A glimpse into the journey of a Pakistani woman as a photographer and artist in Bangkok….
Life as they say is a journey of self discovery. But when it is taken with awareness and a purpose, the journey takes an existence of its own. Sometimes you resist the turns, other times you relish them. There are always pit stops but never an end. About my own journey, I have no great stories to tell, nor do I have a glorious past to share. I have no worldly achievements to boast about, or any spiritual enlightenment I might have reached. I only have little insights to share about my journey as a photographer and an artist, which began a little too late, but just at the right time.
When somebody now asks about my beginnings, the answer seems too distant. I don’t say that with any sadness, as sometimes being far away from your roots implies nothing but growth. I could conveniently define myself as a woman from Pakistan, but that would instantly fit me into a category without much thought. At the risk of possibly confirming some of the ideas in that pile of pre-conceived notions, I would say that life as a Pakistani woman can be hard, even in the metros-especially if, in your insides, you don’t feel like a Pakistani girl, but like a human being full of potential. When I was not trying to conform to the norms of the society and family, I was trying too hard to defy them. I was making the same traditions self-fulfilling by labeling myself as just a woman, only replacing the adjectives ‘weak’, with ‘strong’. My childhood dream of becoming an artist long forgotten, life became an avid pursuit for money and independence and their literal connection with each other. When you are living with that philosophy, everything becomes a transaction including relationships. A life of barter is what I proudly led. Proud, because after all I was a ‘strong woman’!
It was in 2009, a move from Karachi to Lahore for my partner’s work led me to quit my corporate job. I suddenly found myself with nothing to offer to the world-nothing that could receive monetary validation. A semi-professional DSLR camera offered a good distraction. Karachi, where I had spent all my life, is a city of limited colors-Life there is fast paced, competitive and unsafe like in any other big city. Lahore, on the other hand has more color, culture, time and the fear of life is relatively less. It was just the right city to be in to start exploring photography. I took some basic lessons in understanding the equipment and instantly felt a connection with this medium. However, I continued to consider my newfound hobby a mid life crises (which if it were, I wish such a crises for everyone). The first personal project I did was called ‘Romancing Lahore’ in which I represented myself as red stilettos, which somehow depicted me so effortlessly. My cheap second hand red stilletos and I went to different parts of Lahore, from the riverside to the homes of illegal kite makers, to document the beginning of my journey. I went to meet ‘pehelwaans’, traditional wrestlers, who had once brought glory to Pakistan with their achievements in their sport, but now are a dying breed. A group of semi-naked men, fighting in the mud, in an area around old Lahore welcomed a local female to place her shoes outside the ‘akhaara’, the sacred wrestling area and allowed her to take photos. I was pleasantly surprised at their acceptance. I had ‘badam lassi’ (Lassi is a traditional drink made from yoghurt and badam is almonds) with the group and sang their praises, making each one of them visibly happy and excited. They did not care whether the photos will be used or published-all they cared was that someone still cared about their passion. It was my beginning to see people in a new light and realizing that some times our lack of acceptance towards others, reflects as theirs for us.
In Lahore, I happened to cross paths with a group of people who were artists, filmmakers and photographers. It was strange to come across people who did not associate being different to negativity. What mattered in their space was your art and how it begets love and acceptance, be it for yourself or for others around you. I learned some with them, and some through them in the limited time that I spent there.
After only 6 months in Lahore, my parallel profession as a supportive trailing spouse brought me to Bangkok. It’s ironic to think how a city so shallow in its lifestyle can offer respite to those who are in search of depth…only if you don’t fall into its trap to begin with. The pollution, traffic, dog poop on the sidewalks, a relentless pursuit of superficial beauty and the obsession with sex –all of that and more was overwhelming at first. At least until I settled into my typical expat wife lifestyle where the company pays for a premium condo to live in, for an expensive international school for your child to study in, and a lot of money to indulge in. Life did not go beyond Sukhumvit as I found my own shallowness in the city. I enjoyed the freedom of being able to walk at night in my jeans and T-shirt without being ogled at or mugged. I took pride in the activities my daughter could engage in that wouldn’t have been possible in Pakistan. I marveled at the glimmering sight of the swimming pool in my expensive condo-a luxury I could not have imagined back home. But the fascination with luxury and the liberty of space did not last long. And there I was standing again with nothing in my hand but a camera. The question remained, what was I to do with it?
I read somewhere once, there is a fine line between being something or not. To me that line was the belief that I wasn’t. So when I was asked who I was, I never said ‘photographer’. I would get flustered and said in my head ‘I’m nothing’.
I engaged myself as a voluntary assistant to a fashion photographer and started feeling more useful with the work-holding the lights, running to get water for the team, taking nail polish off the hands of gorgeous women. I learnt and absorbed everything that the photographers were doing from their body language to their use of equipment. Consequently I tried some shoots on my own on the basis of the contacts I was developing. The commercial photography business was competitive-people bitched about others work…I bitched some too. It wasn’t all that different from the corporate world-where you are always ambitious yet so insecure. I was eventually fired from being a voluntary assistant. Looking back, I think that was one of the best things that happened to me.
Everything happens for a reason…every coincidence is just another link to the next. Every chance meeting changes the course of your life, if you allow it. A coffee meeting with a stranger who asked me a simple question, ‘if you don’t think about the money and just dream, what would you do with your camera?’ A senior photographer couple I met through a friend who noticed a pattern in even my commercial work, and did not hesitate to tell me. My mentor from Lahore, who kept smiling meaningfully at my work and not saying a word, making me think and rethink… and then my own constant nagging in my head. And so I dreamed…
I dreamed of exhibitions where people would come to listen to my photos, I dreamed of book covers that told the story before it was even read and I dreamed of saying all that I have never said and hadn’t allowed myself to feel for so long.
As they say, you need to tell the universe what you want and then want it badly. And so I did, and the universe has began to conspire. I found the Artist@Work residency program on the internet as I was browsing the website of an art gallery in Bangkok, The Pikture Gallery. Under this program, amateur artists get a space at the gallery for 6 months-a space that is physical yet metaphorical. The work produced in that space is then exhibited by the gallery at the end of the residency. I applied, I received. I remember asking the gallery owner why is she running this program when the gallery gets no tangible benefit out of it, and she simply replied with a smile, ‘for the love of art’. The 4 months that I have already spent there have started making me realize what I had been seeking all my life…freedom from myself.
As I work towards my exhibition, I am meeting strangers who choose to connect with me through my work. I am losing friends who choose to disconnect with me for my work. I am embracing all of it, like I am embracing myself for the first time.
My journey has just begun…