Ruth Fremson
The New York Times

There is a chinese proverb that says 'Don't listen to what they say. Go see.'

TDJ: Where are you, and what did you do today?

RF: I'm in Peshawar, a dusty, bustling city about two and a half hours drive northwest of Islamabad, in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan. I spent most of today at the Shamshatoo refugee camp, about 45 minutes drive outside of Peshawar, working on a story for the New York Times Magazine. This is where I have spent most of the past week as well.

TDJ: Are you working among a press corps, or on your own?

RF: I'm working on my own mostly. Today, I was with the reporter and a translator. I didn't see any other journalists in the camp. Some days, depending on the news, I see lots of other journalists. And, at the end of the day, in the hotel restaurant, there is plenty of company to be had.

TDJ: Can you explain how you figure out where to be, how to get there?

RF: Some things are easy and obvious. For example, when it was announced that former mujahadeen commander Abdul Haq was captured in Afghanistan we headed straight over to his headquarters (in Peshawar) for reaction. And, after the U.S. strikes began in Afghanistan we were on alert, checking the hospitals to see if any of the wounded were arriving for treatment. On days when there is no breaking news I'll work on a photo project or a feature story with a reporter.

As for getting there: we have hired a car/driver. If he is gone for the day we'll take a taxi or a motorized rickshaw (very cheap).

TDJ: what to wear (I'm sort of kidding, oh, what should I wear today, is my hair okay? But do your work togs affect your safety?)

RF: Foreigners are not a common sight to Afghan refugees or to rural people in Pakistan. We cause a real sensation whenever we show up. On top of it, they are fascinated by the cameras and also by a woman working with cameras. Sometimes I feel like the Pied Piper, other times I feel like the coke bottle in the movie 'The Gods Must Be Crazy.' Everywhere we go, we draw a crowd. People want to hear what you talk about and they crowd around you, staring at you. In Islamabad, which is more cosmopolitan than Peshawar, women dress in a more modern manner but here, I wear the traditional Shalwar Kammiz outfits (loose pants and long tunic) that the women wear, complete with a head scarf. It's hard enough to work here with everyone crowding around you, getting in your frame, I don't need to make it worse by drawing even more attention to myself by wearing western clothes. I'm not trying to hide who I am; with my fair skin and freckles that would be impossible. I'm just trying to minimize the unwanted attention. I have gotten some interesting comments from men here too, who said they appreciate the respect I am showing them by wearing their traditional dress.

TDJ: who to trust?

RF: We have been working with local journalists from the local English-language newspapers as translators and we have been relying on their judgment in terms of drivers quite often with success.

TDJ: Where is home, when do you think about home?

RF: Home is both a place and a feeling. Home is being comfortable with who I am. Home is in my heart. After living in a number of different states, cities and countries over the past 13 years it's not as much a physical place as a mental one.

T DJ: Why do you do your work?

RF: There is a chinese proverb that says 'Don't listen to what they say. Go see.' Curiosity about the world I am a part of and a desire to share what I've learned and seen with others is why I am a photojournalist.

TDJ: and what do you hope to achieve with maybe one photo a day (is this correct?) printed in the New York Times?

RF: Some days I won't have any photos in the paper and on other days there will be one or more. If our readers learn something that they didn't previously know, if it stops them for just a moment, then I have been successful.

TDJ: and the bonus question, How's the food over there?

RF: There is a lot of meat over here for those who can afford it (most Afghan refugees can not). We journalists are not having problems eating. Food is plentiful and not bad - and inexpensive. Tough if you are a vegetarian though. For the many Afghan refugees though, there is not enough food. The main staple in the refugee camps is bread, baked from flour distributed by aid organizations. This is accompanied by a watery, oily stew, occasionally with little pieces of meat or vegetables floating in it that they dip pieces of bread into. They also eat rice or legume dishes. I don't get the feeling that they can ever eat too much.

Write a Letter to the Editor
Join our Mailing List
© The Digital Journalist