On Happiness, Entrepreneurship, and Beauty

September 17, 2014

Walking down city streets can reveal a visual cacophony of bright colors, teetering piles of products and gadgets, and shop owners hustling around it all. For Nazish Zafar, a 2013–14 AAUW International Fellow, these sites aren’t just individual stories; they’re the most interesting things to look for. Currently completing research and writing her dissertation for a doctorate in sociology from Johns Hopkins University, Zafar has traveled the world documenting the struggles and successes of urban small business owners.

She has some beautiful photos to show for it. “Rather than going to shop owners and saying, ‘Hi, I’m doing my research on blah blah blah …’ and putting everyone to sleep, including myself, I would ask, ‘Hi! Can I take your photograph for a blog?’ and then explain how it was connected to the research,” Zafar said. “The work scenes are incredibly vibrant and artistic, and it’s a joy to document them.”

The results are gorgeous and capture in stills what is so easy to miss when rushing around a city: the wondrous individuality and work that goes into each little business, from retailers and street vendors to musicians and entrepreneurs. Often owners were surprised that Zafar wanted them in the photo.

“I’ll tell them, no way, this business is nothing without you,” she said. “And it’s true. They are the vital force behind transforming raw ideas into reality, which isn’t easy.”

Through the lens of a sociologist, Zafar’s research illuminates the larger structures inevitably involved in each of these individual stories: government policies, social networks, and the urban environment. By packaging these ideas into creative, visually compelling photo essays, Zafar hopes to start a global dialogue that encompasses the places she captures: Azerbaijan, Brazil, Singapore, the United States, and beyond.

As an organization that proudly invests in women like Zafar, AAUW is pleased to showcase a few of her favorite photographs and stories.

1. A bookseller in Sao Paulo

A man sits with stacks of books behind him

The shopkeeper’s story: “I was selling books 25 years ago from a magazine stand on the street. I started renting this shop six years ago and also have a second shop down the street that my sons are helping me run. Now, people know who I am, so they bring their books to me.”

Zafar says: “This is a story of patience and persistence! For my sociology research, however, there remains a focus not just on individual strategies but on the structural conditions that enable small businesses to thrive.”

2. Songs in San Francisco

San Francisco musician

A musician’s advice: “For the men out there: Work as hard as I do, and be positive. For the women: Never let anyone tell you no. If you believe it, you can become it.”

Zafar says: “Most of us imagine a traditional brick-and-mortar store when we think of a small business, but I wanted to highlight the incredibly hard work that independent musicians invest into making a living.”

3. A “bus shop” in Baltimore

A woman stands outside her "bus shop" in Baltimore

The store’s beginnings: “I had the idea on a Tuesday and got the bus on Friday. I didn’t have time to be afraid. You know, we have so many ideas, but often you find that you’ll talk yourself out of it, or other people talk you out of it. Sometimes a good thing happens, and you just have to believe in it and make it happen.”

Zafar says: “Stacey fills her bus-shop with vintage clothes and takes her love for fashion on a journey around town!”

4. A small shop in Singapore

A small shop in Singapore

The independent’s challenge: “It’s become very difficult for small shops. Big supermarkets import in large quantity for all their chains and can make their prices lower. But here, we have personal service and trust. … But it’s still hard for a lot of shops like this to survive. The profit margin is very thin, and young people don’t want to do it.”

Zafar says: “This is my favorite photograph. I love the details, the presentation, and the organized chaos in this shop. Will you believe this stuff gets taken down and put up each day? You’ll find many shopkeepers in Singapore who have been working for about 30 to 40 years, doing very hard work to eke out a modest living. But beyond the functional need to sell, every shop reflects an intimate sense of creativity and imagination. When I printed the photo to give to Ah Liam and explained how beautiful and artistic her shop looked to me, she seemed touched. She sat down at her stool, and when I returned five minutes later, she was still looking at the photo.”

5. A mom shop (hold the pop) in Baltimore

A mom shop in Baltimore

The owner’s reflection: “This business has raised my two daughters, and that’s been the best thing about it.”

Zafar says: “Carol has run a business for 19 years, and I thought that her angle on motherhood and work might resonate with other ‘mumpreneurs’ out there.”

Nazish Zafar’s 2013–14 International Fellowship was sponsored by Maryland State Division I (1965–66) and Maryland State Division III (1985–86).



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