Real Pakistan An interview with photographer Kate Orne
Kate Orne is a Swedish-born photographer who has worked as a model, a fashion stylist and an editor at Interview. Born and raised in the landscape of Ingmar Bergman, she is an artist who focuses on the human experience in what could be called a Nordic style -- a subtle, almost suppressed expression of emotions. "I try to engage the viewer by making them feel like they are part of the landscape or close to the subject," she says.
Orne does the majority of her work on location, and has a special appreciation for the wide open landscape. She has recently done commercial and editorial work for clients like Nike, Banana Republic, Italian Glamour, Gloss and the Japanese photo magazine + 81. Each year Orne travels to developing countries around the world, to reinforce, she says, "a grasp of humility." To view more of her work, go to www.kateorne.com.
What originally took you to Pakistan?
The suffering of the working animals owned by the refugees -- animals who carry their human families across the unforgiving mountain range over to Pakistan. As I was in preproduction, the project grew and grew. I realized that I wanted to get a deeper understanding for the notion of life within the camps as well.
The word in itself, "refugee camp," didn't mean much to me except for a bunch of tents, sacks of rice and a hell of a lot of refugees.
I wanted to understand what the word truly stands for. I think most westerners can grasp a powerful word, but we don't really understand the true meaning behind it. Do we care to? The level of ignorance of the west is an art form in itself.
When did you go and how long did you stay?
I went in January and stayed for 15 days -- too short a time. I had never wept upon leaving a country, but I did when I left Pakistan. I knew at that moment that I would leave behind so much knowledge that I my heart and soul hunger for. To me, learning about the levels of dignity, pride and generosity that poverty-stricken people are capable of in the face of daily struggle and hardship is mind-blowing. The emotions attached to the situation seem especially real and true. It's just something that inspires me on a very deep level.
Were you by yourself?
I traveled to Pakistan on my own; I prefer to be by myself, as my thought process and emotions are less interrupted.
Naturally, in Pakistan I was not allowed to travel or walk around on my own, except for the occasional moment when I could take advantage of a situation, allowing my camera be my excuse to let me free. At times I traveled with armed guards or, when I went up in the province of Dir, I had to go undercover as the political situation was a bit shaky at that time. It used to be the gateway for the Pakistani supporters of the Taliban. So they where not too keen on having a Westerner roam around. If the locals would have found out about my presence in their province, I most likely would not have gotten out in one piece.
As the refugee camps are not totally safe, I would always be accompanied by either a translator or a designated refugee volunteer. The translator allowed me to communicate with the refugees and gain an added level of intimacy with them. Understanding the human subject is the source of a deeper emotional bond within the image itself. I was very fortunate to have had so much intimate conversations with women. Being a woman helped a lot.
What are the women like?
Shy and extremely generous. They would share with me their life stories as well as what little food they had. You might wonder how I could accept food from people that have so little. In fact people seem to get a deep satisfaction from sharing their last bits of food with a total stranger.
How do they react to the camera?
Most women and many children were reluctant to be photographed. Traditionally, their images are veiled -- and they had a fear that the camera might cause them harm. Many women would let the burka fall like a curtain across their faces as they saw my camera. Others would wrap the chador (headscarf) so it covered more of their face. In the end, it's not unlike a Western woman who might feel self-conscious about her weight and hiding her body from the camera.
Was it a painful experience?
The reaction a person has to a situation like this is complicated. You can't turn away from the suffering in disgust, or become hysterical at the sight of little wrapped white packages that you know are children who froze to death the night before. Your own feelings must not be pushed away, as it's urgent to relate and experience. You have to find a place where your personal emotion and respect for others goes hand in hand.
Why are there no images of those white packages? Wouldn't they move the viewer very deeply?
I am sure they would. But personally I need to draw a line when I feel it is appropriate or not to capture an image. If I will upset a mourning mother carrying her dead child, I will not do it, no matter what.
Some photo critics would not agree with that position, but I don't care. I consider the subject's feelings to be more important than what people back home might think.
I am here not to shock but to touch. Not just the viewer but my subjects as well. But images like that remain within me, burned into my brain.
What was the most powerful question asked of you?
I was asked at one point by a group of male refugees at the Shamshatoo camp (the largest camp in the world) why I didn't turn my efforts to providing them with food or medicine, rather than selling images of their suffering. How many images does the world need to see before understanding and reaching out?
What function do the photographs serve?
Good question. I hope they will draw the viewer closer to the subject. To feel more intimate with the humans in my images.
As I do a lot of writing, I hope one day to publish a book with the stories that go with the pictures, to make the experience even more alive for the viewer.
I am very passionate about involving people in a journey, whatever journey it might be. To bring them along to a place they feel an urge to experience.