Surge: Pakistan | Special issue on Pakistan

The Cusp

Arif Mahmood

As photographers in Pakistan today, we are fortunate given the steady growth of the profession but shoulder great responsibility while standing at a cross-roads or a “half line” of a moment in the evolution of the arts, and photography as an integral part of it. Many young and dynamic voices are penetrating mainstream media every day to face the challenges of conventional tropes and rigid norms of expression in order to break away with a ‘new’ language. This refreshed articulation of encounter is bolder, the content unapologetic and the expression, much more in your face, resulting in a moment that is at once, uncompromising, vital and edgy.

From the old vanguard of the photojournalistic world, the need to accept this change has gradually taken place. What is acceptable now in terms of the photograph’s effect, reasoning and meaning was unthinkable when I first began to use the medium, exploring by necessity, the street and the high life of fashion. The visual field has now become studded with a much needed sense of rebellion and discussion, exemplified in how photographers take stylistic risks and use the element of surprise as an active element of their creative process. There is indeed a surge or rather a resurgence in the dream which was invoked by a few visionaries of the past – an excitement about a growing exodus of young wielders trying to claim their place in photography’s current professional state and form.

What makes a generation’s expression contemporary, is the ability to use traditional working approaches but steer clear of emulation. Tradition manifests itself differently today than it did even a decade ago – in the past it was about trying to achieve a desired result based on the ‘pictorial’ qualities of images – understanding the need to visually represent ‘truth’, unabashed and with simplicity which was the hardest to achieve. The barriers broken today signal how there is fatigue with seeking simplicity in an image – a play of light, shade and shadow – but enlivening the ‘straight’ image with concepts and ideas. Hence, the participation of the young is more cogent and perhaps more honest with a rising sense of authorship and subjectivity in photography, especially in a world of mass media and mass observation. The birth of the digital revolution has meant that as the numbers of photographers and photographs has increased, it becomes difficult yet imperative to discern differences in the needs of an audience. The need for interactive perspectives and improvisation means that photography’s intent is being challenged and re-developed.

In Pakistan, these shifts don’t necessarily represent the coming of a utopia but a cusp in which we are all witness to change – a change in the direction of practice-driven aesthetics where one is always searching for what lies in-between images. Like the camera, as the machinery of the mind advances, generating new forms of encounter, the beauty of this intricate surge will only be visible to those who will strive to look beyond the initial canvas.