Summer of ’88

Little did I know in the start of that summer it was my last one in Lahore. By the fall of same year I was 6,300 km away on British Council fellowship at Chelsea School of Arts. Then I was teaching photography at NCA. Most afternoons,after college, I would traipse the city to discover new places, sample food, drink copious quantities of sugarcane juice with lemon and ginger, and to photograph people.

A dear friend, and a colleague Anwar Saeed taught printmaking. After college I would try my hand at etching under his guidance and on my part kindled his interest in photography. He knew the old city like the back of his hand, and often together we would go scouting the city I thought I knew, but knew so little of. Always casting the net farther extending our walks further away from the bubble of Lower Mall Road. Some of our students also joined us in those expeditions, and would all carry our cameras. I was quite gungho at taking pictures without permission. Privilege of being an ‘artist’ was exercised inadvertently with some arrogance. Cameras weren’t exactly a common sight back then, and if you pointed a lens at a stranger (never at women), usually it was received with a mix of curiosity, gratitude and excitement. In those days I was desensitised to the vibrational quality of the word ‘photo shoot’. In ‘candid’ image making I often used the camera like a weapon; to shoot and capture. Strange though as in my early years, I used to seek permission. Perhaps as telephoto lenses came in my collection, it distanced my sense of connection, or perhaps I’d bought into the colonial legacy of a pervasive class system.

In those forays after college, usually our first stop would be Nisar Bagh (garden), historically a park famous for holding political rallies and protests. However on a regular day, it was frequented by families in evenings, and during the afternoons men would lie down for siesta under the heavenly shade of mature trees. Zia’s martial law had banned alcohol, which gave rise to heroine as it exponentially took over in popularity; for it’s users this park was a haven. It became a routine to walk around this park, shutters clicking, criss crossing between the sleeping people. We would often walk through Anarkali, Urdu Bazaar, further weave through some dense mohallas towards the Walled City, stop in parks for a breather, tiniest of shade to share with those sleeping under it and more photography. Mostly the park sleepers were all men who would arrive in Lahore from smaller cities or villages to fulfill the dream of a better life. At times they found work as handymen or labourers, barely surviving the seduction of the city of lights. There were also local men who preferred to chill in the open, smoke, play card games or just watch the world go by.

Private and vulnerable act of sleeping was performed in the open, for all eyes to see. It was aesthetically beautiful to walk in between so many men sleeping on the ground. At times solitary in their own world, and at times in small clusters, dreaming away, arms akimbo legs entwined. I would thoroughly enjoy the exhibitionism and eroticism displayed in the park, hiding behind my lens I indulged in broad daylight voyeurism. With the repeat visits I grew to recognise some faces as I so desired to make an eye contact, to engage in at least asking permission before releasing the shutter. The conundrum of course was that the people were asleep; in a state of temporary departure from the world. I couldn’t disturb a peaceful slumber to ask if it were okay to photograph! Then one day someone smoking a joint sitting amongst the sleeping beauties beckoned me over, “Why are you photographing these dead men? Take my photo instead.” This gentle encounter and a toke on his spliff mellowed me to slow my pace, acknowledge the open eyed folks around and enjoy conversations. I found myself on human grounds again.

New in London, one late night on C4 I randomly watched Peeping Tom, and for years after that I couldn’t pick the camera again for candid work. I am always aware of the power imbalance holding a camera but these days most of my strategies are put to put the person in front totally at ease. Arrival of discrete digital cameras and smartphones derailed me momentarily; taking photos of people unaware. Some photographers have the gift to be a fly on the wall, whilst it’s not for me to judge the genre, it’s just not for me. Since the last decade I bought myself a heavier, very visible DSLR to remind myself of the beauty of permission, consent and collaboration. Having to locate a certain image through my archives, I noticed these negatives. Painstakingly I’ve digitally restored the chemical damage and blemishes from my summer of 1988. So little time and so many more to scan, shared here are some with much love and fondness.

  • Your words transported to a place I don’t know; yet, I felt the warmth. The realism of these photos captures a beauty of silence.

  • Ali, reading you’re essay brought back so many memories. The four years we spent at NCA were a stepping stone for most of us. We were kids when we started and matured to some extent by the time we left. Most of us set upon the path we were going to follow and some of us were still trying to find a path to follow. What did happen was a realisation of the world around us, it’s ups and downs, our strengths and weaknesses and most of all a sense of who we were.
    The relationships we formed have stood the test of time and for that I am great full.
    You were alway a very talented And a great photographer. You captured the essence of you’re subjects. This random pictures, like all you’re work, speak volumes.
    Glad you are compiling them.

    • Rubab you express that time so succinctly – it was a stepping stone!! Who we are is a work in progress and will always be. So deeply grateful that we are connected and from time to time get to meet and get a sense of what we are becoming. Love you loads x x

  • Ali, your work and your words have left me with a renewed love for our city, Lahore. I see your sleeping figures, lost in their slumbers, caught so beautifully by your unerring eye… Would that I too was brave enough to lie down to sleep under the shade of the trees in Nasir Bagh…

    • Laila courage is one which as the word suggests comes from the heart, then there is a lack of resources in that cities are a overcrowded affair, and there is something to be said about sleep – some of us struggle with it and there are some blessed beings who can fall asleep when their bodies need to reenergise. Perhaps next nite I visit we get you to perform for the camera in Nasir Bagh!?

    • Imran I have so gotten used to the digital life, not sure if I could go back to using chemicals and silver halides or put my hands in chemicals that are so corrosive to the environment. As I have these archives, slowly I am introducing them to these times. BTW I still have an analogue camera, secretly stashed away somewhere 😉

  • Wowwww these images took me back 35 yrs, i still remember those days and u working for hrs in the dark room developing n printing them. Lv the story n memories. Simply awesome.

    • Azhar jani that was one of the perks of teaching there, access to the darkrooms, gatekeeper who was fine letting me work into late hours of the evening! While there, I had of course made the contact sheets and just very few test prints. Its only now that I have fully restored them and given them a new 21st century lease!

    • Grazie mille bella mia! Now got to figure a way to present more as albums to share on this site! So much to learn, so much to do!

  • the beauty of poor men sleep! LOVE IT! imagine going around today in London fields with horizontal men having their eyes closed: there would be a 911 call and a branch of repressive power would end up questioning your intentions. WE LOST OUR INNOCENCE …. fear prevails .. people learned a beauty is displayed in expensive shops and not on lawns of local parks.

    • It’s cultural complexity for you! When I showed them images of people soaking sun in parks here, they thought poor white folks who can’t afford to cover themselves up! When I showed these contact sheets at the art school, they thought there were victims of ruthless gang violence. The park sleepers are visible in numbers, yet invisible because of their poverty; similar in ways to rough sleepers here; invisible yet their pet are often granted more visibility.

    • Sally this series had many emotional twists and turn for me, however glad that I had to courage to pursue it. Would be amazing to take refuge in the shade amongst a new generation of park sleepers if I happen to spend a summer in Lahore again.

  • You are such a wonderful storyteller Ali. It instantly captures and captivates me. Its always a pleasure reading “aap ki kahaani, aap ki zubaani” 🙂

    • Bohat shukrya Afsheen. Guided by the heart, the ordinary transforms into the extraordinary. Glad you enjoyed the narratives.

  • khoobsoorat 🙂
    kia hee haseen tasweerain hain.. i wish to have prints of these.. they made me cry and smile.
    love your photography ali. you have got amazing eyes to catch ordinary and making them precious.
    love your way.
    mohsin

    • the sleeping men made me cry and smile while i was traipsing these parks with anu and on my own at times. thanks for your appreciation mohsin <3 there are many more i am still working on. gonna share them here as an album soon. eagerly awaiting a waicom tablet as working with a mouse is taking its toll on my wrist! i will be happy for us to swap our works babu.