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‘Every photographer is a voyeur first’ | Art & Culture

interview

Time has a sound. It is the sound of the camera’s shutter, clicking for an instant to capture time in its memory.

Umair Ghani’s photographs embody a similar quality of timelessness, synonymous with history and tradition, harvesting a collective memory. Driven by sheer commitment to the medium, Ghani has been virtually on the road since 1996, encountering and capturing the “more reticent, less willing to reveal themselves” ordinary women. His sensitive portraits combined with intimate and evocative sketches of his meetings deliver to curious viewers and readers an account of a journey authored by him in three books in Urdu, Tasveer ka Doosra Rukh (2015), Photography: Fanni aur Takhleeqi Pehlu (2015) and Zindagi aur Maut ke Darmiyan Chand Tasveerein (2021) – a kind of pilgrimage expressed as a series of rare, suspended, definitive instants. Apart from showing extensively at home and abroad, he has been the editor in chief of Pakistan Photography Magazine.

In this interview with The News on Sunday (TNS) below, conducted in Lahore, where the fiercely independent social documentary photographer Umair Ghani lives and works, he transgresses the confluence between frozen time and the infinite space.

The News on Sunday (TNS): Having practiced/ experienced and practically lived photography, and having been in the company of experts, competitors and masters of the field, what exactly has the photographic image come to mean to you?

Umair Ghani (UG): I cherish the experience of taking photographs more than the technique. In the kind of photographs I’ve been taking for more than fifteen years now image plays a very basic role – whether it is a proof of existence or a proof of reality. The emotional sensitivity that the photographic image contains comes from the fact that it possesses sentimental memories of a particular incident or happening or phenomenon that somehow touched my heart at that moment. I have built my faith in photographic journalese; for me, technique has had very little value, and none right now. Even rules and regulations have little significance to me. I use the photographic image as a vivid memory of an emotion.

I’ve never tried to post-mortem the photographic image like an expert critic; I judge it on the basis of its emotional impact. I started taking pictures in 1996 – that is when I started pursuing it consciously. Initially, it was just an acquaintance that blossomed into a companionship that became my first love and finally passion. During all these phases, I was driven not only by the sentiment that a photograph instils but also by that part of the visual which is not in the photograph. This is when the artist in me awakened with a strong assertion that it is the ‘secret of a secret’: it opens up curiosity; it provokes curiosity; and finally leads into curiosity.

TNS: Are you insinuating that what lies on the surface is of least importance to you, and that the interpretative quality of the photographic image is what explains it?

UG: Very honestly, I’ve never tried to arrive at such conclusions. However, there is more to a picture than what meets the eye. For the first five years of my practice, I couldn’t make much of the medium, intellectually. It was some kind of an exciting occupation; it was different, challenging, and was seriously pulling me to it. When I was finally there, I began to explore its intellectual content. I read a lot of criticism around it, focusing in on the qualities and properties that drive you into it.

I do believe that every photographer is first a voyeur and then a photographer. It is a basic instinct because you must peek at, stare and continue to stare to the point of irritation. The nucleus of beauty that you call “the eye” (what I call the crux of photography) is exactly what the filmmakers attributed to Marilyn Monroe: you can eschew her but you can’t escape her charm. She almost grabs you by the collar. This is what the impact of an image means to me. Now, impact can be emotional; it can be aesthetic, and it varies depending on the nature of the photographic image you are encountering at that moment. I very strongly believe in John Berger’s claim that an image invokes interpretation. Without interpretation, it is either the viewer’s or the photographer’s or the medium’s failure that the image becomes meaningless.

TNS: If I may bring your attention to Roland Bathes’ Camera Lucida, how do you think a family portrait can lend itself to extrapolar interpretation?

UG: Significantly enough, Barthes talks about two immediate impulses: one is punctum, the other is studium. The first one is the visual aesthetic impact; the other is the emotional/ sentimental impact. Photograph of a person or of a family absolutely unknown to you should be judged on these two principles. Is it aesthetically engaging? If so, it has to have some emotional content as well. It depends on what kind of pictures you are looking at. For example, if somebody has been taking my photographs for several years, all my photographs may not have the same emotional appeal. Here we are generally talking about photographs that we are looking at as strangers. I can say that for me, it’s important to know how significant a photograph is in terms of its emotional content, how far it draws us into it as a viewer, as a photographer and as a critic.

Photographs have the tendency to take over, to be in complete control of a situation. When they fail to exercise that control, the situation is vulnerable beyond choreographic control. You have to decide within the flick of a second.

I believe in very volatile, unpredictable situations where a photographer can really shine if he comes up with impactful images. Studio images are entirely different: you can choreograph light, adjust the posture and redo the picture endless times. But for me the bigger challenge of an even greater impact comes from photojournalism, from candid photography, from street shots to war images, from travel pictures where sometimes you have no control over or little time to take picture of a fleeting phenomenon.

TNS: What kind of a relationship do you get to establish with your subject while photographing it?

UG: I’ve hardly ever tried to plan out a photograph in advance or decided beforehand as to what kind of pictures I’ll be taking. Photography has always had an accidental appeal to me – a chance encounter, not a planned rendezvous. You suddenly come across something that amazes you, attracts you and then compels you to keep a memory of it. I carry my camera with me everywhere I go. When I see something happening that grabs my attention, I go for it.

Over a period of time, you devise your own method and become smart enough to be tactful. You consistently encounter strangers in situations which are not always favourable; you have to break the defence barrier; you have no time to seek permission. Most of my photographs are of women on the street. They are strangers, so it is difficult to point your camera at them continuously to keep them in focus. It’s considered public harassment.

My eye is now trained to pick the woman I want to photograph from among a crowd. I make sure that she knows that I am going to point my camera lens at her. I raise my camera and watch her reaction. If she is calm, there’s a kind of silent consent. I raise the camera further up to my eye. If things are still in my favour, I focus and click. I don’t normally capture women who are conventionally beautiful. They have to be unique though. They are strangers, and in that instant, we are destined to come across each other. There is no plan or purpose behind these pictures; these are memories.

TNS: How would you contrast that with pictures taken by photographers like Diane Arbus and Dayanita Singh?

UG: Everything that falls within the category of photography is photojournalism of sorts, be it sports or wildlife. Nick Brandt, for instance, has taken it to the level of serious photojournalism, particularly in his more recent series Inherit the Dust.

I haven’t read Dayanita Singh’s take on her subjects but through some of her writings, I realise that she is a far better critic of her own work than any other critic out there. Women of a certain class, of any class for that matter, have known how to carry themselves over a period of time. Women photographers like Singh are capable of capturing the aura of her movement or her presence, and the way she carries herself. The impact you’re talking about might not be choreographed that very instant. But when a woman takes out her camera and aims it at a fellow woman, the latter is conscious of being watched. It creates the same impact as when a woman is out on a street or visible in a public space and knows that she is being watched. Singh might not have asked women of the high society in Mumbai to pose for her book Privacy, it is probably an innate ability of a woman to present herself in public, which is the subject of Singh’s book, and which she has captured successfully.

TNS: Camera is intrusive. Why do we feel threatened by its presence to the extent that we have to guard our personal space and privacy against it? Is it some kind of a weapon that shoots?

UG: For me camera is a weapon of assault – whenever you shoot, there’d be some casualties. You have to control the extent of damage you can cause your subjects. If they are aware of being aimed at and ready to be fired upon, it will certainly threaten them to the extent of overwhelming, unpredictable reactions. Anyone even with a mobile phone camera is a paparazzi, nowadays. They invade privacy; they create unease in the environment.

People react in different ways in the presence of a photographer, invited or uninvited: some forbid straightaway; some abuse the opportunity; some express “You are not welcome”; some smile; some ignore you until you have accomplished the task. Only some come forward and offer themselves as a potential subject. Despite the scare of this weapon, people are opening up to it. In some cities, I have encountered resistance. In rural Punjab and Sindh, there are very few people who refuse to be photographed. Some of my colleagues saw huge resistance in most of the villages in Hunza Valley, especially in Ganesh where they have installed boards reading: Photography is strictly prohibited inside the village. The case is not of resentment; they’ve been open to foreign tourism long before urban Pakistan had even become conscious of it. It is not their resistance to foreign intervention but to the growing number of photographers invading their culture and using their pictures without their permission or copyright in a manner which is not quite welcome among them.

The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad

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