Artists claim to represent the soul of a culture especially those who do portraits and documentary photography. There is no doubt their work is serious. People trust them to be their voice and stand for their problems.
Many a times people open their hearts to us, with a hope, that we would highlight their plight and plead for their rights. In portraits, people trust that either their portraits would be treated with respect.
This is a great onus, the one which requires a bit of sensitivity and responsibility.
An artist is not expected to post a picture of someone in distress and then making the poor soul, a butt of jokes on social media. Documentary photographers take pictures of homeless people, physically disables, migrants, war torn families, transgenders, poor under disgraceful conditions and miserable wrecks on the margins of society.
Would it be called a responsible behavior, if the artists themselves start ridiculing their subjects, making fun of those caught in the whirlwinds of fate?
An artist is expected to have a tender empathetic approach with an aim to draw our attention to human miseries rather than creating a theater of absurd
Similarly sometimes portrait of a lady is posted and one is shocked to read irresponsible comments even from very senior members of photographic community.
This is perturbing especially when we observe even photographer himself joining the mocking crowds and passing chorus of double entendre.
This attitude is non-serious and is totally unacceptable from senior photographers. This not only sets a bad example for the juniors but is also a clear breach of trust with subjects of our photographic art
Many a times target of these teenage bawdiness and innuendos.are educated ladies who are expected to notice these discussions on social media. I wonder what they feel about these respectable members having a good time.
I personally feel this attitude is due to lack of respect for the art itself, lack of knowledge about role of artist in community and last but not the least combined with our social attitude where a female
( especially who comes out of their house) is treated as a source of pleasure for probing eyes of males.
Archive for July, 2016
Artists claim to represent the soul of a culture especially those who do portraits and documentary photography. There is no doubt their work is serious. People trust them to be their voice and stand for their problems.
Life in a cosmopolitan city, has an attraction that one can remain faceless amidst a vast ocean of people, a luxury denied to those from villages and small towns.
Sometimes, I feel like sitting in one corner, watching the teeming life around me, whirling in endless circles . In a pensive mood, I wanna absorb buzz of humanity. The weary faces, tense looks and endless toil to bear the cross of their existence.
Their lives tend to convey a message of triumph of humanity against nature but at the same time I realize that in a blink of an eye, I as well as those around me would be no more,
This has been a fait accompli, for those millions of generations before us and would be for millions more to come after us.
For how long? No one knows.
The life seems like a conveyor belt, slowing inches us toward final destination, crushing and grinding not only individuals but civilizations mercilessly.
The contemplation, humbles me to realize fickleness of life and intrigues me to question, whether there is any method in this madness? Can we make this life more meaningful and if so why and how?
Just sitting, apparently doing nothing, it matters much more than so many hours spent in emotional deprivation in what Wallace Stegner called, “the termite life we have created.”
The art represents an outlet of expression, that is usually influenced by culture and which in turn helps to change culture. Cultural photography as an art form is important not only to preserve our values and lifestyle for our next generations but also for introduction of our society to the world at large. This genre of photography is quite popular among many amateur as well as professional photographers.
Are we doing enough? There is a need to have a look and reassess our progress with a view to make future plans.
The word culture is a broad term with multiple layers of meanings. According to Concise Oxford English Dictionary, the word, ‘Culture’ is defined in
1. The customs, institutions and achievements of a particular nation, people or group
2. The arts and other intellectual achievement regarded collectively, a refined understanding or appreciation of this
From these definitions it is obviously that culture is an extremely broad term and any art which claims to present it, must encompass every aspect of a society. This task is difficult especially for Pakistan; a multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-ethnic society rooted in one of the oldest civilizations of world.
In other genres of art, Pakistan`s artists, both visual and literary, have developed an organic vision of Pakistan`s identity, by espousing after Independence what art critic and journalist Raza Rumi terms `a new idiom of contemporary Pakistani art’ which conversed with society and critiqued what was happening in Pakistan.
Have photographers kept pace with development with other art forms? Let us have a look on what is being presented among photographic circles, in the name of culture. The trends among contemporary photographers can be summarized as follows.
Most of these images are related to rural background. Events like tent-pegging, bull races and other rural festivals are popular topics.
Even on functions organised by government organisations, similar trends are obvious. Activities related to village life are presented as representative our culture. Skilled workers from villages are given space to showcase their works in pottery, weaving and carpentry. Photographers are active in such festivals and present those pictures as their efforts to present cultural art.
There is also a trend to frequently visit different shrines and capture devotees in trance or dancing to music. Even psychedelics busy in addictions are captured and presented as examples of our Sufi traditions.
Another favorite trend is to visit northern areas and capture pictures of dancing girls of Kailash valley as examples of our culture. Such pictures are extremely popular among tourists and foreigners are advised to visit the valley if they want to have a look at our ancient civilization.
Is this approach correct or sufficient to encompass the various shades of our society which has roots in one of the most ancient civilization? Are we being biased or subjective in our approach?
Another interesting thing which is observed is absence of any serious attempt to capture customs, rituals and intellectual activities of our religious minorities. Aren’t they a part of Pakistan? Why their contributions are not considered as a part of jigsaw puzzle of Pakistan’s culture. Whenever I post such pictures, there is an objection that Non-Muslim festivals do not belong to Pakistan
Even in Architectural photography, we observe a major trend to present either modern monuments or buildings belonging to Muslim era of the history. The buildings, monuments and temples of Hindu and Sikh era are not included and presented as culture of Pakistan. Usually there is a tendency to categorize them in a separate category of ‘Heritage’. After all those eras and those people have a strong influence on what we are today as a society.
In the words of Marcus Garvey, ‘A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots’ Elie Wiese has put it more emphatically that ‘without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future’.
In her writing “On Photography”, Susan Sontag discusses concerns about the objectivity of photography. This is a highly debated subject within the photographic community. Any art form is a subjective form of representation, heavily influenced by artist’s own feelings and experiences. Photographers decide what to take a photo of, what elements to exclude and what angle to frame the photo, and these factors may reflect a particular sociological context.
For a subject like ‘culture’, it puts a great responsibility on artist to adopt an objective and careful approach. However such a free play of diversity, which would encompass ethnic, linguistic, and religious multiplicities, would destabilize the purported unity of Pakistani nationalist identity, defined and implemented from the top down.
Current approach may be because of the fact that most of urban people are actually migrants from villages and their roots in rural culture and agrarian society gives them a nostalgia to capture what they lost on coming to towns and cities.
Or it simply may be due to a trend of following others without giving it a serious thought.
On a larger scale, some people argue, that the trend is probably part of a larger confusion about what constitute ‘Ideology and culture of Pakistan’. This debate is complex and overshadowed by different social, linguistic and religious biases. May be that is the reason artists also appear to be confused or simply don’t want to think about it.
There is a need of an open discussion with an aim to redefine the question. This is important as it would have strong impact on our approach and our goals as artists and photographers.
Rapid urbanization has resulted in various issues and these must be reflected in our art. Whatever work has been done, is mostly about inner cities. There should be an attempt to present what is going on in other localities and how they are developing. There is a need to present life in small towns.There representation is minimal on art scene especially in the absence of significant local photography groups
The trend of ‘Photo walks’ has done a tremendous service to popularize social and documentary photography among amateurs but now there is time to take another step in this direction. We should define issues in our local areas and start planned organised work to highlight them. There is a need to think of more topics to explore in addition to work on street boys, trans-genders or simply going to vegetable and fruit markets.
No attempt on cultural art would be complete, unless it recognizes and gives space to all sections of society as part of a greater whole; ‘The Culture of Pakistan’. Moreover it won’t be acceptable if it is not seen rooted in its past. Only through our commitment to the human need for self-expression and to the artistic values of truth and beauty, the Pakistan’s idiom in art would continue to develop and flourish
I end my article with a quote of Mahatma Gandhi, ‘A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people’.
At that time I was strolling in Lok Virsa Islamabad with my wife. She was busy looking at different stalls and I was trying to capture regional cultures uprooted from their soil and kept in frozen, artificial form in Lok Virsa. The irony of situation became clear to me when I read the last article of the book ‘Tourist photography : – )
Well! I have browsed through the book and want to share my first impressions.
It is a small book of 26 pages, consists of different articles. Probably Umair Ghani believes in brevity being the soul of the wit. However when one reads it, one realizes that it is one of those books which needs to be chewed and digested rather than simply tasted and swallowed. It succinctly summarizes the current intellectual discussions among serious photographers with hints for future course of action as well.
A pleasant surprise was the chaste Urdu language used in the book. Even if someone is not interested in photography, the book can be read as a masterpiece of Urdu literature. It reminded me of one of our text book, Boyd’s textbook of Pathology’ which won various literary awards for its language.
Umair Ghani is one of those few photographers who have a wide exposure to art circles of the world and he is aware of art movements in other countries. At the same time, he has a feeling that (like many other fields) we are far behind the world. This has forced him to share his thoughts for improvement of those interested to pursue photography as a serious art. However he does not believe in blindly following western trends and strongly emphasized that, ‘It is important to be aware of western technology and style but in art, preference should be given to present our own local culture, its art & craft, architecture and documentation of our own day to day life’. This sounds like the voice of someone confident on the strength of one’s own culture.
His choice of title picture of ‘Migrant mother’ by Dorothea Lange is meaningful and summarizes his message. . To highlight our own issues and problems. ‘To give voice to those who have lost their voices, there is a destruction and deterioration all around in which individuals are losing their identity’. It shows for him photography is a serious and sacred mission rather than merely a pleasure and past time.
He realizes that in the absence of a proper art academy of photography, learning is haphazard and dependent upon disconnected online resources. This has resulted in a new crop of ‘young legends’ who have talent and passion but in the absence of a solid training have failed to grasp the essence of this art. There is an urgent need to groom this emerging talent but up till now organizations and group, emerging like ‘bubbles on art scene’ have not been able to provide a proper platform.
The author himself believes in art for the sake of life rather than art for the sake of art itself. In his own words, ‘work done without a mission is like a blurred image on the slate of time’. At another point he claims that ‘out of all genres of photography, documentary/ photo journalism would remain the supreme’. Well! At this point some photographers who want to enjoy art just for the sake of art without trying to search for anything serious in it, may disagree.
Those interested in other genres may feel that the book is not for them especially when reading that ‘after 100 years from now, people would be more interested to look at today’s cultural photography rather than landscapes’. His story of Alberto Korda is about the intellectual maturity of an artist when he/she redefines aesthetics and moves on from beauty of a woman to more pressing social issues. Would fashion photographers agree to it?
There are certain points at which people may differ in opinion
1. The role of photo editing has always been a contentious issue among art circles. Umair Ghani sounds like a purist but it may be due to the fact that like any documentary photographer, he is interested in truth and nothing but the truth. But what about genres like abstract art and surrealistic photography?
2. The book discusses in detail the current intellectual poverty among some groups with lack of clarity and vision about promotion of art. It also mentions some examples where the judgment in art competitions was less than ideal .This may raise criticism by some while others may take it as a confessions of an insider, claiming, ‘Look this is what we have been telling you’. However I feel that whole discussion has been carried out with precision of a surgeon. Apparently using knife to dissect the dead tissues but with a sensitive heart and an empathetic approach.
3. The first article starts with emphasizing the inner vision of a photographer, quoting Ansel Adam that; ‘you don’t take a photograph, you make a photograph’. A word of caution is needed here. This inner vision develops by years of experience, reading and looking at the work of masters of the craft. Someone may misunderstand that inner vision means a total disregard of knowledge, experience or guidance of seniors.
4. ‘Survival of photography lies in opposing painting’. This statement needs a bit of clarification, as the rules of composition and principles of design have been borrowed from painting. Does it means that the author is against the intrusion of art movements like impressionism, modernism and post-modernism in photography?
5. Quoting Alberto Korda, ‘A good picture can be made with a camera worth four dollars’ author mentions the futility of current trend of endless discussion among photographers on camera models and lens. However here again an exception should be made for those with interest in macro, wildlife and sport photography. Their trade depends upon special gadgets which don’t come cheap.
In the end, I must say that the book is a ‘must read’ for anyone who wants to know the present and future of art of photography in Pakistan. I hope that like stories of Ishfaq Ahmad, this book would also generate serious intellectual discussions among photographers. If that happens, I would say the book has been successful in creating a stir.
I started the book with the hope to find answers to some of the questions in my mind. In the end I realized that the book has raised many more questions than it has tried to answer. In a sense it is thought provoking and brain storming (or should I say a brain teaser).
Would it bring any change in our perspective? Would it be a harbinger for some ‘Tarakki pasand tehreek’(Progressive movement) in Pakistan’s photography circles? Only time will tell. Whether there are people who like Ansel Adam’s colleagues, have the courage to form a revolutionary group like ‘group f/64’ of 1930s?
Let us wait and see
I am a doctor, currently working as a professor of Medicine. For a student of science, an interest in arts looks odd. Some of my friends consider it weird, others use it as an evidence of being weak in mind or character (depending on the level of their relations with me) Some genuine well-wishers are seriously concerned about my salvation in the hereafter.
How it started? Let me think who pushed me in this deep abyss?
My introduction to photography occurred quite late. (I won’t mention my age, though by that time some impudent brats had started calling me ‘Uncle’— but that proves their poor family upbringing). In 2003 I realized the need to include pictures and graphs in my power point presentations. I planned to take pictures from books and incorporate in lectures. A point and shoot camera was bought through some one considered an ‘expert’ in these esoteric matters. That was the first time, I learned the basic anatomy of a camera.
The plan proved futile as it was quite cumbersome to take pictures and then add to my lectures. Downloading it from google looked much easier. Soon the camera was abandoned and forgotten.
Good riddance for bad rubbish
Few years passed. One day I rediscovered the camera in a cupboard as a symbol of a bygone folly. Oh! What a waste of money. But then I decided to use it and try to take pictures. After all that junk should serve some purpose.
Gradually I learned the basics from some online free courses. Downloaded few books from pirated sites, thus violating international intellectual rights and watched video tutorials. During those years, one of my connections mentioned about Mr. Umair Ghani, a Pakistani photographer whom she had met in some international conference and was quite impressed.
Through Google I was able to see his images on photo.net. After browsing through the collection I came to the conclusion,’ well! After all he is not that bad’. During this search I found his e-mail address and decided to write few lines of appreciation with a request to have a look at my images and guide.
To my surprise he not only answered, but had few words of praise for my work as well (Though I still doubt and consider them as proof of his courtesy). In the end, he advised me to concentrate on capturing our people and culture rather than still life, abstract or macrophotography
That was probably a major turning point in my approach to photography
Two other incidents had a great influence on my thinking. My father died in 2009. Then I realized that (apart from my pictures of him) we had only 3-4 pictures as a record of his more than 82 years of life. Luckily, through my snapshots, I am able to look and recall last few years of his life.
Meanwhile my mother handed a family archive of pictures. It was such a wonderful experience to know about my ancestors. Grandparents of my mother, soon after pilgrimage, with that familiar pious satisfied smile on their faces. Uncles of my parents in prime of their youth. An old brownish picture showing great-grandfather, with a falcon on his arm, standing with some British lord (trying to exude an air of importance) and a servant with a horse lurking in the background (both grinning foolishly). My own uncles, soon after their marriage, beside their petite shy brides (some of them later proved to be most ferocious aunties in the history of our family)
Then I realized the importance of photography, especially of people and cultural photography. The wisdom of Umair Ghani dawned on my personal horizon. Since then he has been my main inspiration.
So gradually photography has become a passion. All arts like literature, poetry, painting and sculpture and last but not the least, photography; are means of self-expression and self-actualization. I have learnt a lot, visited may different places. Met some unusual people. An altogether different sphere of life, and this has enriched my life. I am much wiser now (there was an urgent need for that in the first place).
I have been able to get out of the rut of patients, diseases and human misery all the time. Before that I used to feel that even a social evening would bring monotony of the same faces met in the morning with same topics discussed and fought over. Doctors ‘burn out’ rapidly but this hobby has helped a lot to remain fresh and focussed.
Art helps us to slow down, take a look around and appreciate the beauty of world. Portrait photography has helped me to detect subtle expressions of joy, misery, grief and grace under pressure. It has made me a keen observer, who is able to pay attention and decipher shades of emotions.
We are lucky to be in a phase of rapid evolution of art of photography both at national and international levels. It has become much easier to practice, learn and share this art. I have met wonderful people like Razaq Vance, Azhar Hafeez and Sami Ur Rehman who have been a source of encouragement and guidance for me. Have learnt about giants like OR Owaisi, Nayyer Reza, , Nadeem khawar, Atif Saeed and BK Bangish. I wish to see and learn from their wisdom and experience as well. Now I realize their greatness and contributions for the sake of art and for our country. There are probably many more unknown to me, as true artists tend to be shy of publicity.
This nation desperately needs heroes in every sphere of life.
They have emphasized the importance of a lifelong learning attitude. Taking photography as an art rather than just accumulation of gear.
I have not been able to visit exotic places and capture portraits of weird looking people. Basically it is due to my laziness, though I offer an excuse of professional commitments (with that look of importance on the face). As a result my photography is mostly limited to urban life around me.
Documentary/portrait photography is interesting as people respond differently to it. I have been approached many a times for a ‘glamorous photo shoot’. Despite a hidden desire, I have refrained from it as at this stage of my life I don’t want doors (and windows) of my house closed for me at the end of the day.
What irks me most is that people tend to see art through a haze of their own personal biases and convictions. Art just captures what is around us without taking sides. A picture of children sitting near a garbage dump is not an insult of Pakistan and does not need to be pushed under the carpet. Similarly capture of a ritual or festival does not threaten or ridicule a particular faith or a group.
Now few words about my failures and inferiority complex in this art. Despite all these efforts, somehow I have never been able give intellectual talk on photography. I feel lost when a learned talk about various camera models and lenses is going on. What is a photograph? How to take a good photograph? In fact I have realized that I am still as ignorant as I was on the day one
I have realized that I am just an average person, so have lowered my standards (though there was not much space for further lowering) and decided to be contended with some ordinary work. I can just envy the greats and wish………
Through this medium, I am writing my autobiography. After many years, my grandchildren or great- grand children might be able to know about ‘Life and times of Aamir Shahzad’. Some of them might shift to some other country and this pictorial record would help them to rediscover their roots. They would browse through all those albums, learn about their culture, traditions and festivals in early 21st century and exclaim with a joy
Oh! Those were the times.
To a viewer these images may appear disconnected, but for me they are part of my life. They remind me of times passed by- never to return- and of people– without whom life seemed impossible once– never to be seen again till eternity. Looking at these glimpses of my life makes me gloomy and depressed like gathering dusk in a wintry evening tends to make one melancholic.
When I am old and no longer able to take any more picture, turning the pages of these albums with a blurry vision would remind me of my life and of (by then) vanished culture.
It reminds me of verses of WB Yeats. He wrote these lines for his beloved, an Irish nationalist, Maud Gonne.
When you are old, grey and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire take down this book
And slowly read and dream of the soft looks
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep