of an everyday life that feels rare. Rare because I only see the things she captures when I am in Pakistan. Rare because the lens she turns is at once familiar with what she sees but still exploring it with fresh eyes. These are images taken with a lens in diaspora. A lens seeking self in a place at once familiar and strange. A lens eager to share images of how beautiful that pursuit can be.
We could look at each of these photographs compositionally. We could consider the radically political nature of Jafry’s representation of joy and beauty in a historically marginalized and maligned country. But I’d rather sit still with them, letting them transport me to their alternative understanding of a place we so rarely see through this lens.