Q+A: Malin Fezehai's stunning photography of water-scarce Pakistan

In a new exhibition from WaterAid and the H&M Foundation, the photographer Malin Fezehai brilliantly captures the reality of growing up without water in Pakistan. Here, she talks about community, climate change and the power of photography.

16 Aug 2016

Noori Tales: Stories from the Indus Delta is a remarkable new exhibition of 31 images taken by Swedish-Eritrean photographer Malin Fezehai during her visit to the district of Thatta in the Sindh province of southeast Pakistan.

The collection documents the reality of growing up amidst escalating problems caused by water scarcity and climate change.

Ahead of the launch of this exhibition at Stockholm's Kulturfestivalen on 15 August, Malin explained the issues and inspirations behind her photos.

Girls await the start of lessons at the primary school in Chaudury Atta Muhammad village, Thatta region, Sindh province, Pakistan, 2016. Before the H&M Foundation funded WASH block was built, the girls had nowhere at school to access safe water or go to the toilet. Attendance has increased since the block was built as parents have greater confidence in the security and safety of their girls when they don't have to leave the school compound to find a place to go to the toilet in the open
© WaterAid/Malin Fezehai
© WaterAid/Malin Fezehai
© WaterAid/Malin Fezehai

Girls await the start of lessons at the primary school in Chaudury Atta Muhammad village, Thatta.

What inspired you to work on this project with H&M Foundation and WaterAid?

My photographic work in the past has the common theme of displacement. The subjects I have covered have included the slowly sinking islands of Kiribati, the underage workers in Ethiopia and the war-torn lives of women in Sri Lanka.

Displacement is a subject I feel strongly about, and the work WaterAid wanted me to create in Pakistan related in many ways to work I have done before, in the sense that many of the communities we visited had experienced displacement after the floods in 2010 and 2011, and were living in the shadow of further disruption in the future, if not adequately prepared.

Can you explain the choice of the images in this exhibition and how the narrative unfolds?

I wanted the images to feel like a journey through the communities along the Indus Delta, focusing on quiet but beautiful moments from everyday life. The images chronicle stories of children trying get an education in buildings that are collapsing due to erosion by saline groundwater, and the daily routines of fetching water from the canal.

What were your impressions of the water and sanitation issues that communities in Thatta face?

Within the communities the routine of collecting water is very much part of the rhythm of daily life, especially for women. Days, hours, even entire lives are organised around when, where and how they will get water. In some of the villages that were facing acute water shortages there was a palpable sense of need around these issues. But it was inspiring to see how determined children and their parents were to persevere with their education in these circumstances. 

Four year old Benazir attends class with boys and girls of different ages in Haji Saleh Jatt, Thatta region, Sindh province, Pakistan, 2016. Since gaining a water and toilet block at the school, the head teacher says 'the children are so clean and happy now. That has been a positive change because now there is a cleaner and healthier environment around the school.'
© WaterAid/Malin Fezehai
© WaterAid/Malin Fezehai
© WaterAid/Malin Fezehai

Four year old Benazir attends class with boys and girls of different ages in Haji Saleh Jatt, Thatta.

How do the issues faced by communities in Thatta compare to those faced by other communities you’ve worked with?

I have seen communities struggle with flooding before, but I’ve never seen this level of infrastructural decline – crumbling walls and ceilings – due to erosion by saline groundwater and the salt winds that blow in from the nearby Arabian Sea. At many schools we went to, the children literally had to sit outside of the school because of how unsafe the structures had become.

Why is it so important for you to work with different displaced communities around the world?

It’s the most pressing issue of our time.I think when you grow up in mixed home in an immigrant community as I did, you don’t feel like you have one cultural identity and tend to be able to connect with all kinds of people. I grew up with this sense of always being a little out of place. That feeling is one of the reasons why I think I gravitate towards displaced communities in my work. The feeling of otherness is something I feel very connected to.

I think migration is really not coming to a halt, I think it’s going to increase, and how photography is used is really important because it becomes a bridge to understanding “the other”.

 A young girl in Muhammad Ali Bharj who has never attended school. Her parents said they would send their girls to school as soon as a new water and sanitation block is constructed at the local school
© WaterAid/Malin Fezehai
© WaterAid/Malin Fezehai
© WaterAid/Malin Fezehai

A young girl in Muhammad Ali Bharj who has never attended school.

Do you have a favourite image in the exhibition?

My favourite image is of a girl dressed up to attend a wedding celebration in a village of Muhammad Ali Bharj [above] – a location where WaterAid had decided to install safe water and bathroom facilities. This soft-spoken girl with embroidery dripping off her was stunningly illuminated when she stepped into a shaft of window light. She’d never been to school—perhaps because in this village, school was only starting to become a priority for young girls like her. But there, in her wedding best, she was undoubtedly seen as a shining star in her community.

The Noori Tales exhibition takes place in Stockholm from the 15 August - 4 September 2016. You can find full details and a selection of Malin's photographs here >