Maryam Azzam | Supplement Coordinator
Featured Image: Wardha Bokhari is a current student at York studying information technology. | Courtesy of Wardha Bokhari
I had the opportunity to speak with final-year York student, Wardha Bokhari, about being a business owner. As a Pakistani-Muslim woman, she speaks on her struggles of being a photographer as well as an Information Technology student, both of which are male-dominated fields.
When did you first realize you were interested in photography?
From a very young age, I’ve always had an eye for moments. I remember with my dad’s small Sony digital camera, when I was eight or nine years old, he would give it to me when we went to events because he wanted me to take photos of the family. He’s always had a camera. My dad has albums and albums of pictures. I think I got that from him. He wasn’t a photographer, but he liked capturing moments. From a young age I took his camera and would take pictures with it — never from a “photographer’s” perspective, but more from a capturing moments perspective.
How did you start learning photography?
I think it was in Grade 9 — we went on a camping trip with all our family friends. My uncle had a camera at the time. It was a very fancy DSLR. It was so shiny and nice and I wanted to try it, so he let me take a couple pictures. For him to trust me as a 14 year-old with his $3,000 or $4,000 camera — it was wild. So I honestly owe it all to him. After that, that whole camping trip, I would take my iPod and pretend that it was his camera. I would take these artsy shots which I still have on my Instagram page to this day. After that weekend, I took my iPod and just started taking pictures.
I think it was in Grade 10 when I applied for this position at an event called MuslimFest for assistant photography coordinator, and I got the job. It was funny because the actual coordinator had no idea how a camera worked. They wanted me to make a portfolio so that’s why I made my page back in 2012. I kept posting on it just as a page for my pictures.
The next year at MuslimFest I became the coordinator for photography for the event leading the team, so I got more experience. The director would give me his camera because I still didn’t have one. I was taking pictures and leading other photographers. At the end of the event, each one of them would give me their pictures. I’d edit thousands of pictures for one event. It was just this whole experience that came to be.
I got my camera the first year of university, so that’s when I started getting more into it. I had so much event experience from MuslimFest, I knew I loved doing this. I used to post from my iPod, then my iPhone 4S, then my 5S – for the longest time my pictures were taken off my iPhone, until 2015 when I started with my camera. I would bring it to school every day and take pictures of my friends. I think in second year I finally had people start asking me for photoshoots, so then it became more of a business and from there it kept growing.
What’s your experience been like, not only as a female in a male-dominated industry, but as a visible minority as well?
It definitely is very hard because, like I said, I started back in 2012 and officially as a business owner in 2016. I had a lot of barriers being a girl. I wasn’t allowed to go out late so I wasn’t able to shoot weddings. Starting to shoot weddings was such a struggle for me because a girl being out late or going to someone’s house to take pictures just “looks bad.” It’s okay for a guy to be out late and it’s okay for a guy to go to someone’s house, but if it’s a girl, suddenly it’s so much harder. Fighting that stigma with my family was just really hard. I would see guys that started photography years after me get so much more successful because they had less barriers.
I liked urban photography as well but I couldn’t even get into that type of photography. Imagine being restricted from a whole section of photography because you’re not a male. Urban photography starts after dark in the city and being downtown that late is a whole other struggle.
You’re also in a male-dominated program, studying information technology, so what is that like?
It’s hard starting in university. It’s scary. It’s a new experience. And then you enter your classroom and there’s maybe one or two other girls – sometimes I was the only girl in the class. So, there were times where I struggled. It’s hard to approach others when you’re the only girl and you don’t know how to do it as a student who just came out of high school. Starting as an 18-year-old in a program with people in their mid-twenties, sometimes even older, you feel like you have no one to guide you. There are no girls with similar experiences; it’s a whole new world you’re being thrown into. It’s definitely very scary, but I think once you just stick to it, and you don’t let yourself give up, you’ll get there.
Being part Pakistani, I know creative industries aren’t necessarily supported by our families. What was your experience with that like?
In general, my parents are overprotective. For a lot of people, their dad is very strict – my dad wasn’t strict, just overprotective. But, it was in the sense that he, still to this day, holds my hand when crossing the street. So having that kind of dad, he can’t see me being out late and he can’t see that for me as a girl. And being the oldest child as well, I was the “first trial,” and I’m out here trying to run a whole business doing all these different things; it’s very new and scary for them. My parents don’t want me to be unsuccessful; they want me to be able to stand on my two feet.
It was definitely a struggle, but as time went on, I proved myself with my work. People started saying things to my parents like, “I’ve seen her work,” and “I’ve seen her at events.” If you just stay true and honest to who you are and you’re not hiding or lying about it, even the strictest of parents can come around. They’ll see you’re being genuine about what you want to do. It is scary, so I don’t blame my parents. Once they started seeing how successful I was getting, they eventually came around.
What advice would you give to other women who want to pursue something in the creative field but may be hesitant because it is male-dominated?
I think the first and hardest step is always to get started. So make that account. Take that picture. Edit it. Post it. Do not shy away from starting up. Message people who have inspired you saying, “Hey, you inspire me,” because that smallest message of letting them know how you feel is amazing. Maybe they’ll open up to helping people by giving other creatives that opportunity.
Keep going. Keep at it. You’re going to fail; I’m still failing years later. But if you keep trying and if you keep going, you’ll eventually get there. Stay consistent. Don’t let the fact that it’s a male-dominated industry deter you. If you keep thinking about that and if you keep letting it get to you, it will. You’ll feel like you’re not good enough, and that’s not true.