Wednesday 16 February 2022

Street photography, responsible tourism and finding Lahore, an interview with Amna Zuberi

Amna Zuberi is one of Pakistan's leading photographers. I became aware of her work during lockdown in early 2021, whilst traveling vicariously on Instagram. I purchased a copy of her book on Lahore, and on receiving it, was moved to write to her, to say how much it had lifted my mood, made me want to visit the city, and inspired me to pick up my camera after a period of despondency. Just one year later, we spoke on Zoom, Amna enjoying the afternoon sunshine in her Lahore garden, me looking out at a grey February morning in East London. Over the course of an hour we discussed street photography, responsible tourism and her book, "Finding Lahore". 

Amna began by explaining that photography is her second career. She graduated from the National College of Arts in Lahore before working in corporate advertising, design and strategy. After ten years   she wanted a change. She said "I began teaching a graduate course but also had time to start exploring my own country. I picked up a camera and began taking pictures". In 2016 her work came to the attention of a publisher who asked her to contribute to a coffee table book -"Pakistan Heritage Cuisine - A Food Story" - which contains more than one hundred of her photographs. This led to further commissions, including "Drops of the Divine - A Story of Milk in Pakistan" and "A Reel on Karachi". 

"I do not want to look at the city in the way a tourist does"

Amna explained that "Finding Lahore" did not start out as a book "It was a personal journey in which I sought to better understand my birthplace". She had been photographing the streets of old Lahore for a number of years when her publisher threw in the idea of creating a coffee table book from this body of work. The result is both a superb photographic record of the quarter known as the Walled City, and a story in which the photographer expresses her love for the place. 

The project took six years and provoked her to think about her relationship with her home town and how it affects her photography. She said "I do not want to look at the city in the way a tourist does. I realised that I was dissecting Lahore in layers. In each decade, new layers are added - emotional, psychological and physical. I was doing the work to produce a book, but I was dissecting the city for myself, to better understand it". This comes through very clearly in "Finding Lahore" where she captures the Walled City's textures, colours, light and shade. The layers are exposed in the decorative details of an ancient door and the peeling paint in the mosque of Mariyam Zamani. The panoramic views of old Lahore reveal other layers, including physical, sometimes haphazard upward extensions of buildings, and social layers with laundry, day-beds and old chairs as evidence of life lived on the roof tops.

"I've got used to the curiosity and intrigue that comes with a woman walking with a camera around her neck in this part of the world"

There are also human layers to the city. I asked how the people reacted to their inclusion in her book. She said "Their reactions are diverse. I gave prints to some of them. The three gentlemen in the black and white picture taken during the winter were delighted. On the other hand, the young man dramatically flipping a puri was completely nonchalant. Some people want to talk, others do not." She explained about how she took one of my favourite pictures "I noticed a man laying down, asleep and raised my camera. He briefly opened his eyes and then closed them again, untroubled by my presence".

This reminded me of some of my own street photography experiences, and we discussed the moral dilemmas associated with this genre. There is a tension between wanting to capture, authentic, candid, truthful shots and not impinging on the dignity of people in the street. This can include what is sometimes called "the romanticisation of poverty". We agreed that there is nothing romantic about poverty and that photography can bring otherwise unheard stories to the attention of a wider audience. If a story is not told, then there is no possibility of bringing about change or at least increasing awareness. She added "If I ask for permission to take a picture and it's refused, then I accept that and walk away. But this rarely happens and people are almost always willing to be photographed".

I asked about her experience as a woman photographer in Pakistan. She said "I've got used to the curiosity and intrigue that comes with a woman walking with a camera around her neck in this part of the world." She spoke about a recent assignment in ultra-conservative Baluchistan. "Most women there are covered. When I got out of the car to begin shooting, I was so nervous that I was shaking. But no-one caused a problem. Quite the opposite, the market vendors were interested in what I was doing and one of them gave me fruit to eat on my journey home".  

"This is a stunning country. I am amazed at how much one country can have - some of the highest mountains in the world, beautiful beaches and the remains of ancient civilisations"

Amna recently posted some comments on social media, that provoked a lot of discussion about tourism in Pakistan. I asked her what had prompted this. She smiled and said "This is a stunning country. I am amazed at how much one country can have - some of the highest mountains in the world, beautiful beaches and the remains of ancient civilisations. There is huge potential for tourism here, but we need to manage it better, to plan and share information and find ways to limit the negative impacts that it can bring".

Although Covid has meant that there have been very little international travel for the last two years, internal tourism has been possible. Amna reported that six million domestic tourists visited northern Pakistan over the last year. Whilst acknowledging the welcome boost to the local economy, she pointed out that other factors need to be taken into consideration if there are to be lasting benefits, saying "Some places lack the infrastructure to deal with this influx. There are challenges with the quality of roads, having enough hotels or home-stays, places to eat and sanitary facilities. Visitor expectations need to be managed and local people trained in hosting, guiding and catering skills so that their communities can maximise the benefits of tourism". These issues are not peculiar to Pakistan and many countries struggle to balance  economic gains with protecting the environment, and resisting threats to authenticity as visitor numbers increase.

Covid also caused Amna to put some of her photographic activities on hold. As the situation improves, she is beginning to return to these projects. You can  follow her on instagram @amnazuberi

Copies of "Finding Lahore" can be obtained online from Liberty Books or from Amazon.

Thanks to Amna Zuberi for providing all the images used in this post. 

You might also like A City That Has A Bit Of Everywhere But Is Not Like Anywhere or We Want Our Films To Have Soul, To Be Memorable - an interview with Babitha Matthew - award-winning film director.

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