I think…[y]ou can’t write about Pakistan and get to Pakistanis – it has to be the other way around. Pakistan must be approached as Pakistanis, through Pakistanis, through singular experiences, through the stories we tell ourselves. We need these stories, even if they are never written down and exist only in words over coffee or just in our heads. These are the stories that get us through the day, through the “situation,” through the concept.
Hasan Altaf, Lifes Too Short vs. Granta December 2010
My dismay with the state of current photojournalism has been repeatedly expressed here on this blog. In a number of pieces on photographer and photojournalism I have called for photographers to step away from cliches and conventions and look to produce new stories based on a fresh, creative, new set of thoughts and ideas. Some of my perspectives can be found in pieces like How To Take Photos Of Africa Or Where Intent And Ideas Collide, and Staying Faithful To The Totality Of Experience Or New Frontiers In Photography. There are longer discussions with colleagues in pieces like To See Or Hear An Haitian Once The Party Has Died Down or even the long-winded What Ails Photojournalism Part I & Part II & Part III & Part IV (Hey, I said it was long-winded!!)
For the most part these essays are self questioning discussions, as much dialogues with myself as they are discussions with peers.
Much of this dismay has been inspired by the dismally limited ways in which the country of Pakistan (where I was born and raised before leaving for the USA in 1984) has been documented and represented by the dozens of photographers and photojournalists who have worked here. Particularly since the terrible events of September 11th 2001, the representation of Pakistan has largely become trapped in angles driver by vast geo-political themes like the ‘war against terror’, the ‘hunt for Al-Qaeda’ and ‘the rise of the Taliban’. Too often and too frequently the approach taken by photographers is to concentrate on the large narratives about the country, imbuing their work that focuses on the specific, from the perspective of their all-encompassing themes to help ‘reveal’ and/or explain the country. I have always felt this to be a terribly limiting way of working in the country and have personally attempted to cut past them and get to something more unique, something more personal.
I was reminded of this struggle to find a different way of speaking of and documenting the country by a piece written by Hasan Altaf where he reviews two literary anthologies based on writing by Pakistani writers. Altaf examines and compares the Pakistan issue of Granta Magazine (I mentioned it here on this blog some weeks ago) and a recently published Pakistan literary journal Life’s Too Short that also featured works from Pakistani writers albeit of a different pedigree and status. The review, titled Lifes Too Short vs. Granta offered some lovely insights into ways in which we need to today document and speak about Pakistan – a nation that seems to be constantly teetering on the brink of disaster and yet somehow manages to muddle its way to another tomorrow. Altaf very quickly sees the main different between these two journal’s attempt to grapple with the idea of Pakistan, and Pakistani writing:
It would be oversimplifying to say that the difference between the two is that of macro and micro, capital-H History and ordinary stories. It’s more likely that the collections simply reflect their different intentions. Granta is geared to the “international market,” which in this context means, I imagine, the Western market, and that market has certain expectations from Pakistani writing. The Life’s Too Short anthology will probably not be read as much, outside of the country, and so does not have to meet those expectations.
But the main jist of his argument is the fact that he finds the works in the smaller, lesser known journal to in fact be the way forward. Admitting that the nation is beset with serious, encompassing and geo-politically relevant problems, he nevertheless reminds us that:
I don’t see how anyone writing about Pakistan now, writing anything, could fail to at least indirectly touch on the current [broader] situation; it would be like writing about Atlanta in the 1800s and never mentioning slavery, writing about Europe in the 1940s without even hinting at a war. This is our environment, now; violence is part of the fabric of our lives, more so than it was before. But a story made up of beards and bombs, with perhaps an honor killing every now and then for spice, would be an uninteresting polemic with little to say about reality. It would be writing directly to an expectation, giving some readers exactly what they want and expect – and if that’s all it does, then what would be the point of writing?
People confront the current situation every day, but in small ways; the war may be general, but the battles are specific. A father whose son is disappeared; a child whose mosque is suicide-bombed or drone attacked into oblivion; a woman trying to drive across a dysfunctional city; even someone waiting for hours and hours for their lights to come back on – these are the battles, the small, individual ways in which Pakistanis live Pakistan. In some pieces in the Life’s Too Short anthology, the situation lurks like this, as background noise, part of the set – but never the star.
The stress must now clearly be on the particular, the singular. The possibly exciting work is to understand and reveal how, given the broader pathologies infecting the nation, individuals find ways – ways that require courage, determination, creativity, patience, and faith, to navigate past them.
This insight applies not just to writers, but also to photographers. I earlier wrote a piece lamenting the limited exploration of Pakistan by the dozens of foreign photographers and hundreds of local photographers who work in the country at any one time. I had already stated in an earlier post:
I have written frequently enough about the rather shoddy and limited engagement most photographers and photojournalists have had with this nation. Here in the pages of this magazine [Granta's Pakistan issue] a few of Pakistan’s young writers, artists and poets offer a vision of the country, its people and their lives that are determinedly missing from the world of photography and photojournalism. The contrast cannot be sharper and I can’t think of many other nations where the divide between how it is represented by ‘the outsider’ and how it is expressed the ‘the locals’ is greater. I have yet to meet a major photographer or photojournalists who can actually name an important Pakistani writer.
It is Hasan’s insight that then helps fill the gap – that what is missing is the commitment to the particular, the willingness to engage with the specific. Most photographers have shied away from engaging in the lives and existence of ordinary Pakistanis to help us not just understand the struggles of the nation, but also the perspectives of its citizens. Tens of thousands of photographs later we are still documenting the nation from an aggregate level, still surfing the surface of its society, still refusing to listen to its people, still rejecting the gravity and seriousness of their lives, aspirations, dreams, opinions and sorrows.
I had already called out Alexandra Fazzina’s work in the country as a rare example of a photographer attempting to get to the particular. I also recently met the unique and individual Malcolm Hutcheson who has given nearly fifteen years of his life and photographic interest to Pakistan to produce some unique work from the country.
Both are outsiders prepared to go inside, and both remain unique in their focus and approach and both seem determined to not allow the grand themes from distracting them from their stories. There is an engagement here that stems from curiosity, humility and just plain excitement of discovery.
So much of what is produced these days seems pre-fabricated to serve simplistic editorial/sensationalism agendas either perceived or manufactured by the photographer him/herself. There are presumptions made – and of course these are enforced by editors no doubt, but nevertheless the individual photographer is ultimately responsible, for how a region, a people, and a topic should be visually documented. There are presumptions about ‘must have’ images, and areas of documentation, that today just seem to be being produced from preconceived templates.
But photographers like Hutcheson remind us that not everyone is buying into the hype, and that some still retain an individual capacity of thought, creativity and engagement. More importantly, that some are confident enough to argue their perspective and have themselves be noticed and their voices heard ´Hutcheson was short-listed for the Prix Pictet in 2008.
I can’t help but stress the goldmine of photographic possibilities that is Pakistan. It’s a goldmine that few are bothering to examine and explore. I have argued in the past that this probably has a lot to do with the fact that most who come here know little about it as a country – they are poorly aware of her history, literature, arts, culture, and society. They arrive with pre-fab agendas and pre-fab publication goals, and leave with cookie-cutter photographs which eventually sell because we know that horror and blood does sell but it never says anything interesting or insightful about the country.
This I am aware is a challenge I face myself as a photographer working in Pakistan – I too have been part of the caravan of sensationalism and I too have frequently seen the nation in the grand themes while avoiding its singular ones. But at this moment in time something is changing, and new work is emerging, where the singular, the particular, the Pakistanis who can help us see Pakistan are beginning to appear on my negatives. I am taking this journey, attempting to cross the intellectual, cultural, class and moral divides that have kept me from the people of the country. The challenge I face is one I hope others will too. Perhaps there is an element of laziness in these repeated calls for a better Pakistani photography – a hope that someone will produce a work so stark and real that I will finally understand how it should be done. Until then, my own limited attempts will have to suffice.