Photography in changing social sensibilities

Posted: October 22, 2016 in Ramblings of an artist


Photography, like all creative arts represents an outlet of personal expression. The art per se is non-judgmental and a representation of a particular time. Famous street photographer Eric Kim says, ‘as a photographer, I see myself as a sociologist with a camera as my research tool to observe and record the people and world around me’

Many a time’s vision of a creative artist may be contrary to the existing social ethos. Ideas which aspire for a change in social narratives or the ones which tend to promote a global humanism as compared to a parochial view of nationalism may be viewed with scepticism. In such cases artists are under lot of pressure to conform to existing social narratives. Any deviation or open challenge may be severely censured.

The key elements of social narrative promoted in Pakistan in the last few decades are based on a  puritanical concept of religion and nationalism which at times tend to touch the boundaries of  xenophobia and paranoia.

In my experience of working as a photographer with interest in portrait and cultural photography, most of the people tend to assess art not for its technical or artistic values. They just wish that it should be a vehicle to promote their religious / nationalistic sentiments.


A picture showing a Hindu woman bowing before Lord Krishna is immediately objected and declared against monotheistic principles of Islam and thus worthy of being rejected as infidel practice which has nothing to do with our culture of Pakistan. This rigid attitude tends to ignore and excludes a significant percentage of our population.

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 manifestations of intellectual achievement regarded collectively.

From these definitions it is obviously that culture is an extremely broad term. This is easily understood by an artist, but general public is probably not so clear on this concept. They tend to confuse religion with culture and think Pakistan is synonymous with Islam.

According to many people any picture which depicts life style of minorities should be excluded from, ‘culture of Pakistan.  They can’t understand that in a multi-cultural and multi-racial society like our country, life style of all these minorities are actually sub units of a bigger whole. A passion to promote a monolithic society abhors beauty of a cultural diversity.


This intolerance is sometimes even extended to picture showing practices of Muslim sects with different views. This shows art and other manifestations of intellectual achievements are being seen through a tunnel vision of religious and sectarian faiths.

Shuttle cocks

In its endeavor to be a social documentary, art tends be objective and non-committal.  Viewers may interpret in different ways depending upon their own set of beliefs and social mores. A picture of women in shuttle cock veils shopping in posh markets may be seen as an indicator of changing social trends where old is rubbing shoulders with the new. However, the image was interpreted as a deliberate attempt to ridicule what viewers thought was our cultural traditions.


Another picture where a woman was seen carrying a 20 Kg sack on her head while in a shuttlecock veil, became controversial. For some it was a wonderful picture showing slice of a culture depicting drudgery of life of ordinary women and their hardships. However some others objected and labelled it as an insult of our society with potential to tarnish its softer image. They thought such pictures must not be displayed on social media as they might project us as a backward society which treats its women so harshly.


In one of my picture, an elderly bearded owner of a boutique was shown trying to cover his face to avoid the offence of being photographed while standing with mannequins wearing sleeveless low neck dress. For some it is a social satire on our confused moral and religious standards. They view it as a serious photography where it becomes more than an art. It achieves the status of a social documentary, a record of our time and its trends.

Umair Ghani commented on this image, ‘Commerce and Art play a tug of war with Faith and provoke greater conflicts and challenges for those who consciously focus on such concerns. These trends affect everyday life and our understanding of it. Some societies have learnt to sustain that shock; others are too fragile to come to terms with this recent awareness’

However the same picture was severely criticized as an intrusion on someone’s personal space and violation of personal belief.  Yet some others critics labelled it as putting religious class under ridicule, projecting them as hypocrites. A conspiracy of so called modern social society where anything related to religion becomes a butt of jokes for so called liberals.


Is documentary photography a violation of privacy? Can anyone claim privacy in a public place?  Laws vary in different countries.  Photography, as always, has lot of grey areas, where ethical concerns are involved. Is showing social hypocrisy in a photograph is a breach of social rights?


The obsession with a projection of a soft progressive image of Pakistan is so overwhelming that any image of poverty or human misery is advised to be pushed under the carpet and pretend that as if it never existed at all.


Similarly naked children sitting on the trash, addicts lying on the pavements, or a physically disabled persons begging around the market are thought embarrassing for national prestige.  However it is a reality of our lives as much as hunger and war.




Such festering social wounds can be healed only when we admit and accept their existence. A denial is nothing but a self-delusion.


Art should not be used for promotion of what state consider as national interests. Rather it should aspire to uphold higher values of humanism irrespective of caste, creed language and race. Recent unrest in Kashmir after killing of Burhan Muzaffer Wani by Indian forces should be seen in the light of human tragedy rather than for point scoring by respective governments.

A sudden popping up of huge posters of Burhan Wani is unusual and would definitely catch the attention of a documentary photographer. He would be curious to know the reasons behind this promotion and attempt to shape a new cult figure and the possible future implications for this policy.  The picture though posted without a personal comment became a cause for heart burn and resulted in outburst of anger and abuse from my followers across the border. Both sides showing indignation, with complains that I was being partial.

These are issues which need to be debated. In the absence of a photography magazine and lack of interest in serious discussions by photography groups, we lack a platform to discuss photography as an art form with an aim to educate and enlighten not only the public but photographers as well with an ultimate aim to develop a tolerant and humane society.


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