Photographer Faizan Ahmad had never even picked up a camera before he moved to Lahore, one of Pakistan’s largest cities, in 2013.
But the 25-year-old student made it his mission to seek out as many art and photography books as he could in between attending classes at the city’s University of Education and working in a call center.
Coincidentally, the Lahore Metrobus, Pakistan’s first Bus Rapid Transit system launched the year he arrived, allowing Ahmad to travel around the city easily and affordably.
After spending many hours hopping on and off the buses, Ahmad began chatting to his fellow passengers about their lives.
He soon became so intrigued by their stories that he decided them, taking inspiration from Brandon Stanton’s 2010 book “Humans of New York.”
When he’d saved enough money to buy his first camera, Ahmad set about photographing the commuters he encountered, as well as noting down the stories they shared with him.
His many interactions with people on the bus are showcased in his 160-page photobook “Lahore By Metro,” which was launched earlier this year.
“I was listening to people’s stories and I started taking pictures,” Ahmad tells CNN Travel.
“Most of these people were not from Lahore, and like me they were coming here for education and different things.
“One day I’m meeting someone from Islamabad, the next I’m meeting someone from the other side of the country. Some days I was meeting tourists.”
Ahmad’s travels usually began at 6 a.m, when he’d arrive at his local metro station at Ittefaq Hospital and make his way to the University of Education, Lahore on the Lower Mall.
In the book, he recounts his morning routine in great detail, describing the various types of people he’d meet, such as factory workers, school children “with their lunch boxes hanging from their shoulders” and lawyers on their way to the Lahore High Court.
As he was living in his brother’s office when he first arrived in the city, Ahmad would travel around on the bus after his classes to avoid being around when the premises were crowded.
This meant he was on the Metrobus, which covers a single route of 27 kilometers and serves 27 metro stations, at various different times of the day, and was able to get a true sense of the huge amount of passengers “from every age and walk of life” who use it every day.
The project began as a series of social media posts, but after capturing hundreds of images and stories, Ahmad realized he had enough material to produce his own photography book and began putting together “Lahore By Metro.”
While some passengers declined to be photographed, and some were uncomfortable opening up to a stranger, Ahmad says the vast majority were happy to speak to him.
“I was often surprised by how willing and honest the people were when telling their stories,” he says.
“The conversation flowed quite easily. Sometimes the stories were so long and interesting that I’d miss my station and end up traveling with them to wherever they were getting off.”
Ahmad says he felt compelled to share the stories of “ordinary” people like himself who had traveled to Lahore for bigger opportunities, as he felt their voices were missing from mainstream coverage of the city.
“It’s about people telling the truth about themselves and the truth about Pakistan,” he explains. “I use just their words rather than my own.”
“Lahore By Metro” contains a number of moving stories including that of a metro station worker who moved to Lahore after her husband divorced her, working long shifts to earn enough money to fight for custody of her three sons.
The unnamed woman’s children now live with in the city with her and she uses her wages from working at the station to support them and pay for their education.
Ahmad also shares the story of a Muslim rickshaw driver in his 40s who recalls the resistance he faced after falling in love with a Christian woman.
Although the couple struggled to make their relationship work at first, they are blissfully happy and travel on the Metrobus together.
“These stories might not be on prime time television, but they are meaningful and beautiful,” says Ahmad.
Like many of those featured in “Lahore By Metro,” which contains just under 250 stories, Ahmad had never traveled on a modern bus before arriving in Lahore.
He was accustomed to sitting on the roof of his local bus while commuting, so boarding a bus with air conditioning and automatic doors was a very new experience for him at the time.
“People were amazed that there was no conductor, air conditioning and the doors were automatic,” he says. “So It was exciting to be on the Metrobus.
“I thought, now I have space, this is a more peaceful journey so why not do a creative thing?”
Ahmad also captured sights close to metro stations, including Christmas decorations in Youhanabad, one of Lahore’s Christian areas and celebrations to mark the anniversary of the death of Sufi saint Data Ganj Baksh.
Although he’d originally secured a traditional publisher for the photobook, this arrangement fell through due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
As a result, Ahmad decided to launch a campaign on global crowdfunding platform Kickstarter in order to raise enough money to self publish 100 copies of the book, setting a target of $5,000.
“Kickstarter was a new thing for Pakistan,” he explains. “I was hoping for $6,000.”
The campaign was launched in January 2021 and Ahmad quickly reached his original target after receiving a great deal of support from locals. He then set a new target of $15,000.
At the time of writing, the crowdfunder had raised over $20,000, with Brandon Stanton, the man who helped inspire the project, among its many backers.
“I was over the moon,” says Ahmad, who is in the process of self-publishing 1,500 of his books. “I’m not sure who told Brandon, but I was so happy.”
Not only has the crowdfunding campaign exceeded his target substantially, it has also showcased Ahmad’s work to a far larger audience internationally.
“Now so many people from around the world are approaching me and asking me to speak to students,” he says. “People from Yale and Oxford are buying my book.”
The positive response to the project has been particularly rewarding for Ahmad, who has no formal photography training and took the majority of the images on his IPhone.
While growing up in Basirpur, a tiny Pakistani village around 150 kilometers from Lahore, the prospect of studying photography was something he could never seriously consider.
“It was my dream to go to art school,” he says. “But it was really expensive for me.”
Ahmad’s interest in art and photography books first began while spending time in the local government school library in Basirpur where his mother worked as a librarian.
Unfortunately allowing younger children access to the library’s resources was frowned upon, and she lost her job as a result.
He plans to use some of the extra funds raised to donate copies of the book to his village, as well as public libraries and schools in some of Pakistan’s underprivileged areas.
“I hope more young people will see my book and be inspired,” he says. “I was interviewed live on the news in Pakistan and I got so many calls from my village.
“People saw me and they said ‘now we believe you wrote a book.’ I want those people to know that someone similar to them can do it.”