School Portraits in Pakistan

With a beaming smile, Arsalan Shahid enjoys a momentary escape from the lesson of the day at his school in a village outside of Faisalabad in Pakistan’s Punjab province. Students are eager for their turn outside. That’s because they get to soak up the sun on this bright March day when their peers are stuck inside dark and cold classrooms. Image by Beenish Ahmed. Pakistan, 2013.

Nirmul Arif stands before a hand-decorated poster on grammar in one of the two rooms of her school. She’s one of the youngest in a school started by the Plan International to offer a fast-track education to those who, like Arif, dropped out of school. Though she had completed the seventh grade, the school’s curriculum began at square one. “We started with the ABCs, and my little brothers and sisters made fun of us,” she said. Image by Beenish Ahmed. Pakistan, 2013.

Taking a quick break from her exam in an informal school in Rawalpindi, Inayat Gul looks up from beneath a yellow, teddy bear fleece vest. She’s in the nursery grade level at a school run by the national NGO Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi (ITA) that caters to the low-income neighborhood around it. The children are taking an exam that will tell teachers if they’re ready to transition into a traditional school. When not in school they do odd jobs to help support their famiies Image by Beenish Ahmed. Pakistan, 2013.

Misha Saeed is a student at one of Islamabad’s best schools, called Froebels. The school maintains high security on its premises and has art fairs and sports days that make it look like it's located in England instead of Pakistan’s capital. All this comes at a cost, however, as the school’s annual tuition is many times what an average Pakistani makes in a year. Image by Beenish Ahmed. Pakistan, 2013.

Sitting in shafts of light is the only way to take in a lesson at this small school run out of the first floor of the headmistress’s home in a small village outside of Faisalabad. There are scant lights for the primary school children like Noor Fareed, who are forced by the conditions to learn many of their lessons orally. While the older students get chairs and desks, the younger ones must make do on the floor. Image by Beenish Ahmed. Pakistan, 2013.

These portraits of Pakistani students in their classrooms show the country’s future in the making — from decrepit rural schoolhouses with barely enough light for reading to sprawling campuses with top-notch computer labs and rather cosmopolitan extracurricular activities.I borrowed from the American tradition of school picture day — while making a few modifications — to show just how different learning environments can be.

These photographs offer a glimpse into the stark inequalities, which carry over into all sectors of life (including education), making it difficult to achieve social mobility through schooling.

What I found interesting is that all the students maintained a great sense of pride in their schools, even those who were the most impoverished. Pakistan is one of the youngest nations in the world, with more than a third of its people under the age of 14, which means the sort of educational opportunities currently in place will have a major impact in just a few decadesʼ time.