Road Stories: The Wedding Fair

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Country fairs such as this one are common throughout Pakistan. Unlike the American travelling show which moves from town to town and is its own reason for being, most melas (fairs) in Pakistan revolve around the mazar (tomb) of a local pir (saint).   Mazars are areas of perpetual activity throughout the year as the local inhabitants come to offer prayers, seek guidance from the pir’s descendants (spiritual and familial) or simply seek the shade of a grove of trees nearby.

 

An attractive aspect of mazar culture is that secular activities are not just allowed but welcomed. This is never more so than on the occasion of the annual ‘urs’. Literally meaning marriage the urs signifies, in the Sufi tradition, the union of the pir’s soul with his divine bride. The urs is a time of intense and prolonged joymaking, eating, dancing, smoking, drinking, fainting, laughing, singing, ogling and of course, praying.

 

The urs of Syed Abdul Latif Qadri ‘Bari Imam’, a 17th century miracle worker and scholar is a 5 day extravaganza on the outskirts of Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. Around the green domed mazar itself malangs (wandering holy men) recognised by their green robes, kohl lined eyes and abundant bling smoke hashish and guide pilgrims in the niceties of ritual. The strains of qawwali emerge from a tent enveloped in a cloud of dust as hundreds of feet stomp and dance through the settlement. Cooking fires smoke and blaze all about the mazar and mosque enclosure as distribution of food to the hungry is an essential part of urs.

 

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Hazrat Abdul Latif Qadri “Bari Imam’

 

A network of alleys spreads out across the bumpy ground to form a buzzing temporary bazaar cramped with fried food and milky sweets of a thousand varieties, glasses of fresh mango and pomegranate juice, watermelon rinds and brittle clay pots, fortune tellers, henna designers, block print makers, and hawkers of topis and colourful nalas.

 

Here are tents and millions of loudspeakers each blasting a different tune. Dancing girls from Lahore perform on a hidden stage, while lewd skits entertain the overflow crowds outside. Burly mountain men from Murree and the Frontier take aim with toy air rifles at rows of small yellow and pink balloons. A makeshift photo studio is crammed full of young men who pay Rs 20 a piece to have their own image spliced on to a postcard of an Indian film star. Freak shows promise a prize of Rs 10,000 to anyone able to prove the snakelady is not real. Ferris wheels cut silently through the spring air moving nervous villagers up and down and up and down.

 

The biggest attraction of all is Maut ka Kuan (Well of Death). A large rickety balti-cum-velodrome shakes and creaks as first a motorcycle, then a small car climbs the interior wall and races around and around perpendicular to the earth. Hijras (transgenders) work the crowds by gyrating, whistling and chasing the rupee notes that float down from the crowds lining the top of the wooden bowl, like so many autumn leaves.

 

The festivities ring on all night and into the early hours for nearly a week. In the end the pomegranates have all been juiced and dancing girls have returned to Hira Mandi. The Well of Death is taken apart. The huge cardboard cut outs of pretty actresses lie face down in the dust waiting to be packed up and taken to the next urs.

Appropriating Helen

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In 2015, the American artist/photographer Richard Prince stirred up a hornets’ nest when he exhibited a collection of photos from strangers’ Instagram feeds. He enlarged the images, complete with comments, put them in a show, and sold several of them for $100,000 each.

Critics and peers instantly took to Twitter and blogosphere to either denounce Prince as a thief or to sing his praises as an artistic visionary. Interestingly, one of the unwitting subjects of the controversy, a woman whose Instagram photo Prince had appropriated did not raise a fuss and seemed pleased to bask in a bit of reflected glory.

Neither was this Prince’s first brush with the art police. And nor was he the only famous artist to lift, steal or borrow other people’s work for their own masterpieces.

Appropriation in art has a long, well-established history. Its practitioners include some of the greatest names in 20th century art, such as Picasso, Duchamp, Cindy Sherman and Andy Warhol. Many artists and critics believe that in this digital age, with easy access to images, bit torrents and ubiquitous invitations to download, there is no object or image that is not available for the picking.

Of course, those whose works find their way into the art of others, without permission, are less charitable. Lawsuits are lodged and courts often decide in their favour. But the practice persists and probably will as long as humans exist.

A critical factor that judges refer to in deciding whether an artist is a genius or a thief is the concept of “fair use”. Has the photographer or artist transformed the original sufficiently to create a new and fresh work of art? Or has he lazily decided to ride on the coattails of someone else?

Question of appropriation

Growing up in India, I was a fan of Hindi movies, and though I did not understand exactly who she was at the time, Helen, the “Queen of the Nautch Girls”, was a big part of the attraction.

In more recent times, I have found Helen to be an enormously inspiring subject.

As she has danced and vamped and swayed across the internet on YouTube, I have tried to capture her in full flight as if she were a flitting butterfly.

And, in the process, my mind has turned to the question of appropriation and fair use. Am I creating something new and fresh? Or am I merely an obsessed fan stealing glimpses of my idol, like a silent Peeping Tom? [My full article with photos here]

3 Fantastic Urban Photographers from India

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Landscape photography is a venerable old art. Who doesn’t love a shot of the sun going down over a beach or the same sun rising brilliantly over Nanga Parbat?

For most of us, the way we imagine a country, at least initially, is through images of its land. We like to know how high its mountains are and how fast its rivers flow. When we visit a travel agent, we flip through brochures covered with landscapes. For some reason we equate country with land. And based on photographs of sunsets, green fields, rugged mountains or rugged farms, we convince ourselves we have an idea of a place.

But in a country like India that is rocketing forward in its urbanisation, is the natural landscape still the best way to capture its soul?

Within 15 years, nearly 600 million Indians will be city dwellers. While today, only about 32% live in urban areas, the economy is largely urbanised. India’s cities are bursting and new ones will be sprouting up by the dozen if government planners are to be believed. Statistically, India may yet be a rural country, but energetically, it is a pumping urban nation.

In a situation like this, traditional landscape photography seems to be less relevant to grasping the essence of India. If the heart of the nation is its cities, what does photography tell us of that India?

Urban landscape photography is nothing new but it has become somewhat more codified in recent years. It is photography that seeks to find a country’s essential sprit through the way it lays out, develops, and manages its cities. The landscape in question is not the natural world but the physical world of concrete, steel, glass and plastic. And unlike traditional landscape photography its purpose is not necessarily to depict an idealised image of the scene.

Urban photography is, more often than not, photography of the ugly, the “in-the-way”, the dilapidated and the abandoned. Alienation is never faraway. Where there is beauty it is usually accidental. It is a photography not suited to travel brochures. But when done by talented photographers it is exciting stuff. [Full article originally published in Scroll.in]

The Design Mind behind Hipstamatic

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Several years ago, I began experimenting with an ancient Samsung mobile phone camera. The ridiculously cheap lens and complete absence of functionality produced quirky lo-fi – short for low fidelity, typically taken with poor-quality equipment – images that delighted me in a way SLR photography had not for years.

In just a few years and with an irresistible inevitability, mobile phone photography has gone from fringe to mainstream. Photo apps have stormed the kingdom of photography and dethroned the SLR.

About a decade ago, a camera was a minor feature on your phone. Today, Apple markets itself through giant reproductions of images taken with its iPhone 6.

But in late 2009, before the first photo had ever been posted on Instagram, an app designed to look like an old-fashioned camera went on sale on the Apple Store. The name appealed to a generation that wanted to be cool and sought something easy to use. Hipstamatic had arrived.

For the wired generation, it was love at first sight. Within a couple of years, more than four million people had downloaded the app. Hipstamatic groups sprouted around the globe. Exclusive Hipsta competitions and exhibitions were established. And for the first time, professional photographers admitted to using an app on assignment.

With its interchangeable lenses, assorted films, oddball flash guns and brightly coloured cases, Hipstamatic introduced an artist’s sensibility to photographic gear. The eccentricity of analogue toy cameras had been updated for the digital era. Hipstamatic’s mission seemed to be to make so-called ugly images beautiful. Light leaks, frayed and torn borders, overexposure and problematic focus were, it seemed, just what the times required.

Today, Instagram may monopolise the social media space for retro/lo-fi photography but Hipstamatic remains the photographer’s choice when it comes to apps. A lot of Hipstamatic’s appeal lies not just in the retro feel of the camera and the ever-growing volume of films and lenses but in its aesthetic.

Hipstamatic has style. Each lens looks as if it has been lovingly handcrafted by an expert artisan. Every film is unique and comes packaged in its own box. Both have a back story, often inspired by professional photographers that the developers particularly admire.

The app has an India connection too. Although all of Hipstamatic’s founders are design professionals, it’s the Creative Director Aravind Kaimal whose vision is most visible on Hipstamatic.

Kaimal was born in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of the South Indian state of Kerala, and spent his childhood drawing. Tintin, the hero of a comic series by Belgian cartoonist George Remi, and his dog Snowy, served as the inspiration for much of his art at the time.

At the age of 17, Kamal landed in the US and went to art school in Chicago. At his first job, he crossed paths with graphic designer Lucas Buick, who, years later, asked for Kaimal’s help in designing a new photo app, tentatively named Hipstamatic. And the rest, as they say, is history. [Full interview with Aravind Kaimal here]

Bangla Surreal: Shadman Shahid Photography

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Bangladeshi photographer Shadman Shahid was recently selected by the prestigious British Journal of Photography for its Ones to Watch–2016 listof emerging global photographic talent. A graduate of Dhaka’s famous Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, his work emerges from a deeply personal space and expresses itself in moving documentary as well as intimate and carefully constructed psychological imaginings.

Last week, Scroll.in had a conversation with Shahid about his work, his vision and the challenges of being an artist in contemporary Bangladesh.

Tell us a bit about your family background. Was it artistic? And what drew you to the camera?
I was born to two loving and overprotective parents. They are both journalists. I grew up in a joint family and my paternal uncle was also living with us. He was an artist. I enjoyed his company and he was the resource for art, music and culture for me. However, I was too safe and satisfied with my life to be interested in art at that point. I started photography after he died very young. I like to think growing up watching him influenced me.

At one point in my life, I had decided to become a filmmaker. I wanted to hone my film-making skills. One of my Pathshala teachers introduced us to the work of Julia Margaret Cameron. About her photograph “The Echo”, the teacher said that “it’s one of those pictures that will haunt you at night when you are trying to sleep.” I could see what he meant and why he was so passionate about photography. It was one of the moments that drew me closer towards the camera. [Full article from Scroll.in and more photos]

Kudos from Lens Culture

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Some very nice feedback from Lens Culture Magazine on my submissions to the 2016 Portrait Competition

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I’m not one for entering photo competitions.  And I’ll tell you why.  I have a strong inferiority complex about my work.  Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE my work. I have a very loyal band of ‘fans’ in the physical and virtual world who give me regular ego boosts about my photos. I have no problem with taking pictures. I may not be tech savvy or into ‘kit’ like a lot of my peers but over 40 years I’ve developed a strong ‘feel’ for good images.

But when it comes to entering competitions I immediately give in to the old saws that echo up out of the dark depths of childhood, “You’re no good.” “You can never get the attention of real photographers.”  “Your stuff is derivative and shallow.” And on and on.

A couple months ago though I did take a punt on submitting a few pictures to the

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A Friend is gone. R.I.P Teddy Arellano

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Photo by Teddy Arellano

I woke this morning to read that Teddy Arellano had died.

Disbelief rushed through me. How could this be? He was much younger than me. How could this be?

I moved over to his Facebook page and began scrolling to see if it was some sort of Filipino joke. It wasn’t. Teddy had really passed. His friends were posting photos of flowers, remembering him fondly and urging him to go gently and peacefully to his maker.

Teddy is the latest in what seems a long queue of significant others who have moved on. A swagful of beloved ‘hero’ musicians and actors. Two other Facebook friends died very unexpectedly sending shock through the online photography community. 2016 is a sad year and we aren’t even in May.

Teddy’s death has hit me harder than the others because I knew him. Not just through records and films or Facebook posts but in the flesh.

You were always dancing in and out of view

I must have thought you’d always be around

Always keeping things real by playing the clown

Now you’re nowhere to be found

I don’t know what happens when people die

Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try

It’s like a song I hear playing right in my ear

That I can’t sing.

 

I met Teddy in Beijing in 1997. We were part of a small Oxfam team drawn together from the UK, Hong Kong and Australia to make an assessment of the humanitarian situation in North Korea in the wake of a couple seasons of floods.

We met in a Communist era hotel. Teddy was young and rather rolly-polly. He admitted to being too fond of donuts and more than once disappeared from the group only to return with a big box of pink, chocolate and sugary rings that he “just had to buy” after stumbling upon a Dunkin’ Donuts outlet.

Teddy was the only one of our team that had been to North Korea. He was one of thousands of politically-aware youth that had been invited by Kim Il Sung to a grand Youth Solidarity event in Pyongyang several years earlier. Teddy made us laugh and shake our heads in amazement with his stories of massive parades and staged propaganda shows. He let us in on ‘true’ tales of the Great Leader and his family. He prepared us to receive ‘on the spot guidance’, once we arrived.

The next ten days turned out to be a highlight of my life. Not just as an aid worker but as a person. We got to walk around Pyongyang without our ‘minders’, take a ride on the grand subway, visit villages and towns far from the capital and get drunk with officials who urged us through bloodshot eyes to ‘tell Clinton he’s a devil’.

I got to know Teddy pretty well on that trip. He didn’t just love donuts and gadgets—he had the first micro disc recorder/player I’d ever seen—but he had a genuine passion for making things better for people. Though he didn’t share a lot about his background he did speak of being involved in leftist causes and I got the sense he was from a fairly well off family.

But the best thing about Teddy on that trip was his cracking sense of humor. He was rotund and spoke in a quiet way. He looked jolly from the git go and he had the timing of a comedian. The understatement and the elongated pause. The sarcastic jibe which could have hurt but for the sparkle in his eyes.

We got to calling each other Comrade. And thanks to Teddy the whole group became expert at giving ‘on the spot guidance’ to our official minders on the differences between the Workers Paradise and the outside world.

We stayed in touch over the years, both working within the Oxfam world. Drinks at a pub in Oxford. Tea at a café in Manila.   When Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) hit in 2013 I tried to get him hired by the Red Cross but it didn’t work out. Instead, he and some friends organized their own little NGO in Tacloban. They struggled for funds but were at the very coal face of assistance, sleeping and working in the same conditions as the victims themselves.

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His Facebook posts were usually quite political, highlighting the gap between promise and delivery by the government or appealing for funds. Teddy, it seemed to me, had lost some of his jollity. He was a very serious and committed humanitarian.

One thing I hadn’t known about Teddy, and I think he didn’t know about himself, was that he was a brilliant photographer. I could be wrong but I think he only took up a camera in the last few years. The first few images he posted on Facebook blew me away. His eye was so mature and acute. He was capturing stuff—all in black and white—that made my jaw drop. Portraits that were troubling but compassionate. Street scenes worthy of exhibition. With a little effort I have no doubt he could have been recognized as a truly outstanding artist.

I hadn’t seen any posts from Teddy for a few weeks. I had no idea he was ill. He suffered a stroke on 11th March and passed away yesterday.

Ted. Farewell comrade. Give some on the spot guidance to St Peter about taking people way too soon!

I don’t know what happens when people die.