’ Army is the only binding force of this nation’. This statement is often repeated ad nauseum on electronic and print media. The claim never analysed or challenged is accepted as a universal truth by all and the sundry. An attempt to analyse or challenge this axiom is seen as being unpatriotic.

It may be true in current socio-political scenario. However it implies instability, a nation with no internal cohesion, just at the brink of collapse where a persistent brute military force is needed to counter centrifugal forces from disintegrating its inner fabric.

According to Webster dictionary, a nation state is defined as’ a form of political organization in which a group of people who share the same history, traditions, or language live in a particular area under one government’

From this definition, it is obvious that a true binding force for a nation is/should be geographical boundaries, a government which is perceived to be legitimate and looking for the welfare of its subjects and last but not the least a common culture, history and heritage with which people are able to identify themselves. Only then they can realize themselves a part of a greater whole with common threads to unite them to shared ideals.

It is important that all sections of society must feel an emotional attachment to it and feel their personal interest in its survival. A deficiency in this regard can’t be compensated by increasing the military might and stoking the flames of jingoism. Such a strategy creates nations not only in a continuous state of conflict against themselves, but also a risk for peace and stability of the whole world.

It must be understood clearly that a stagnant economy, fractured judicial system, serious energy crisis, rapid expansion of youth population demanding jobs, miserable education system and last but not the least extremism and religious intolerance threatening the very existence of society are the real issues.

They demand a paradigm shift from a security state to a welfare state. This situation needs strengthening the civil institutions and a viable government seen alive to the situation.

What is/should be the role of creative artists and writers in this situation?

The creative people have to play an important role to highlight the real issues and educating the masses. Instead of romanticism with a supposed glory of the past, there is a need to focus on the issues and problems of common people. A humanitarian approach, one which discards the differences of religion, sect, race and language ought to be adopted with an aim to minimize mutual friction and bigotry.

A shared history and culture needs to be projected. Ours is multicultural and multi religious society, with its roots in one of the oldest civilization, Dravidian civilization which existed about 6,000 years ago.

An artificial creation of roots which claims a historical heritage in Middle East is not only against the very logic and definition of a nation; it has proved incapable of providing sufficient cohesive force. Instead it has alienated different sections of society and promoted jingoism. Instead of a pride in being sons of this soil, it has led to a search of heroes outside this area. That is why our history books seem full of eulogy for those who attacked and plundered this area. This is nothing but an attempt of creating heroes out of dacoits.

The tilt requires a correction of facts and enlightening the public and here creative artists and writers are important to play the role of torch bearers of knowledge, tolerance and promotion of harmony.

Martin Luther King, Jr. wished, ‘ I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character’

This can’t be achieved till we are able to achieve the ideal, dreamed by George Bernard Shaw

“You’ll never have a quiet world till you knock the patriotism out of the human race.”

A stage where patriotism should no longer remain the last refuge of a scoundrel

 

“In order to be open to creativity, one must have the capacity for constructive use of solitude. One must overcome the fear of being alone.” ~Rollo May

There is a common perception that most of the artists are loners or having schizoid personalities.  Is it really so?

Some tasks are best accomplished via solitary pursuits, while others are better suited to team work. The profession of art is one of few where individual creativity is more revered than one’s aptitude for being a “team player’

Even in social life, most of artists appear to keep themselves apart, to the extent of giving an impression of being arrogant and anti-social. They seem disconnected from everyday life. This might be because their perspective of Life itself is usually vastly different, as many creative people are profound thinkers. The depths in which their minds roam at times lead them to solitude. And many of the creative people reach their creative peak when alone.

There’s a correlation between the artistically inclined and the solitary-minded, if only because artistic endeavours of many sorts require one to spend long periods of time alone and absorbed. It’s as much about the relationship between artist and society as it is about personality.

Hemingway mused that happiness in the very intelligent was a rarity. It is true that unfortunate circumstances and harsh conditions can inspire uniquely, and we like to think of artists as tortured souls. This might be because most of the creative people are sensitive with highly developed perceptions. However there are many exceptions to this rule.

I’d say the most essential character trait for success in the arts is an unshakeable work ethic—the very nature of artistic work requires introspection and meditation. This along with being highly sensitive gives an impression of being apart from trodden paths.

Loneliness

 

 

Street photography in Pakistan is a vibrant and joyous occupation for a hundred different reasons. It has face blazing criticism, occasional legal and ethical backlashes, besides stirring debates on public television and social media. Most street photography operates on the borderline between intrusion and observation. Even more problematic is the tradition of clandestine photography. The great Walker Evan took a whole series of provocative photographs with a concealed camera on New York subways.

Is street photography, an intrusion on someone’s personal space that is the question? Can anyone claim privacy in a public space? Laws vary in different countries. There is a need to be aware of laws for those interested in documentary photography involving images shot on public places.

Photography, as always, has lot of grey areas, where ethical concerns are involved. Is any image of human misery and poverty an insult to human dignity? Should we present only a happy face of society? An old man dragging a heavy load, a rag picker boy sifting through trash, do these pictures attempt to exploit human misery for self-promotion?  Is showing social hypocrisy in a photograph is a breach of social rights?

Art should not be judgemental, but it is often perceived that way. Sometimes it is the viewers who interpret an image through the haze of their own understanding and that their redemption is to put the ‘blame on the boogie’—the artist. Naked children sitting on the trash, addicts lying on the pavements, or a physically disabled persons begging around the market are reality of our lives as much as hunger and war. It is not something to be pushed under the carpet and pretend that if it does not exist in images, it does not exist at all.

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’. It reminds me of Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist, Stanley Forman and his shot ‘The soiling of old glory’. The picture stirred great emotions when it was posted. A censor on such art would seriously hamper the growth of artistic expression and its potential to create a tolerant and enlightened society.

Umair Ghani once commenting on one of my street images, ‘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’.

An elderly bearded owner of a boutique, trying to cover his face to avoid the offence of being photographed while standing with mannequins wearing sleeveless low neck dress is a social satire on our confused moral and religious criteria. Images of women covered in shuttlecock veils shopping in posh markets with explicit advertising contents show challenges presented to prevailing cultural trends in our society. Such images do not stab our cultural façade, but helps us document our bleeding wounds of social confusion and to some extent stitch and heal them. This is serious level of street photography. It is above ridicule or criticism; It is a commentary and interpretation.

Furthermore, street photography is a contested sphere in which all our collective anxieties converge. terrorism, paedophilia, intrusion and surveillance. Even an attempt to capture the culture of marginalized sections of society is seen by some as a potential threat to ideology of Pakistan with a threat of creating fissures in society.

The photography codes of ethics from the US National Press Photographers Association have some solid points and guidelines. Now is the time to address this pressing need to discuss and review those points within our own legal and cultural parameters’

Faith and the buisness

Shuttle cocks

 

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.

Knowledge

Termite life

Posted: July 30, 2016 in Ramblings of an artist

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.”

Termite life

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.

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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’.

Eid Milad un Nabi

Umair ghani

It was Sunday, 12th July 2015, when I received a call from Umair Ghani. He wanted to send the book as a complimentary copy to me. It was a pleasant surprise and an honor for me.
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.
As the name indicates, it is not about the photography itself, rather it is more about its philosophy. The intellectual aspects of photography. It is about the man behind the gun rather than the gun.
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