How to become a global stock photo and other adventures in the time of the internet

In her new memoir, Durban writer Shubnum Khan shares how her face got plastered on billboards across the world, and other fascinating stories from her colourful life.

By Neha Kirpal

When Shubnum Khan signed up for a photoshoot as part of an art project in college, she didn’t imagine that her photographs would be plastered on billboards and advertisements across the world. Two years on, her smiling face had sold condos in Mumbai and Florida, drawn subscribers to dating websites, and convinced customers to buy skin-lightening creams.

When she shared the story on Twitter, it went viral in no time. It was featured by the media, and she gave many interviews about it. And thus began her unlikely adventures with fame in the time of the internet.

The Durban-based South African author and artist recently released her part memoir, part travelogue How I Accidentally Became a Global Stock Photo: And Other Strange and Wonderful Stories (Macmillan, 2021) narrating this experience and others.

Dedicated to “every girl who has ever dreamed”, the book summarises her crazy solo adventures around the world far from her family home in South Africa, and the interesting people she met along the way in her colourful life. The book makes for an engrossing read, which has the author recounting her life in vivid detail, retelling small, minute details and incidents.

Shubnum grew up in Asherville, a suburb of mostly middle-class Indians, skirting the edges of Overport, in South Africa. Being the last born of four daughters in an Indian family, Shubnum recalls that her birth was somewhat of a tragedy. “People think a woman alone is a doomed thing, but people also think a fourth daughter is a tragedy and yet I am here to tell you that despite what people think, I am the luckiest,” she writes.

Luckily, her parents loved their daughters, and growing up in a house full of sisters was a special experience. “The thing you come to realise about having sisters is that you can never lose when you have more women in your corner,” she writes. As she rightly points out, “daughters are the ones who will file your toenails, bake you a birthday cake, make your doctor’s appointment, pull out your ear hair and look after you when you’re old.”

Shubnum grew up devouring books, which enabled her to dream up stories as well as believe in magic and other extraordinary things. A recurring theme through most of her life is that of never fitting in. After finishing high school, she started a degree in architecture which she soon left and started a fine arts degree in another city.

When that didn’t work out, she started a visual arts degree through distance learning but left that after a year too. Finally, she decided to do an English and media studies degree. It led her to a creative writing course which helped begin her first novel.

With a Master’s degree in English, Shubnum has been selected for a number of literary fellowships, including the Octavia Butler Fellowship at Jack Jones Literary Arts and the Mellon Fellowship at Stellenbosch University. Her first novel, Onion Tears, was shortlisted for the Penguin Prize for African Writing and the University of Johannesburg Debut Prize for Writing in English.

In this autobiographical book, Shubnum highlights her experience of what it means to be a single Muslim woman in the modern world. While visiting Canada for a family wedding, she was interrogated unfairly as a Muslim by the visa officer – treated like a criminal from the time she stepped into the embassy. Thus, she describes her first time traveling to a First World country as a startling introduction to the hierarchy of her position in the world as an African, a Muslim and a young woman. 

Shubnum Khan

In her early 20s, she started a blog called Dew’s Views, her first foray into public writing. She wrote a post about how one could never see one’s heart even though it keeps one alive. It led her to shave off her head at the age of 22, as she wanted to see her skull. It was also a form of her personal protest of what was expected of her as a young Indian woman. “When you step off the edge, anything can happen,” she writes.

At 27, Shubnum convinced herself that she could live in a remote village in the Himalayas, where she became a volunteer who taught children at a school in Kashmir. She decided to first visit Pakistan, cross the Wagah border near Amritsar into India, drive to Jammu and then go to the Pahari area of Kashmir.

The tiny village called Premnagar was 7,500 feet above sea level and could only be reached by foot or horse and the nearest road was seven kilometres away. The experience taught her to face her fears and made her believe that everything was achingly possible.

In 2015, she was accepted to a month-long writing residency in upstate New York. Her solo travels taught her that when one took the outstretched hand of someone in need, the only person he or she really helped was themselves.

“Sometimes it takes just one magical moment to remind you of who you are. To remind you of all the things you could be and not all the things you are not. You just have to open your eyes to those moments,” she writes.

Shubnum’s photo has been used in advertisements in various countries

As she began to learn who she is, she stopped trying to fit in by changing and started trying to find where she fit in by being herself.

At the age of 30, Shubnum arrived in Shanghai for a six-month writing residency. Being alone in a strange city helped her further discover herself. During her time there, she also visited South Korea secretly. In 2018, she was accepted for a writing residency in the US. The two-week residency in Santa Fe, New Mexico, was only for women of colour. The same year, she shared a story on Twitter about how she became a pretend bride for a day along with many other girls on a rooftop in Shanghai.

The story quickly exploded online with a huge response from various people. This got Shubnum to share many of her other experiences online. Soon, a publisher approached her with the idea of collecting these stories into a book. Gradually, it became a chronicle of being brave and choosing one’s own path.

Along the way, Shubnum also shares her ideas and fears as a writer – facing oneself. “We must tell our stories, we must talk about our people, our cultures and our communities, especially when we have not been given the opportunity before. There is power in doing these things. It can cause ripples far across the ocean even if we may not know it,” she writes.

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