After years spent living abroad in Ethiopia and England, Salima Punjani now resides in Montreal as a Concordia student, working on a graduate diploma in journalism. The Concordian sat down with the 26-year-old to talk about her local and international endeavours.
How’s life in Montreal?
I love Montreal. [It’s] the one city in Canada I can see myself living in. Although with this whole charter of values thing, I really don’t know…The thing is, I tried to stop being angry and think about solutions of how to create a better sense of understanding. I worked at the ministry of education here for a couple of years for the Odyssey program. I was the promotion agent, which means I had to travel all around Quebec. Odyssey is the official languages program where French and English Canadians go to other [Canadian] cities to play informal language activities with young people in elementary or secondary school or CEGEP. It’s a good work experience but also a really good intercultural learning experience as well.
How did your love for photography develop?
I have always been creatively inclined, but never really supported in that creativity [until] I started with Oxfam in Canada and in Ethiopia. My boss was like, you’ve been talking about development communications for so long, why don’t you come in the field, take some photos and if they, [the head office], like them, they’ll use them. I felt really scared. But they [said], oh my god, some of these photos are amazing; you should really try and focus on that. It’s difficult to do [photography] full time, because I have more of an artistic eye than a technical eye. So for instance, at a conference, if I am bored, I’m really bad. Like, my photos are not good [laughs].
What were you doing in Ethiopia?
I did an internship at Oxfam Canada in Ethiopia. The internship was six months. But then I started working with artists, and I ended up staying for two years. I think it’s really important to report on arts and cultural types of events and movements actually coming out of Addis [Ababa]. People think of Africa and go, ‘oh yeah, people are just poor and starving’. Honestly, there is every NGO, based there [in Addis Ababa]. As a result, there is a market for art. There is an arts school, there’s a photography centre [and] there are a whole bunch of Ethiopian artists that are getting recognized at an international level. I think it’s great, because it helps build more connections between people. These are artists that have universal values of creativity and openness.
Your career keeps taking you towards humanitarian pursuits. Is this a deliberate choice?
Yeah. Journalism has always been something I knew I wanted to do. It [later] kind of developed to wanting to work in conflict zones to show more human elements to what’s going on, rather than just sensational recording. Local artists [in Ethiopia] really appreciated that a foreigner was not [solely] aiming for touristy photos. They were happy that someone wanted to show what daily life was like.
What kind of projects have you been involved in locally?
Last year I was working for this peer-to-peer learning organization called E-180. At their launch event, I exhibited gigantic photographs of people that were basically acting out their dreams as a reflection of their potential. I was inspired [at the time] by Jo Spence, an English photographer who used photography as a form of therapy while she was going through breast cancer and she would photograph her process of healing. I decided to photograph people acting out their dreams. So Greg, [who] wanted to be a pilot, was running out of cash because it’s really expensive [to get a license]. I photographed him in a plane, so when he looks at it, it’s a reflection of what he’s capable of doing. Another person I photographed was a filmmaker. She had a flyer for a film she hadn’t made yet, so we had it put up, and I photographed her looking at the film she hadn’t made yet. [And hence] it was “Portraits of Potential” series.
What’s your photography philosophy?
I really believe that participatory photography is important: training people to take their own photos so that they’re on their own terms, not depending on foreigners to come in and [tell] their own stories for them. I would say my philosophy is to make sure I show the dignity in people and not feed into stereotypical or sensational reporting because it will pay the bills. Lately also, I’ve been hearing a lot of about AnthropoGraphia – a blending of anthropology and photography. It often includes really spending time to actually get to know where you are and to show people in a dignified way. Matthieu Rytz, [Montreal-based photographer] coined the term; he is the one organizing the World Press Photo [exhibition] going on right now.
Speaking of, what did you think of the World Press Photo Exhibit?
It’s really raw. [In particular], the photo of the lady that got burned because she wanted a divorce from her husband – [“Victims of Forced Love”, Ebrahim Noroozi]. There is a struggle and there needs to be more voices shown from these women that are fighting for their life. You know, I worked with an organization in Ethiopia where there were rotating savings and credit groups that Oxfam helped to establish. The women would come together once a week, and participate in a traditional savings scheme, where people would put in, say 10 dollars a week, and every week someone wins the group’s money. The next week someone else wins. Then you can invest in something a bit bigger, maybe start their own business.
A really inspiring story [however], is that these women started [a] separate savings for women that were affected by violence. And so, as a group, they would confront the [abusive] husband and be like: ‘if you beat her one more time, we’re taking you to court.’ That would have never happened if they weren’t working together. And I wonder if I was to share those stories with other women struggling for their rights, it can be something inspiring, you know? As a journalist, it’s kind of what I think. It’s cross cultural sharing, and photography is a powerful medium to do that [with].