DUBAI: An award-winning Pakistani photojournalist is on a mission to build tolerance and understanding of minority communities. Mobeen Ansari’s images depicting indigenous people residing in far-flung areas of Pakistan is changing the narrative around his country, where war and politics have taken center stage. Trekking across mountains and navigating deserts, he has also captured breathtaking views of several unexplored areas of the country.
“To me, Pakistan is like many countries within a country, my goal is to travel to every nook and cranny of my homeland, to take photos of diverse cultures and landscapes, and tell their stories. I want the world to know that there is so much more to Pakistan than what is conventionally portrayed in the media,” Ansari, whose solo exhibition “Conversations Through Centuries” runs at Studio Seven Art Gallery in Dubai September 17-28 — and for two days in Abu Dhabi at the end of that month, tells Arab News.
Ansari’s professional journey began in college when he was assigned to shoot images of Noori — a well-known rock band. “Touring with the band nurtured my love for clicking raw and intimate moments of life. Around this time I also came across the story of a 100-year-old veteran wrestler who trained youngsters. This was a great human-interest story and it led to my photojournalism career,” he says.
Having contracted severe meningitis as a baby, Mobeen lost most of his hearing. But this in turn strengthened his visual senses and made him more attuned to his surroundings, he says.
“I often rely on body language and lip reading to understand people when they converse. Years of observation have enabled me to recognize different nuances of human beings and my portraits attempt to capture the sheer humanity of the individual.”
Here Ansari shares the stories behind a few of his favorite images.
A magazine commissioned this shoot of the Baisakhi celebrations at the Panja Sahib Gurudwara (Sikh shrine) near Islamabad. This was a momentous year for the Sikhs as it marked the 550th birthday of the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak.
I found myself surrounded by thousands of pilgrims who had made an emotional journey from around the world. Despite tensions across the borders, over 2,000 Sikh pilgrims from India were in the Gurudwara. I witnessed many scenes of interfaith harmony and countless poignant gestures — it was particularly overwhelming to see two local workers helping an elderly pilgrim cross slippery marble stairs that were partially submerged in a pond to touch the handprint of Guru Nanak. The devotion with which everyone took care of each other was simply unforgettable.
‘Those piercing eyes’
I have an infinite passion for capturing minorities living in harmony. This image of the late Sichin Bibi Kalas — a herbal doctor from the Kalash community — holds a special place in my heart because I literally went in search of her.
The Kalash people lead an isolated life in the mountainous regions of Chitral. Photographers around the world — including me — have been fascinated by their striking features and piercing blue eyes. On my first visit I went armed with some print outs of images of Kalash women who had been previously photographed by National Geographic. When I reached the village, I showed them to a local who took me to one of them. The memory of that first glimpse of Sichin Bibi Kalash still sends a chill down my spine. She had the most striking blue eyes, and I could see their color even from a distance. We did not converse much, as we spoke different languages, but she had a firm handshake and an intimidating presence. Her powerful aura is still strongly felt through her images.
‘Garden of hope’
Gulmit village in Gojal (also known as upper Hunza) is like a second home to me. On one of my many visits, my local friends took me to see this garden of apricot trees during fall. The leaves had all turned golden, and rays of orange sunlight seeping through them gave the whole place a celestial vibe. I went into a meditative state of clarity and calmness. Since then it has become my favorite place in the world.
When I posted this photo on my social media feed, a friend asked me to post it on her Facebook timeline. She told me later that she was battling cancer and this picture gave her a lot of hope. I felt deeply comforted knowing that I can bring optimism and peace to someone through an image.
‘Rising from the gutter’
A few years ago during a street-photography assignment in Karachi I noticed a rod sticking out of the grimy water of a manhole. When I went closer I saw that a man was completely immersed inside the dark hole cleaning the gutter. That was such a haunting sight.
When he came out of the manhole to take a cigarette break, I sat down with him and we chatted. I learnt that his name was Akram Masih and he was one of the many sanitation workers in the city. For a meager salary of 5000 rupees (around $30) a month, Akram was doing one of the most dangerous and thankless jobs in the world. The life expectancy of sanitation workers is only 45. This story left a deep impression on my mind and I decided to film their working conditions to show people how tough the life of a gutter cleaner is. This experience led to the filming of my first documentary film, “Hellhole.” with Akram’s uncle, Pervez Masih.
Most people are unaware that there is a small Parsi community — who follow the Zoroastrian faith — in Pakistan. Around the time I was working on my second book I got an invitation to a Parsi wedding. I had never seen one before. So, to be part of the ceremony of Sarah and Sharoy was not only exciting but also a great learning experience. I was welcomed with open arms. There was purity and innocence; everyone including the bride, the groom, the priests and the two witnesses were dressed in white. I also attended the pre wedding ceremony, in which the rituals serve as a reminder that life is made up of all factors — good, bad, sweet and bitter. I love the fact that common goals of humanity remain constant in all communities.
‘The Milky Way’
The Wakhan Corridor — wedged between Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan — is a breathtaking location: Steep mountains intersect with river valleys. It is heaven for nature enthusiasts, but trekking through these mountains is extremely challenging. Each day a trek would last for about six to ten hours. We would arrive close to sundown and set up camp. After dinner everyone immediately fell asleep in their tents, but I would stay awake until midnight to catch a glimpse of the Milky Way, which was crystal clear in these skies. I took this picture at Kashmanja camp and this image is forever memorable because it started a personal ritual of admiring the stars every night.
‘Snow and sand’
One of the most unique places in our country is the Katpana desert, a high-altitude desert located near Skardu in Pakistan’s Gilgit Baltistan. I have never seen anything like this before — a desert surrounded by rocky mountains with a river flowing, surrounded by trees. Sometimes you can even find snow on the sand dunes. Thanks to the current government’s tourism-friendly policies I am hopeful that more people will be able to see these amazing locations in my country.
Most people avoid travelling to the mountainous Gulmit region, where winter temperatures can fall as low as minus-30. But I decided to go there to see the life of its residents during this extreme weather. The sub-zero temperatures are definitely harsh: It was so cold that once I spilled water indoors and in a minute it was all ice. The pipes are frozen, so water is collected from the river, which is also frozen and has to be broken. Because of this, some people have to use open-air toilets. Wood to make firesis collected almost around the clock. Yet in spite of all these tough times the local people look happy and content. I took this picture when Pari Sultana, a village girl, was crossing a narrow bridge, bringing wood from another settlement about 15-to-20 minutes away from her home. There is so much joy on her face that it does not look like a chore for her.