In this series, we’re highlighting and celebrating women in photography. Yasmin Tajik is a 45-year-old portrait and documentary photographer from Scottsdale, Arizona.
Marie Gardiner: What first interested you in taking pictures of people and their environments?
Yasmin Tajik: Photography was a long time hobby of mine and as I continued to practice and hone my skills over the years, I naturally started gravitating to photographing portraits and people in their environment. I am heavily influenced by National Geographic; specifically, the photographer Steve McCurry who captured the famous photo of the Afghani Girl. I still remember the first time I saw that photo on the cover of National Geographic, and the more I explored McCurry’s imagery, the more I gravitated towards capturing portraits and how people live in their own, unique environments.
My parents are immigrants from Pakistan and I grew up with a heavy influence of that culture on my upbringing so I am also drawn to capturing imagery encompassing people expressing their deep-seeded culture, traditions and heritage.
MG: You’ve photographed in what must be some tough conditions – emotionally and physically – how do you prepare for that?
YT: I find that any trip I take will have its own unique challenges and the best way I prepare for those are to research as much as possible ahead of time. First and foremost, the foundation of any trip research is based in learning the history of the country of where I’m travelling. I also reach out to others who have travelled to that country and ask for advice, names of fixers, points of interest, and in the case of my mentors, I run ideas by them of projects I want to focus on while in that particular country.
Once I have a subject or topic that I want to focus on for a documentary project, I spend a significant amount of time researching that topic so that I can be as well informed as possible. Often, in this research phase I’ll come across cities or areas of the country I’ll want to travel to and persons of interest to meet and photograph.
After I have returned from a trip, the research continues and often adds critical pieces of information to supplement the imagery. For example, my photo project in Thailand was teaching photography to girls rescued from or at-risk of, sex-trafficking.
After I returned to the US I was able to connect with different local agencies to gather in-depth statistics and get a comprehensive plan that has been successful here in the US.
It led me to being invited to participate in a 1-day event by the Southern Nevada Human Trafficking Task Force. There I met local law enforcement, advocacy agencies, as well as those working in social services. The most fascinating lecture that day was from a forensic traumatologist who explained how the trauma of sex-trafficking affects the brain.
The combination of research prior to the trip, the experience of photographing the project, and then continuing my research after I came home brought the project full circle with a deeper understanding of the topic. It is with that understanding that I can use my imagery to tell a more impactful story.
MG: When photographing people, you’re bound to make connections, is there one particular instance that stands out?
YT: Sometimes I’m in and out of an area so quickly due to time constraints, so any time I can spend with my subjects gives me a deeper connection with them.
When I was in Viñales, Cuba, I stopped a man on the street and asked him if I could take his picture. He allowed me to and I printed him a copy of the on the spot with a smartphone printer. He was so excited to have a photo of himself that he invited me and my friends to his house for dinner that evening. He said he and his daughter run a fruit stand selling bananas, and wanted us to be their special guests. The average Cuban makes $20 a month, so inviting myself and 5 friends to his home meant a significant financial investment for him. To open their home to strangers really showcased their sense of hospitality, which is common throughout Cuba.
More recently outside Karak Castle in Jordan, my friends and I had come upon a group of schoolgirls and I noticed one who looked just like me when I was that age. I photographed her and also asked one of my friends to photograph the two of us together (see first image). It was such a unique experience and I treasured meeting the young girl.
MG: Has a trip ever not gone to plan?
YT: I tend to go into each trip with a general plan of where I’ll be travelling, how long I’ll be staying in each location, who I’ll be with and all the logistics laid out, however as any traveller knows, one has to be prepared for the unexpected. When something drastic happens, that’s when we have to be resourceful, be able to concentrate and focus on the issue at hand, and be able to effectively evaluate the situation and look for solutions.
When I was in Kenya 5 years ago, our outfitter had arranged for our entire 8 days with lodges, drivers, cultural experiences, etc. About half way through the trip we realised the outfitter had not paid for lodging or park entrance fees and I had to pay more out of my pocket to complete the trip even though I had already paid the outfitter ahead of time in full. We would have been stranded had I not found a small area where I could get cell signal and contact my brother back in the US. Eventually I was reimbursed by the outfitter after giving them an earful, but I’m lucky we were still able to complete the trip by making it over that speed bump.
More recently on my trip to Jordan I missed my connecting flight in New York. It pushed my trip back an entire day, and then when I did make it to Amman my luggage was missing for 2 days. Eventually it worked out and my luggage was found. The most important part is I had my gear with me, which I always hand-carry. I was fully prepared to go to a local store and buy some clothes to make it through the next 2 weeks and complete my trip.
MG: Do you ever revisit any of your subjects and if so, what changes have you seen?
YT: It’s not often I can get back to visit the same exact people I’ve photographed before, but that is a goal of mine as I continue to pursue more long-term projects. As a matter of fact, I’ll be returning to Iceland this fall and will be reaching out to the same women I photographed when I was there in 2017. It’s a continuation of my project where I’m interviewing local women on their personal experience living in the world’s best country for gender equality.
MG: Do you have personal rules: things that you would always or never do?
YT: I believe the most important rule is to treat each of my subjects with respect. Each person is gracious enough to let me into their lives be it for a moment, a day, or a week and that is a precious view into a very personal part of themselves.
I think that stems from the experience my family has in front of the camera as well. When my father was a young child, my grandfather ran a missionary hospital in Pakistan and at one point British missionaries had come to visit their rural hospital. One of the missionaries photographed my father and his portrait made it onto the cover of a magazine. Likewise, both my aunt and grandmother were featured in a documentary that was being filmed in their village. I always reference those experiences and how I would want my own family treated.
The most important factor of being respectful has less to do with the camera and more spending time getting to know my subject, person to person. I ask questions about their lives, their families, and take a sincere interest in their life story. I find that once I know them more personally then they feel more at ease when the time comes for me to pick up my camera. They feel as if they’re looking at a friend, not into a camera. I find their expressions are more on par with the person and personality I have just learned about.
I try to form bonds and get to know each person or family to the point that I can revisit them in the future and it will then be them welcoming a friend back into their homes, rather than a photographer or professional. I want to become friends with them so that I can come back and visit them over and over again.
About Women in Photography series writer, Marie Gardiner
Marie Gardiner is a photographer and published author (Sunderland, Industrial Giant: Recollections of Working Life). You can see more about Marie at her Website, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Missed the previous episode of Women in Photography? Check it out today: Women in Photography: An interview with Lea Elm.