Shehzad Noorani

Posted: February 28, 2017 in Interviews

 

(Credit for Shehzad’portrait -Chris Niles)

Shehzad Noorani is one of the most important documentary photographer of our times. It is an honor for me that despite his multiple commitments, he has been kind to spare time to answer these questions.

In the words of Dr. Shahidul Alam, founder Drik Picture Agency & Pathshala South Asian Media Academy,

‘ Nooran i’s life has shaped much of what he photographs. A child worker who got caught raiding a neighbor’s kitchen for food, is an unlikely candidate for a successful career in photography. But statistics are very poor at predicting life as it unfolds. A need to feed his family led Shehzad to ensure a continuous flow of money. This he did with consummate ease by being one of those rare photographers who always deliver on time, to specification and to highly exacting standards. This thorough professional however, is also a skilled artist, who has combined his human skills with a wonderful eye that finds things other eyes might have missed. It is the subaltern that Shehzad has photographed, but not through pitiful eyes, or some romantic notion of charity, but through a genuine understanding of what being poor is. His tenacity, his ability to push himself and his unusual duality between the disciplined professional and the gifted artist, makes him special’

 

 

Noorun Nehar (15 years old) looks through a curtain hole of a battery-recycling workshop. Like thousands of other women and children, she too survives by recycling waste on the bank of Buriganga. She is only 15 years and has been breaking batteries since last three year. She earns Taka 300/week (about $4)
Godhara Ghat on the bank of Buriganga River. Dhaka. Bangladesh.

 

  1. How would you briefly describe yourself as a person?

Content and grateful for life and opportunities I have had. I believe I got a bit more than I deserved on both ends of life, good and bad, and do think both has served me well.

 

Portrait of an old woman in a village in Punjab province in Pakistan.
As a photographer who likes to take pictures of people, I have always been fascinated with wrinkles on people’s face. To me, each line and dimple tells a thousand tales. I met her during an assignment following events after 9/11, while waiting for Afghan borders to open up, in a small village in Pubjab. Even though momentarily, I clearly remember how her kindness and sincere smile completely calmed my otherwise tangled nerves. After that I travelled back and forth between Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq and I guess bear a lot of burden psychologically. I had no idea what PTSD meant before those travels, but I did find out. This woman, simply known as Mai, old woman, mother, in only few moments I spent with her, gave me enormous courage to handle what followed.

 

  1. Describe your photographic odyssey. How it started and where do you find yourself now?

I was born in Bangladesh in 1966, but had to migrate to Pakistan with my family in 1974. I was 8 years old then. We settled in Karachi. For the first few years my father could not join us, and my mother raised me along with my 5 siblings. Those were hard times for us as we had lost everything we had in the process of migration and we were extremely poor.

n Karachi, I attended a public school with no furniture in the classrooms. I used to tie a string (nara) to tie down 2-size larger uniform pants. After completing grade 5 I had to start working in a garment factory as a laborer to be able to pay for better schooling. I managed to earn enough through these jobs during vacations and as an office-boy during school days to afford a private school for myself and my younger siblings.

My photography career started in grade 7 when one of my teachers asked me if I could take pictures? To please him, I lied and said I could. I only realized my blunder when he handed me a Yashica Electro 35, a modern version of Leica-like rangefinder camera. That thing, with all the dials and buttons, just didn’t made sense. Somehow I managed to take pictures that were focused and decently composed. When my teacher appreciated my work, I muttered up courage and told him about my lie. Instead of getting mad at me, he was actually impressed and said I must have some kind of a natural talent. After that he started asking me to take pictures every time there was an event at the school. Eventually the entire community found out and I started getting invitations to shoot birthdays and weddings. Same teacher eventually helped me buy my own SLR. I become popular in my neighborhood.

My big break came when a professional photographer offered me to work with him at The Aga Khan University. I got opportunity to work with public health wing of the university that gave  me a chance to visit slums to photograph research projects. It was my introduction to documentary photography, without realizing of its importance for my future career. .

In 1988, after spending 12 years in Karachi, I moved back to Dhaka. I started with a humble beginning, by borrowing 100 Taka to buy a film for my first assignment in Dhaka. It was to shoot a party in a restaurant. I got paid 35 Taka per picture, so 700 Taka for 20 pictures. Within one year I started getting work from many NGOs in Dhaka. It all changed when, a UNICEF Communication person saw my work at a NGO exhibition and offered to work for them for 2500 Takaper day,  (USD 100 ). That was a huge amount, equal to my father’s one-month salary. One thing led to another, and now, about 27 years later, I have covered hundreds stories in over 60 countries around the world.

Today I find myself at a crossroad in life where I feel I couldn’t ask for more. Going forward I have lots of possibilities ahead of me and I am excited. I wish to focus more and more on learning and find opportunities to do meaningful personal work that may be completely different from things I have done in the past. I want to look back, reflect, go through my archive, publish and write.

 

A young girl sits on broken wall inside an informal glue factory where workers process waste leathers to make glue in Hazaribagh area near Buriganga river in Dhaka.
Most industries based in urban area in Bangladesh pollute environment but leather tanneries probably do the worst damage. Hazaribagh, Dhaka’s biggest leather processing industrial zone, is right in the middle of one of the most densely populated residential area.

 

3. How would you describe your social vision?

Belief in social, economical and gender , regardless of racial or religious differences. Maybe that is too much to hope for in the world we live in today.

 

Munni (9 years old) collects drinking water from a communal hand pump in her slum on the bank of river Buriganga in Old Dhaka.
Like thousands of women and children, she too survives on resources from Buriganga. To support her family, she scavenges for metal on a dumpsite on the bank of river. She has three sisters and one brother. Her father died recently in a boat accident. Her mother works six days a week and earns Taka 400 /week ($7).
Munni’s mother Sofia Begum said, “Only I know how I manage to feed my children. Often just to feed them plain rice with salt and onion, I have to borrow money from my neighbours. School? Education is not for poor people like us.”
Buriganga River. Dhaka. Bangladesh.

 

  1. Most of your work is based on underprivileged people. Is it a deliberate decision to focus on children of lesser God?

Yes it is deliberate. I photograph where I was in the past. It’s where I am most comfortable. I detest and dislike the class I have become a part of myself, and take every opportunity to get away from it.

 

Munni (9 years old) cooks in a communal kitchen in her slum on the bank of river Buriganga in Old Dhaka.
Like thousands of women and children, she too survives on resources from Buriganga. To support her family, she scavenges for metal on a dumpsite on the bank of river. She has three sisters and one brother. Her father died recently in a boat accident. Her mother works six days a week and earns Taka 400 /week ($7).
Munni’s mother Sofia Begum said, “Only I know how I manage to feed my children. Often just to feed them plain rice with salt and onion, I have to borrow money from my neighbours. School? Education is not for poor people like us.”

 

  1. You have made a name at international level. How were you able to achieve this? Can you share your struggle and secrets of success?

Accident, help from a number of people – mostly strangers, good luck, hard work and professional attitude.

Secret of success – I don’t think it’s a secret. Hard work, careful planning, recognizing one’s shortcomings and doing something about it pays off eventually. Short cuts don’t work. How many people do you know who actually won a million dollars lottery?  I don’t know any.

 

Munni (9 years old), searches for metal in a pile of garbage on the bank of river. Like thousands of women and children, she too survives on resources from Buriganga, She has three sisters and one brother. Her father died recently in a boat accident. Her mother works six days a week and earns Taka 400 /week ($7).
Munni’s mother Sofia Begum said, “Only I know how I manage to feed my children. Often just to feed them plain rice with salt and onion, I have to borrow money from my neighbours. School? Education is not for poor people like us.”
Buriganga River. Dhaka. Bangladesh.

 

  1. Where do you see contemporary Bangladesh’s photographers compared to international scenario?

I don’t know or understand enough to have an authentic opinion. Recently I attended a workshop on Photo Bookmaking through Chobi Mela organized by Pathshala, South Asian Institute of Photography. All other participants were much younger and I was amazed to see their creativity, their dedication as well as their ability to conceptualize. I am fifty years old, and have been working as a photographer for over 30 years. I have certainly been very successful, however, at the same time, I feel for a long time I have focused on just one thing,from a particular angle.

Our young generation is lucky to have access access to great number of educational opportunities through several world class photography institutions. Moreover, with modern technology, they are exposed to the work of world classed photographers; making them extremely aware and diverse.

I think contemporary Bangladeshi photographers, for example, Anik Rahman, GMB Akash, Khaled Hasan, Munem Wasif, Sarkar Protick, Shahria Sharmin and countless others are some of the finest in the world. Many of them have won prestigious international awards, have been exhibited and published all over the world.

 

A homeless Aboriginal man walks by a graffiti wall on a construction site near the Carnegie Hall, a community centre and library that caters to homeless and poor on the Hasting Street in Vancouver Downtown East Side.
In recent years, the area has seen condominiums move in and anti-gentrification activists allege the new developments have pushed out the city’s poorest residents.

 

  1. What is the reason for your preference for monochrome pictures as compared to colored?

You may have came to this conclusion because of my work Daughters of Darkness, which is most well known, but in reality, I have no such preferences. I choose either colour or black & white depending on the demand of the story. I must say, I love black & white, especially film, because of grains and textures. There are hundreds of software that can convert your digital raw files to give similar textures, yet, prints from film still holds a special place for me.

 

Both smiling, a commercial sex worker kisses another on the cheek, an uncommon public display of affection in Bangladesh. Kandupatti Brothel. Dhaka.

 

Taking shelter from the rain under an awning, a young girl enjoying a rare moment of intimacy with one of her regular client on the roof of Kandupatti brothel in Dhaka.

 

  1. From whom you have been most impressed in photography? Do you still keep learning from the work of masters or do you feel they hinder and blunt your innate personal vision?

I learn from anything that moves. Yes, early documentary photographers have influenced me. My favourites are Alfred Stieglitz, Don McCullin, Henry Cartier Bresson, and many others. No, I don’t think they hinder or blunt my vision, instead they just inspire me. Due to explosion of information and easier access through internet, I find myself at a loss. So much is happening, it’s hard to keep up. There are way too many new works, new ways of doing things, and one has to keep an open mind and try to absorb.

 

A young commercial sex worker wait for clients in Marwari Mandir brothel in the city of Jessore, an important town near the Indian border. There are three brothels in Jessore that serve as crucial link in trafficking of women and children to Indian brothels across the border.

 

  1. Do you feel photography influences one’s personality as literature and other genres of art do? How it has changed your own personality and world view? How photography enriched you as a person? 

It’s a complex question. I think photography as a medium is vast and it depends on genre within that medium, i.e. art photography, abstract, documentary, landscape, wild life, etc, and often these genres overlaps. Again, depending on specific genre, they can certainly have an impact on people as strong as art and literature.

One has to separate viewing and experiencing images from the process of creating them. I do see lot of photographic work and enjoy them, but for me, greater influence comes from not only viewing them, but the process of creating images. I am a documentary photographer and my work takes me out of my home, to the real world. I see and experience how people live, I experience and learn about real people, real lives, their struggles and their extraordinary strengths. If that cannot influence or change you as a person, what else would?

My work involves travelling to far and remote places, and witness lives and cultures drastically different from each other, often in a very short span of time. Sometimes within one single day, I am with a commercial sex worker as well as prime minister of a country. I may be in a slum, and few hours later, I may be at a palace. Imagine the diversity of exposure from haves and have not’s, to one’s opportunity to learn the vast differences between people, their circumstances, privileges or lack of it.  How can that not change, impact and enrich a person?

 

Looking through a window in her house, Florence laughs in a village on the outskirts of the city of Masaka in Central Uganda.
Florence is a joyful young girl and her elder sister, Rose was very protective. She said, ‘I have five younger siblings. I am very tough with them. I don’t want them to fool around, particularly Florence. She is only 16, but beautiful. She needs to be careful. Men are liars, all of them, yes even my brothers.’ Rose happily translated everything for her grandmother. While walking back from the field, she also pointed out the graves of her parents, the two children Rose had lost to AIDS.

 

10. What is your photography routine? How much time you spend in it and how you are able to manage it? Do you work randomly or in planned way with a project in mind?

I am a freelance photographer. There are two sides to my work; Assignments and Personal Work.

Assignments are way I finance my life, cost of living, child’s education, as well my personal work and it takes up majority of my time.

However, much I want to do it, personal works are rare, because for me, it requires many things to be in place, including enough uninterrupted time and finances. It works differently for different people. Some people do personal work in between other things, family responsibilities, professional work, etc. For me, it takes me a lot of time to even begin personal work, sometimes years. Obviously, one is always distracted, and that too is important. For me, inspiration, ideas and concepts for personal work has to be organic, has to come from within, often from anger and frustration of how things are around me and in the world, and those ideas and concept gets solidify through readings, by seeing work of others, even those that may not be strictly photography.

Because work cannot be guaranteed accordingly to my needs and desires. Sometimes I sit for months without work, not knowing whether there may be work tomorrow, sometimes I get three assignment requests for same week and for exactly same times, but by three different clients in three different countries. One has to choose one and drop two. It is a reality of being a freelance and cannot be helped.

Whether it’s personal work or assignment, I cannot work randomly and everything has to be planned, however, until I am on the ground, things constantly change and I have to adjust accordingly.

I have a strict workflow, which includes shootings early morning till sunset, and afterwards, once I return, I have to finish editing day’s shoot before I can go to sleep. Finally when a week, two weeks, or a month long assignment ends, I take a break, complete captions and post process for complete body of work before moving on to next project.

 

A child stand with Dinka men with AK-47 riffles at Wunbel cattle camp in Thiat. Arms are plentiful in war-ragged Southern Sudan. Many ordinary men, especially in the cattle camps, carry guns for protecting their cattle that plays a central part in their economic, social, religious and esthetical life.

 

11. What do you think are the benefits of social media in promotion of today’s world? Lately you have not been very active on social media.

For me, social media is exactly that, ‘social media’. This is where you connect socially with people you personally know, as well as thousands of others you don’t. Social media like Face book, Twitter, and Instagram are useful for promotion, but I think the fact that millions of people use them, have advantage as well as disadvantage. While new, unique and useful ideas are generated on social media, they also get buried under enormous amount of garbage that we generate.

My personal lack of activity on social media is the indication that I may not have anything substantial to share. I am usually careful about what I post. I wait till I have something meaningful to share.  Lately, I have been thinking hard about quitting media like Face book. I truly appreciate many of my friends who have decided to stay away from it. Perhaps I will do the same soon.

 

Constance Bwanali (29) baths Chisomo, her 5 years old son, in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi.
She got married at 18. After the birth of her third child, her husband went to South Africa for work and never came back. She realized she had to find a way to support her children. She learned and started knitting for people in her neighbourhood. Depending on work, she earns between about 10,000 Kwacha, about $20/ month.
She said, “I work hard but I just cannot earn enough to support my children properly. I want my children to have good education. It’s hard to come up with money to pay for their education.”
“What if my husband comes back? I think I will accept him back, but I will make sure he takes HIV test first”

 

12. Do you think photography can help promote tolerance and human value in our lives? Do you feel you have been able to make a difference with your work?

I think there is a misconception about photography that it’s a tool to tell the truth, and in today’s digital world, it is becoming increasingly clear that it is not necessarily so. It is certainly a tool to communicate, but exactly what, depends on person behind the camera, his editor or client.

Photography can certainly help promote tolerance and human-values, etc, but it can also be used, and being used to do exactly opposite as well.

Now to your second question, whether I feel I have been able to make a difference. Question really is whether I want to do that. I feel photographers’ belief that they can use photography to tell the truth, and bring change; is a bit over stressed and exaggerated.

I take pictures as an extension of seeing, and in the process I record what is in front of me. What is in front of me depends of what I WANT to see. The process of editing, meaning including and excluding, begins even before I raise camera to my eyes. I may choose things and people in front of me because of how they look like, what kind of light falls onto them, what is behind and in front of them, whether it is too distracting, and thousands of other reasons, and often all of that happens unconsciously, but it does happens.

Once I am done shooting, I edit and reduce. At least 70-80% is edited out. In 10 days shoot I may shoot 5,000, that is reduced to may be 1,000. When that selection reaches an editor’s desk, images are once again reduced to may be 20, or 5, sometimes even 2 or 1. How is that truth? Certainly not the whole truth, thus NOT truth at all.

I do not live in the false perception of telling The Truth, I don’t even try. I document things as honestly as I can, but I know very well, that in the end, it is only, at best, my vision, my opinion. Nothing more than that.

 

A girl laughs playfully laughs while drinking water at a water point in Adone village of Ta Oi district, Saravane province, Lao PDR.
Adone is an exceptionally clean village. Most families have access to sanitary latrines and clean drinking water.

 

13. What are your current projects in photography?

As I said, I am born in Bangladesh. Even though due to family’s migrations, I have spent a lot of time away from Bangladesh, I still feel very connected to the land. Bangladesh has given me a lot, and I have a strong urge to try to give something back. In last two years I have been in Bangladesh, I have taken every possible opportunity to do exactly that through presentations, talks, and workshops.

I have little time left before I head back to Canada. Lots of ideas and little time in hands. I am not sure how much I will be able to achieve, but I am trying. Lets see. I will certainly share soon.

 

Bare feet on a rainy day, a man pulls passengers through slippery streets of Kolkata on his hand-pulled rickshaw.

 

14. Any other lesson/advice you would like to give to an aspiring photographer.

No. I don’t think I am in a place to advise anyone anything. I am constantly surprised by how new-generation of photographers and artists us pushing the boundaries of what is possible. If anything, I can learn from them and take some advice on how to get out of traditional and conservative mind set.

 

While Zeena Ali hides her face, Zaman Mohammed (12 years old) looks through a torn blanket that has replaced the door that used to be here before looting of Al Rahma Center for Abandon Street Children. Along with many other citizens of Iraq, children at the Al Rahma Orphanage too paid a heavy toll for coalition attack on Iraq. Zaman, along with many other girls, ran away from the orphanage after it was attacked by looters just after the war broke out. She took refuge in the streets near the Palestine Hotel in the downtown Baghdad. She spent many days in the streets and survived by begging. When she found out that orphanage is up and running again, she returned. However, now she regrets her decision as it is in the control of Hauza, the religious seminary. They are very strict and beside other restrictions, also force children to wear Hijab (a piece of cloth to cover head and hair).

 

Shehnaz (3 years old) sits on the window of battery recycling workshop. She cleans carbon rods that come out of the center of D-size dry cell batteries, in a battery recycling workshop in Ayena Ghat by River Buriganga on the outskirts of Dhaka. Her mother Noor Syeda Begum (19 years old) also works in same workshop. They recently migrated to Dhaka from village Lohali in Potwakhali Upazila (province). Shehnaz’s father Rahman is a boatman, but he does not have any boat. He works as a day labourer. Sometimes there is work for him and sometimes there is nothing. He managed to get work for only 6 days in September 2004 due to heavy rain. Both Shehnaz and her mother Noor Syeda Begum has to work to supplement family’s income to assure survival.

 

A woman holds her child, blackened by carbon dust. His nose bleeds due to infections caused by exposure to dust and pollution during play in the workshop in Korar Ghat by on the outskirts of Dhaka. Many women bring their children along so they can look after them while working. The environment in and around the workshop is full of carbon dust and other waste. Children play until they are tired and ready to sleep. Most children have chest and eyes infection. Environment is so polluted, most children suffers from one or the other kind of infections all the time.

 

In 2009 in Bangladesh, 11-year-old Rozina runs to her house in Islampur Village, in Kurigram District. She is returning from a night of fishing with her father and brother. Her family moved recently from the northern town of Bogra, where her father supported the family by selling vegetables, and Rozina and her brother attended school. Her father thought his business would fare better in Islampur, so he borrowed money to move the family and build a house. But the community in Islampur was too poor to purchase vegetables, and the business collapsed. The family can no longer afford schooling. Rozina’s brother and father now fish every day, and Rozina walks several miles twice a day to deliver meals to them. Her parents are concerned about earning enough to repay their debts and to afford a dowry for their eldest daughter.

 

A young Afghan girl child reads from a textbook in Dasht-e-Barchi neighbourhood in Kabul. After several years of Taliban rule that prevented women from getting any education, girls are finally able to return to schools.
This home-based school that serves 800 students in three shifts by 15 teachers, lacks window-panes, heat, furniture, carpets and lights. The teachers are not paid and many have no professional training. With separate classrooms for girls and boys, the school is 1 of 95 run by the local NGO Sorvach. Afghanistan.

 

Those who are interested may follow his regular contributions on the following links

https://www.facebook.com/shehzad.noorani.1

https://www.flickr.com/photos/81504640@N00/

Freedom of creation

Posted: December 11, 2016 in Ramblings of an artist

Recently in one of photography groups of Pakistan an interesting debate started when a picture showing few poor children was considered embarrassing by group administrators. The picture was deemed to project against national interest with a risk of creating negative image of Pakistan.

Group administrator sought opinion of senior photographers before decision to deleted the picture.

This issues repeatedly creeps up in groups and art circles and poses challenges to freedom of expression and the limits of liberty given to artists in a society obsessed with an idea of its image and how it is being perceived by the world at large.

I feel art tries to depict reality (whatever it is) and its vision is global rather than parochial. It addresses humanity rather than to a particular tribe or a nation. If a picture shows human misery and poverty, it means human society has still a lot of achieve. Still there are issues to deal, people to help and a long distance to the goal where we are able to provide a descent living to our brethren.

Banning such art (or books) is like gagging the voice of conscience and living in a world of self-delusion.

No one is going to look down at Pakistan just because we have few poor people.

Though we are ridiculed when our leaders are listed on top of corrupt politicians of the world. We are viewed with suspicion and hatred when terrorist are reported to have direct or indirect links to Pakistan. Reports of maltreatment to minorities tarnish our image, painting us as a nation of religious bigots and intolerant.

I think we should not add another feather to this reputation by banning an artist for showing few ugly spots on the face of our society. Such situations do occur when a book or a piece of art is deemed inimical to what authorities consider as national interest or religious dogmas.

History is replete with such examples where art was banned and books burned as they were perceived to challenge national narratives or religious edicts. Can truth be suppressed by denying the right of independent thinking or freedom of creative expressions?

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Saraya Cortaville

Posted: November 2, 2016 in Interviews

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Saraya Cortaville is an award winning portrait and social documentary photographer based in London. She has received two fellowships (one of only two women in the UK to have achieved this) one for studio portraiture and most recently social documentary for a project she completed in 2015 whilst living in Africa. She was awarded the Peter Grugeon award for the best fellowship portfolio of 2015, and a gold award in Visual Arts in the professional photography awards 2016. Saraya’s passion for travel and people has pushed her career into a more adventurous phase and she has recently lived and worked abroad for various international NGO’s documenting social issues in countries as far as Tanzania and Nepal. Saraya skilfully manages to draw out her subjects emotions and feelings, in a sensitive and empathetic nature, her portraits are an observation and moment of connection, between two people, rather than photographer, subject. When not abroad Saraya shoots primarily location portraiture specialising in children and documentary weddings.

Her website is

www.childrensportraitslondon.com

Her fan page on Facebook is

https://www.facebook.com/saraya.cortaville

She is also on instagram

@sarayatravel

Following discussion with her would help you to understand her vision about art of photography

  1. How would you describe yourself briefly (including your equipment and editing program)?

I have been a photographer for 12 years now, I started out as an assistant in a commercial studio, and then migrated into portrait photography from there!

For many years I was a studio photographer, I loved the control of the light, but after 9 years I was starting to get a little bit bored and needed a boost to inspire and motivate me again.

Most recently I have changed my career, I now shoot all of my portraits on location in and around London. I shoot weddings and I very much enjoy shooting for various NGO’s internationally.  I love the freedom of not being tied to a studio, each day is so totally different for me, and I just love the unpredictability of this, as it keeps me constantly learning and inspired to try new things with my imagery.

I enjoy speaking about my work abroad and helping to inspire and educate aspiring photographers.

I have 2 fellowships, from the British Institute of Photographers, the first in portraiture, and the most recent in social documentary, for a collection of images I shot whilst living in Tanzania for four months in 2015. (This fellowship was awarded the best Fellowship of 2015)

I am a Fuji X photographer..

My kit is A Fuji X-T2, 16-55, f2.8 mm Lens, 50-140, f2.8 lens, 90mm, f2 prime.

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  1. Describe your photographic vision in a few words.

See the beauty in people of all walks of life.

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  1. Do you think a formal training in principles of art and elements of composition are as necessary for a photographer as for a painter? How did you learn this art? From books, academy or just from senior photographers?

I am not a particularly technically minded photographer, as for me the most important skill of being a portrait photographer, is the relationship, and the connection with the subject. To get the best expressions for me is key to strong, emotive portraiture.

I did do some formal training; I have a degree in Typography and graphic communication, which has been the strong foundation to my style of imagery. I see colours, shapes and compositional elements as an important aspect of my work.

In my mind all of the best photographers in the world are constantly learning and honing their style. So for me I try to develop and learn endlessly.

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  1. Art has been influenced by various art movements originating from philosophy and literature. Do you find similar influences in photography as well?

For my photography, I am always inspired by the country that I am in! This can include their philosophy and culture also.

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  1. What type of art movement is currently in vogue? Who are the most prominent exponents of that trend?

For me I have seen a real resurgence of street photography in recent years. It is a hard medium to succeed at, and in my mind many do not. For me one of the most successful is Jonas Rask from Denmark, I love the way he sees shapes and graphic elements in his imagery.

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  1. Have you been influenced by any literary figures in shaping up your photographic vision. How and what type of influence you received from them?

Most of my photographic vision has been inspired from other imagery that I have seen. As photography is such an emotive and visual medium for me its all about the storytelling of the images that are strong.

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  1. Why are you interested in portraits rather than other genres of photography?

I really like the connection that the photographer has with the subject, I love the interaction and the trust that the subject is giving the photographer, it is a real privilege to be able to do this.

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  1. What is your main preference, coloured or black and white? Explain the reasons of your preference.

I think that it really depends on the specific image, when travelling I will mostly shoot colour images, especially with the countries that I have visited recently, Nepal, India and Thailand being just full of such beautiful vibrant colours it would not seem fair to represent these in black and white.

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  1. From whom you have been most impressed in photography? Do you still keep learning from the work of masters or do you feel they hinder and blunt your innate personal vision?

I am always looking for inspiration, and it can come from anywhere, I love visiting exhibitions of art and photography and of all genres can add to my personal work as a photographer.

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  1. Do you feel photography influences one’s personality as literature and other genres of art do? How it has changed your own personality and world view.

I think that it has made me patient, and more observant of the world around me. I tend to be able to read people and their body language very well, this is hugely useful when taking images of people of different culture, where you have to communicate non verbally a lot of the time.

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  1. Can you explain your interest in culture of different civilization rather than capturing your own surroundings?

I just love visiting all different cultures, for me I just love to learn about how different people live. I find it really interesting.

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  1. What is your photography routine? How much time you spend in it and how you are able to manage it with your busy professional life?

My full working week is based around Photography, I work from home, which is great, but I have to be very disciplined.

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  1. What do you think are the benefits of social media in promotion of today’s artist? There is a frequent complaint that most of the celebrities are not personally present on media. Their publicity managers keep them alive on social media. How you can manage so much time on social media?

I have made some wonderful connections with other photographers on social media, and it is also a wonderful way of others having access to your work! Unfortunately is does take up a certain amount of time, but if done properly it is well worth it!

Some of my biggest and most exciting projects this year, have come from recommendations from face book or instagram.

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  1. Do you think photography can help promote tolerance and human value in our lives? Do you feel you have been able to make a difference with your work?

Absolutely! Photography is a wonderful medium for this! It’s so instant! And can give people a real insight into issues that are otherwise overlooked.

When working as a photographer for the NGO’s , my work is used to promote and record the work that they do in some of the poorest areas of the world. If this helps in some small way I think that its great!

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  1. What are your future plans in photography?

I plan to travel more often; I have a trip planned for the next week or so, where I will travel to the epicentre of the Nepali Earthquake. Here we hope to document how the rebuilding of the area is continuing a year after the tragic event.

This in an area of photography that I am extremely passionate about, getting the message to a wider audience will hopefully gain more support for the people in this area.

I also will be running various workshops and training days next year, and mentoring other photographers to try and achieve their own goals in photography.

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  1. Lastly any other lesson/advice you would like to give to an aspiring photographer’s

Be passionate about what you are shooting.

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Photography, like all creative arts represents an outlet of personal expression. The art per se is non-judgemental 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 not so clear on this concept. They tend to confuse religion with culture and Pakistan 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.

In its endeavour 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 an 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 criteria. 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 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’

However the same picture was severely criticised 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.

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, esp?

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 poor children playing in villages are thought embarrassing. 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 considers 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 reason behind this promotion and attempt to shape a new cult figure as this might have implications this society.

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 by photography groups, we lack a platform to discuss photography as an art form with an to educate and enlighten not only the public but photographers as well with an ultimate aim to develop a tolerant and humane society.

thaap

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.

janmashtami

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.

at-a-shrine

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.

shopping

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.

faith-and-the-buisness

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?

misery-and-humanity

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.

my-country

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.

lotus-flowers

addicts

tyre-race

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

burhan-wani

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.

Puzzle of life

Posted: October 10, 2016 in Ramblings of an artist

There was a time when we too, used to be considered human beings. Now this time has come when people come to have a look at us’.

A chill ran down our spine when we heard these words from the old man sitting in front of us, bitterness writ large on his mutilated face, his equally disfigured wife sitting beside him. It was a small stuffy room which felt more oppressive after his words. The walls otherwise bare of any decorations were decked with family photographs.

After a brief silence, the man said again, in a tone full of remorse,’ we are unloved. No one cares for us. Relatives are scared to visit this godforsaken place Clergy calls us accursed and warns others to avoid us if they want to avoid wrath of God’.

Only visitors we receive are people like you who come on a trip to see how we live here’.

We were numb and did not know how to respond. Our initial euphoria to visit leprosy centre seemed to be crushed under tons of humiliation. We felt ashamed as if our study visit as final year students was a beastly act which had deeply offended these lepers living in small dilapidated building far away in outskirts of Faisalabad.

Sensing our embarrassment, the wife tried to step in for our rescue. ‘The situation is not as grave. My husband is too sensitive. Please don’t mind his acerbic remarks. He otherwise has a very kind heart. We used to have a mud house in a small hamlet in Sindh when this curse struck us. We too had a caring family. The truth is that they still love us and keep on writing occasional letters’.

With a wide sweep of her stump of an arm, she pointed towards pictures on the wall. ‘Look at those pictures. This is our whole family. Whenever there is a marriage or childbirth, we are informed with a picture of newcomers. We paste them on here. These albums arranged according to family tree give us a feeling of being in touch with our loved ones. Deaths of our loved ones sadden us and in fact the whole community of lepers mourns the death’.

‘We miss them a lot. We know they love us and must have the same feelings about us. It is just that they are scared of being infected with this illness’. Then she broke out, with tears rolling round her cheeks which she tried to wipe with what used to be fingers. ‘I wish them a life full of happiness. We wish, God protect them from this illness’.

The room suddenly was thick with grief. The man averted his gaze and started looking out of window, probably trying to conceal his emotions.

All of us were quite, not knowing how to behave. Finally after an eerie silence for what seemed an eternity, we decided to slip out of room leaving the couple immersed in their misery without uttering a word of consolation for them.

It was an overcast wintry morning when we were escorted on an academic visit under guidance of our associate professor of medicine. The day had started with feelings of a break from the monotony of daily routine with a promise of sightseeing.

What we saw was beyond our expectations. In our over protected family lives, we had no idea of the extent of human wretchedness, isolation and misery. We had seen poverty and patients without limbs in our hospitals, but these lepers stumbling on their stumps of limbs, disfigured leonine faces, festering skin wounds were too much to absorb. One could just palpate an aura of gloom, dejection and loneliness pervading in the court yard.

We saw few patients who were admitted before partition. No one bothered about them when in 1947, assets were being divided. Their relatives opted for India and left them here. They felt being uprooted, not knowing where they belonged to, hoping that finally their dead bodies would be disposed according to their faiths.

This small community of sick people were allotted rooms and were allowed to do what they choose. They had small patches of land where they would grow vegetables. The life in that compound had developed a rhythm and style of its own.

Some of us had the courage to shake hands with them as well. That seemed pointless bravado at the time but the psychological lift it gave to those poor people—treating them as normal human beings instead of animals as they were used to—was incalculable

On our way back, the whole bus had an ominous hush. Everyone seemed lost in one’s own thoughts. Our teacher too was immersed in his own imaginations. After few minutes, I mustered the courage to ask him, ‘Sir! I wonder what it was. Why there is an untold misery and why we are unable to eradicate this illness and provide these wretched people an honourable living? Sometimes I wonder about the life itself. Is there a meaning to whole conundrum, we call creation’?

After a gap of few minutes, our teacher responded back, ‘No idea son. Probably it is the curse of God. May be they are bearing the cross of some unknown sins committed by their past generations. We should be thankful to God for all his grace and benevolence. That is all I know’.

This whole incidence which occurred almost 35 years back is still etched in my memory.

——————————-

All those minor details came rushing to my mind when I was on my way to lepers house Rawalpindi. Time had changed; I was now a professor of medicine and was on an academic trip with a small group of house officers. Our aim was to look at the patients with a view to being enlightened at the progress hitherto achieved against this illness.

I was not sure how my own students would behave? Would they be shocked as we were? I had shared some of those details with them in an attempt to prepare for the possible emotional shock.

On a bright spring day, we set off in a small wagon to a congested place in the heart of city. I felt a pleasant surprise when we disembarked from the wagon to see a neat building with a busy outdoor and a clean hospital at its back.

I looked for those miserable creatures of yesteryears but instead found only few patients, all with minor skin lesions and faces brimming with hope of recovery. Dr Christine Schmotzer, medical director of the facility briefed us and with a pride on her face,  mentioned that Pakistan, since 1996 has been declared a leprosy free country, first to achieve this milestone in Asia. The few people admitted were old cases who needed regular check-ups and care.

All this has been possible because of dedication to Dr Ruth Pfau and her team of German nuns who have devoted last 50 years of their lives in service of lepers of this area forsaking their own personal and family lives.

We kept on listening with a sense of unbelief. Does this world is still not devoid of those who have faith in humanism above the barriers of religion, caste, language and colours? With all this rat race of materialism, these nuns seemed other worldly.

Pious faithful, who in order to earn the paradise of God, have made this world a hell for others were understandable for us but who were these creatures and what were their motives? Was there a method in their madness?

These thoughts occupied my mind on our way back. All around me, students, equally impressed and awestruck,  kept on chattering.

Impressive——- Theses ladies are angles in human form——- We are the first in Asia——-I wish they had embraced Islam——–Can’t believe we are free of that nightmare of leprosy——-Would these ladies receive the grace of God in the hereafter? ——I never knew about this hospital though belonging to this area——–But she was graceful, isn’t it?

This incessant chatter kept on humming in the wagon and then all students turned to me. Sir! What do you think? We did not find those monsters you talked about. What is life after all? Is there an absolute truth in all this never ending circle of life and death? Would these ladies be in paradise for their service to humanity, even if they were not faithful?

I looked at their faces, curious to understand the ultimate truth,  questions pouring out in torrents, with an expectation to receive a philosophical answer from their guru.

I listened to all this with patience and after a silence of few minutes said,’ I have no answer to all your quarries. Honestly speaking I am still as clueless to solve the mystery of life as I was many decades ago.  This is all I can say about philosophy of creation. This is all I know’.

Confusion

 

 

 

’ 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