Khaula Jamil, Photojournalist

By Anam Abdulla | Stories

Sep 23
Khaula was born and raised in Karachi after having spent her childhood in the Middle East. She comes from a family of creative people, her grandfather being a famous poet and a literary person, father a television actor and mother an educator. Therefore, a healthy imagination was always encouraged while she was growing up. Professionally, by definition, she’s a photographer, however the term doesn’t do her work justice.  She’s an artist, a visual storyteller, a journalist, an observer, and a traveler who uses photography as a tool to highlight and raise awareness about stories in Pakistan that reflect the extraordinary beauty of its people. Khaula is also the woman behind Humans of Karachi and has her own jewelry line, called “K for Karachi.”


1. What is photojournalism and what inspired you to develop a career in it?

Photojournalism literally means what it sounds like; telling stories with the aid of visuals. There are certain ethics and rules that set it apart from fine art photography where a photojournalist cannot add or subtract key elements from their images and nor can they edit too much of what they shoot- they need to be able to capture exactly what they see and then tell the story objectively.

I have the heart of a storyteller with a wish that my work inspires other people. I love to document what I see and my interest in history and cultures drove me to pursue a career that would allow me to travel and discover people and places. Most of the organizations that commission me to go collect stories or document their projects are working towards helping rural communities in Pakistan handle climate change or intervening to solve health problems. The development sector opened up a whole new side to my own country I did not know much about so in that sense it’s been great learning experience. I can’t say I knew exactly what I was getting into when I was pulled in to this field- all I knew is what I did not want to do and that was fashion/wedding/product photography. In a sense you could say that I didn’t find my field, rather it found me.

2. How did Humans of Karachi start? What is your favourite story on the page so far?

When Brandon Stanton and HONY got insanely famous quite suddenly in March 2012 I had just moved back from New York myself earlier that year and joined Sharmeen Obaid’s non-profit as the head of video animation and photography. My friend who was still living in New York at the time messaged me and said “Please start a Humans of Karachi” and posted the link to HONY. Having just moved back and in a full 9-6 job I told her that even though this was right up my alley I didn’t have the time for it since I was working full time. I figured someone would start an HOK eventually and so I didn’t do anything for several weeks.

When June came around, people around the globe had started Humans of XYZ- various cities kept popping up and I started feeling edgy. I quickly shot Sharmeen an email and said I wanted to start HOK and needed the support of The Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP – the place I was working.) She immediately replied and asked what I needed. I told her I needed a car and a partner/driver and permission to go out every day during work for two three hours. She gave the go ahead within minutes and I launched HOK under the CAP umbrella which was already an organization working towards documenting oral histories from people who migrated at partition. This project fit in well in their culture department. I picked Kamran Khan from our office drivers to be my partner. He is an extremely friendly and versatile man who can talk to just about anyone and I knew he would be perfect. Even though I left CAP and went on to pursue an independent career in 2013, Kamran and I are still partners and HOK is still my project that is still supported by CAP.

It’s hard to pick a favourite story but one of the most viral ones was of a fruitseller’s son I came across who got into McGill University. I posted his story and I remember, overnight, the HOK inbox was flooded with over 300 messages from people wanting to know how they could send money to help him go to McGill. Eventually we had to make a little committee to figure out what to do and how to manage this massive response. Long story short, we did it. He got to go to McGill! J

3. You also have your own “K for Karachi” jewellery line – was it difficult to branch out towards a business genre you had little familiarity with? Do you have any advice you for those doing the same?

K for Karachi is something I am still trying to figure out. I have a habit of jumping into something that I think is a good idea without having worked out too many details and I then figure stuff out along the way. This is what happened with K for Karachi. I came back from New York inspired by an artist and knew that it would work locally with a few adjustments to the idea. It is pretty difficult to do this sort of a thing alone. I haven’t been able to give it the kind of time it needs for it to grow. The only advice I am in the position of giving to someone who wants to venture into something like this is DO IT WITH A PARTNER and divide the work- some of the most successful relationships in businesses like these I have seen is when one person handles the creative side and the other handles the business and accounts side of things. Ideally I would want someone to come on board with me to handle the business side of this because doing it all yourself is very very tough and time consuming.

4. What challenges did you face when you were starting out? How did you overcome them?

I think the biggest challenges I faced was figuring out what I wanted to do with my life after college. For example, I graduated thinking I’m going to be a filmmaker – but it was 2006 and the filmmaking scene was all but dead in Pakistan. Today, ten years later one can graduate with those dreams and actually have a profitable future in it. I also realized I needed to do something that had a social impact. I spent a good amount of time figuring out what I didn’t want to do that lead me to where I am. I overcame those challenges by going for all sorts of experiences, internships, jobs, assistantships- trying everything out to see where I fit in and then eliminating what I knew wasn’t making me happy.

5. Did any particular courses taken while at university help develop your skills and career? Would you recommend any for those interested in a career in photography/photojournalism?

I would highly recommend everyone interested in pursuing my line of work to read and look up the history of photography and photojournalism. Theory is hardly taught in Pakistan but it plays such an important part in understanding the craft that you wish to pursue your life in. Reading about the work, the lives of the great masters of this genre or watching documentaries really help in developing your eye and mind. I also recommend workshops like Foundry Photojournalism workshop or applying for the Fulbright Scholarship to travel and learn more.

6. Are there any online tools or resources that you can guide aspiring or current photographers and photojournalists towards?

I would say keep looking at what stories are coming out of the world on places like New York Times Lens Blog. The more you see the kind of stories people are working on the more you will come up with ideas of your own. I follow MAGNUM, Photophilanthropy, Rotary, Open Society etc. all on Instagram and stay updated with what’s going on. Through these channels I also get to come across new photojournalists and projects they are working on.

7. How do you define success?

If you can happily go to sleep at night knowing what you are doing in your life is your purpose and your calling, that’s success right there.

8. What are the top three skills that have helped you succeed in both your professional and personal endeavours?

Three skills I am always trying to hone in myself are:

  • Having faith in Allah: There is nothing more important than to remember He who gives can take it right back. This helps in staying grounded.
  • I try my utmost best to be disciplined: When you are a freelancer, absolutely no one except you cares about your success or your failure. No one is going to push you to up your game and no one is going to tell you to work harder- you have to do that yourself. If I don’t work hard I will disappear and be forgotten and it will be all on me- no one else.
  • I always remember to be ME: As a freelancer you have to market yourself and you have to network. I’m terrible at both things because I find it the traditional ways of doing this uncomfortable and don’t want to hire anyone to do it for me because I want me to stay me. So I treat my official Facebook work page and my Instagram like I am having conversations with friends. It keeps me ME and whoever wants to know what I’m up to or what I’m like follows and knows how I work and can decide if they would like to work with me.

9. Have you used any networks to help you achieve your goals? If so, what networks have you used and which have been the most helpful?

The only networks I’ve used are Alumni networks. My Alma mater Indus Valley has a great active page on Facebook where we share job opportunities with each other and the other is Foundry Photojournalism Alumni network (I went for it in 2013).

10. What is the most valuable piece of advice you’ve ever received? Do you have any advice for our readers?

One valuable piece of advice I always kept in mind when starting out was when I was told that if I did not respect my work no one else would respect it either. I was told people will try to get me to work for them for free or at a ridiculously low price and I should never let them define my worth. I looked around, did my research, understood the market and with the help of senior colleagues, figured out what to charge and then I didn’t back off from it.  It sets a tone about your self worth to those who you approach you.

I would have the same advice for any creative/potential creatives. We need to raise the bars for ourselves and refuse to work for “credit lines”. This isn’t to say don’t volunteer if you love a cause but I’m talking about corporate giants or newspapers who mint money but would like you to ‘donate’ your hard work to them with promises of exposure and publicity for you.

11. Finally, what is your favorite quote or words that you live by?

There is a saying by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) that has kept me very grounded; “What has reached you was never meant to miss you and what has missed you was never meant to reach you.”