Travel 650 km north of Islamabad, along one of the world’s most treacherous roads (the Karakoram Highway), and you eventually reach Northern Pakistan – the focus of Australian photographer Andrea Francolini‘s project My First School, where electricity shortages pose a daily problem.
Francolini first visited the region in 2008 to photograph the annual polo tournaments, as part of a project focusing on traditional sports. A year later, he returned to do a story on women working in Islamic society, and after interviewing a woman who had started a school over twenty years ago, he was invited to her school. On visiting, Francolini says he was both fascinated and shocked by what he saw. “The children were children: happy, joyful, shy and naughty at times. Everything appeared normal at first,” he says, “but when I entered a classroom, my heart just sank.” Among the things that stood out, he recounts what he saw in flashes: “a slab of cement, one light bulb, no seats or desks, one ancient blackboard, and the children sitting on the floor sharing second-hand books.”
In this series, Francolini brings us the reality of the situation so that we too can see the conditions of the school. In these remote classrooms, bright faces stare back from the gloom. In the corners of poorly-lit classrooms, children crouch hungrily skimming the pages of books in the tiny squares of sunlight from the windows.
It was after bearing witness to the inadequacy of the schools, that the photographer felt compelled to do something. His immediate reaction was to go to the nearest shop and buy necessities for each student – pencils, rubbers, and rulers. But later on in 2010, the idea came to Francolini to start a charity dedicated to helping these children. He says: “My wife at the time was pregnant and we knew it was going to be a girl. One day, I was in Target buying some basic things for the baby, when I saw two women in full niquab (full veils with only their eyes uncovered), also buying baby clothes. It made me think of the children I had met in Pakistan, and I had my “light bulb” moment. Here, the idea for My First School was born. I started raising money from friends, family and business contacts until I had enough to go back and make a small difference.”
The project finally emerged in 2011, and is now a recognized Australian Charity called My First School Pty Ltd. While its primary goal is to get children into school, Francolini aspires for even greater things in the future. “In a perfect world,” he adds optimistically, “I would love to see a child go to university on sponsorship. That dream is still a long way away but then again this whole project was just supposed to be temporary, and is now in its 5th year, so anything is possible.”
Click here to learn more about Francolini’s project.
All images © Andrea Francolini