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Award-winning Sydney photographer helps Pakistani girls stay in school

Photographer Andrea Francolini high-fives young Pakistani girl in her home.
Photographer Andrea Francolini with Khizra in her home in Shitindas, Pakistan.

Andrea Francolini

For someone who doesn't consider themselves a portrait specialist, Andrea Francolini is making quite an impression in the field.

The Italian-born Sydney-based yachting photographer recently took out third place in the children's category of the International Photography Awards (IPAs), for a series of three portraits he shot in Pakistan.

His ongoing subject is a young student by the name of Khizra, who he first met in 2013 after travelling through northern Pakistan for his own charity My First School.

Each portrait of her was shot on consequent trips, resulting in a unique profile of the emerging scholar, who is currently top of her class in the village of Shitindas.

Three portraits of Pakistani student Khirza.
Portraits of Pakistani student Khirza taken over a three-year period.

Andrea Francolini

He says despite the cheeky nature of the Pakistani children he has encountered over the years, when sitting for portraits they reveal a completely different side.

"It's incredible when you have to start photographing them, they just sit in front of you and they're dead serious," Francolini says.

"You cannot crack a smile out of them."

Almost reminiscent of Steve McCurry's iconic portrait Afghan Girl, the series is made all the more unique because Francolini had virtually no control over what she would do in front of the camera.

"Being a language barrier you can't tell them what to do or what not to do," he says.

Francolini is no stranger to the IPAs, winning the People Photographer of the Year Award in 2015 for images he also took in northern Pakistan when visiting with his charity.

He first fell in love with country back in 2008 when he travelled there to shoot a story about polo.

Surrounded by mountain peaks towering over 8 kilometres into the sky, the beauty of the region was overwhelming.

"It is a beautiful place. It's not for everybody of course, because it is a third world country. But it's beautiful."

My First School

A group of young girls crouching on the ground together reading school books.
Schooling in northern Pakistan can be challenging at times with electricity shortages. Children often have to move around the schools and follow the sun in order to be able to read their books.

Andrea Francolini

Travelling back a year later to cover a story about women working in Islamic society, he struck up a conversation with a teacher in the northern part of the country, and discovered there was a lot he could do to help.

"I always give back something wherever I travel. I try to do a little something however big or small it is," Mr Francolini says.

"I went to the local bazaar which was literally right across the road, and bought whatever I could [for the school]."

Children sitting at desks watching their teacher point to a lesson on the blackboard.
Children attending class at Chalt Pain primary school in northern Pakistan.

Andrea Francolini

Inspired by the birth of his own daughter in 2010, Mr Francolini wanted to do something more long lasting for the students of northern Pakistan — particularly for the young girls who often are forced to leave when they reach a certain age.

"The problem is that in the small villages where I'm working, after the fifth or sixth grade is when the girls drop out because the schools are small and they can't continue," he says.

"In order to continue they'd have to go to a bigger village."

So in 2011, My First School was born.

His charity not only provides funding for pencils, books, and furniture, but also runs a scholarship program for the students.

Khizra was the first student to receive a sponsorship in 2013, meaning she would have her education costs fully funded for five years.

"The idea is when she gets to sixth grade, if she wants to continue we can allow her to continue and we'll pay for it," he says.

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The importance of education for girls

Francolini and his local team have ongoing conversations with parents to help them to understand the value of education to improve the standard of living for the child, the family and the village.

He says unfortunately there are occasions when some girls are married off as young as 12 years old.

"It doesn't happen that often, but it can happen. And with this girl we just said [to her father] 'Listen, one deal is that you don't marry her off when she's 12 or 13 because we'll make you pay back the money.'

"She is top of her class. She has to continue."

Francolini hopes Khizra's father will let her continue at school, but says the main issue is that in the villages it's the women who are the ones working in the fields, so they needed from a young age to help out.

"That would be my dream."

On October 13 Francolini heads to Pakistan again to see how the schools are progressing, and to provide more assistance.

Shooting powerful portraiture

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According to Francolini, creating a strong portrait is all about making a connection with your subject from the start so they feel comfortable.

"[In Australia] I always go and have a coffee with everybody before I photograph first," Francolini explains.

His current personal project Eye 2 Eye, was inspired by his first portrait of Khizra.

"One day I was really low on work… and I just called a friend and said 'Mate, let's go for lunch. I'm taking your portrait,'" Francolini says.

Things snowballed from there, and over the past 18 months he has gone on to photograph dozens of people from strangers to well-known Australian celebrities.

Francolini says sometimes when a person is in front of a camera who isn't used to it, they might freeze.

"Some people overreact and you can see it. Even if they're not smiling you can see that they're trying too hard," he says.

The photographer says the most important thing to remember whether you're shooting in your own country or overseas, is that you shouldn't just point a camera in someone's face and then leave.

"In 2015 when I went back [to Pakistan] I always make prints to give back to the kids."

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