The construction of dignity

Published: January 20, 2012

Winter Of My Discontent I. PHOTO: NARIMAN ANSARI

KARACHI: 

Something strange happens in Nariman Ansari’s photographs. It is as though time slows down. Experience slows down, and spontaneously, the viewer’s gaze softens. Ansari’s subjects emerge in slow motion, physically, emotively. It becomes possible, even obvious, revelatory, that a still frame, of a still subject, can carry pace.

I first noticed this effect, while looking at an early fashion shoot. It was designer Umar Sayeed’s own first catwalk show, based on the theme of Sadequain’s work. One imagines a standard behind-the-scenes shoot, focusing on the high urgency, sense of preparation and excitement prior to models hitting the ramp. Most fashion photography also tends to idealise its subject. In Ansari’s case however, a slow and detailed energy pervades her images. We see Sadequain’s angular figures on textile; or the pre-eminence of black, drawn from the master artist’s thick outlines, his solar brushstrokes; or the tentative lines of a straw nest accessorised in close-up. In a solitary frame, we follow the designer’s own gaze over his models in reflection. We have time to see.

Much has been written about the relationship between “instant” photography and the press of hyper-visual societies. Theorist Walter Benjamin critiqued what he called “the age of mechanical reproduction”, and a related impoverishment of lived experience. Susan Sontag, much inspired by Benjamin’s work, takes a different lead. In her seminal book of essays on the subject, she suggests that, “Photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing.”

Amidst a deluge of print and digital images, Ansari’s young body of work provides welcome direction. Whether she is shooting “invisible soldiers” of Pakistan’s current war on terror, or the tenuous relationship between Islam and lesbian identity (Turkey), her lens is personally attentive. There is something moody, even magical, weighed in, about the world cast by Ansari’s camera. And it suggests, as per Sontag, an ethics of seeing.

Ansari graduated from Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in 2002, with a major in communication design and minor in photography. Her thesis involved the production of a bilingual book — photo-illustrations set alongside Sa’adat Hassan Manto’s miniaturised partition stories, Siyah Hashiye. She then worked on a number of media-related projects, including work in television, until the creation of her own company, Firefly Photoworks in 2009. With a studio set up at home, she began to focus on family portraiture. Ansari’s profuse sense of curiosity, however, soon led her to an international arena of photography and to numberless possibilities inherent in the medium.

In 2010, she showed a first body of work on e-magazine Bite! entitled “Stereotypes of Pakistani Women”, the camp, ironic, affectionate set of self-portraits displayed typifying ways in which women are portrayed in the media and in public life. This was followed by a photoessay on gay culture in Istanbul, and in particular, the study of a conflicted young Turk, equivocally religious and sexually partisan to women.

During this period, two international workshops further clarified Ansari’s vision of photography as narrative expression. The latter work came from “Intimacy and Empathy in Storytelling”, at The Foundry workshop in Turkey. And a body of work looking at selfhood and culturally embedded war imagery in the US, emerged from the course, “The Photographer as Author”.

“Why do photographs have to be [aesthetically] sensational to be noteworthy?” Speaking of a more recent project covering wounded soldiers in Rawalpindi, Ansari emphasises the importance of content. “It is odd that we know everything about the geography and interior life of an average American soldier. But we feel nothing for the men who are fighting on our own borders.” The question inspired a series of works for Citizens Archive Project in 2011. And here indeed there is no artistry. A young man, blinded in both eyes during battle in Mohmand Agency, stares directly into the frame, at the viewer. A spare hospital bed and a ceiling fan frame the image.

The notion of quiet scenes, images that slow time and tell stories with historic consciousness, speak of another value: personal dignity. Shame is often considered in terms of isolation against a landscape of socially generated meaning. To be shamed is the same as “losing face”, or the integrity of personal feature. The gentleness of Ansari’s photographic gaze and the force of her subject matter, tend to restore physical interiority, as it were. Her growing range of images brings dignity to the work of picture-making.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 20th, 2012.

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