Pictures worth a thousand words… and then some

Traveller, blogger, photographer… Mariam Saeed Khan explores various shades of Mobeen Ansari

Pictures worth a thousand words… and then some
MSK:  Who is Mobeen Ansari? Narrate your journey from the very start.

MA:  I had to take on challenges from early on in my life. Those challenges defined me. When I was three weeks old I had a severe meningitis attack following which I lost most of my hearing and my sense of smell. This strengthened my sense of sight and gave me the eye for observation.

My parents had to think about a suitable school for me considering the circumstances.  I was an introvert at school, primarily because of my hearing problem. I was quiet, but I was also an observer.  At a very young age I started drawing. I used to make sculptures of my action figures. I did my O and A levels from Headstart School and graduated from National College of Arts (NCA). I did my minor in print making, sculptures and animation. My heightened sense of observation made me focus on my surroundings. I tried to incorporate that into my painting and photography.

My photography began in O Levels after my father bought me a digital camera.  I used to take it everywhere. It helped me communicate better than any hearing aid ever could. It made me popular as well.

I used to take random photographs. I could understand a person’s body language better. The portraits made me speak to people more. They defined my personality.

Landscape photography was an alternative but I have always liked the idea of capturing the spontaneous human emotion. People often accuse me of lacking depth, but my depth is not in my words – it’s in the images I create.

Mobeen with Naseeruddin Shah
Mobeen with Naseeruddin Shah

I have always liked the idea of capturing the spontaneous human emotion

MSK: Was your blog a gateway to the book?

MA: I no longer update the blog now, because my photography takes a lot of energy out of me. Both are different media. Even though words and images create a powerful combination but I focus more on the image, hoping that it creates the desired impact itself.

It’s the first time in four years that I have heard about my blog. But yes, you can say that it was a gateway to my first book Dharkhan.

MSK: Do you think losing your sense of hearing and smell gave you more power to pursue your passion?

MA: Indeed. It gave me the power to develop my aesthetic senses. I obviously learned a lot from my school and then at NCA later on. I believe when something is taken from you, you are compensated with something bigger and better.  For example, my neighbor, who lost his eyesight at 17, is now a student at Harvard University. Ask him what his greatest fear is and he says he fears nothing. My challenge is nothing compared to him. If anything, my challenge has made my life more interesting.

Five years ago at a concert I sat down next to a huge speaker, after which I can no longer hear at all from one ear. But since then my life has been even more remarkable. It has enabled me to see the positive side of people, who listen intently. This has been the case for the past 29 years of my life. My work and my book are dedicated to the people of Pakistan.

Captured images
Captured images

Most of the book's orders are from outside of Pakistan

MSK: How helpful was NCA in preparing you for life?

MA:  Before NCA I was a typical burger kid. NCA helped me return to my roots. My life changed completely on day one. My seniors’ ragging actually made me very comfortable with myself and my surroundings. The competition was soaring at NCA and thus the standards were astronomical.

The college conditioned me into thinking about minute details ranging from color strokes to lighting range.  It prepared me for real life and made me mentally tough. I frequently have throwbacks to some of the lessons from NCA.

I was not a photography student. I was enrolled in painting. If you notice I try and treat my photographs like paintings. Like for example if I want to do a portrait, I would like to focus on the lighting ratio. I try to incorporate that in my photographs.

Those were the best four years of my life. They made me who am I today.


MSK:  ‘Dharkan: The Heartbeat of a Nation’ – why did you choose this title?

MA: The book started spontaneously. It was never planned. I wanted to do photography that improves the image of Pakistan. I wanted to capture the people who epitomized the soft image of the country.

For instance I photographed Ardeshir Cowasjee when I was his student. As I photographed more people, I found out about more icons. I did not know Bano Qudsia until I photographed her. I met Haseena Moin as well. I figured out how to celebrate our people even though I discovered them late.

I found out more about them through my parents and grandparents. I continued discovering myself and my culture until I started the book and came to NCA. Then over the next 4-5 years, the book kept on evolving.

My father was the one who suggested the name Dharkan. He said: ‘The people you have photographed, they are like the pulse, the heartbeat, of the nation.’ The white and green flag on the cover of Dharkan became the road to visually understanding the multitude of beating hearts that have shaped our history, culture and arts. It has been an unexpected journey. I still have a long way to go.

The first person to buy this book was a very famous actress from Hollywood – Star Trek’s Beverly Crusher. She found me on Twitter and wanted to know about my published work. Most of the orders are coming from outside Pakistan.

Hunza – November 2014
Hunza – November 2014

MSK: Of the many ordinary and extraordinary people that you’ve covered, whose story has inspired you the most?

Mobeen A:  For me there are no ordinary people. Everyone’s extraordinary. Let me give you an example: 40 years ago there was a boy who loved a girl. But it did not work out. He ran away and became a truck driver. 40 years later, you see his face painted behind all trucks. And his music is famous world over. He is Ayatuallah Rizvi.

Behind each portrait is a success story.  Even famous people have stories to share that one hasn’t heard of. Another story is of Alamgir, who had the talent and passion for music, but no money. He left his home in 1970 with nothing but a guitar and a pair of clothes. He used to sleep in a park while performing in cafes during his free time, until he was discovered by PTV.

It’s the so called regular people due to which Pakistan is surviving. I looked around to find all those people who are making a difference that we might not know of. For example I met a sewerage worker who everyone calls a, ‘gutter wala’. His name is Akram Nadeem. I asked him why he does this job. ‘We do it for the country,’ he replied.

One can find many such stories.  An electrician, for example, like the one photographed for the book. They do the most dangerous jobs without being acknowledged. They put their lives in danger for us and for Pakistan.
Before NCA I was a typical burger kid

MSK: When a person travels they get to learn a lot about themselves and about the world around them. Would you like to share one or two experiences that left a deep impact on you?

MA: Even though I have travelled around the world, but the beauty of travelling inside the Pakistan is unparalleled. When you visit Kalash, you would see that people are holding on to their culture and are working towards preserving it. The woman there would be the first to greet you and ask about your well-being. When you visit Karachi, the culture is different.  My next book is on minorities in Pakistan – Dharkan Part Two. That book made me travel to different provinces for stories.

MSK: Being a photographer, do words flow for you as smoothly as your creative lens functions?

MA: The more words you add to a photograph, the more you take away from it. A photograph should be so strong that you don’t have to add the person’s name in it and mention what he does. Regardless of who you capture, you cannot set up the same lighting for everyone. I barely use studio light. I always use natural light.  I have photographed people at 6 am in the morning at very different locations.  I wanted to give everyone a different edge accordingly. Sometimes you need to think out of the box.

For example I photographed Misbalul Haq, the cricketer, in an atmosphere where there were drug addicts. But it was very peaceful. And Misbah himself is a very peaceful person. So that surrounding was ideal for his personality. I had to make him comfortable in his personality.

Whenever I photograph anyone, I talk to them about things that they would not talk about easily. It is totally different from what their occupations are, so that they feel comfortable and are natural in expressing themselves. That makes my job easier.

Like with Imran Khan, you do not talk about cricket but about Chitral, football or something else. I also photographed the Army chief early in my career and asked him to wear the army suit – I had to plead him to wear it. He was stiff at first but then I asked him to smoke. Slowly there was a connection.

Italy 2014
Italy 2014

Behind each portrait is a success story

MSK: Is your book inspired by Humans of New York?

MA: Humans of New York began in 2010. I started in working in July 2010. I didn’t know about HONY until 2011. My initial plan was to just go with the photographs. Eventually I began adding words to the images. It’s a coincidence.

My book is divided in to three parts: who the people are, what they have done for Pakistan and why are they included in the book. Brandon Stanton, meanwhile, captures the image of a situation and asks the people about their story regardless of the scene. I explore in more detail.

MSK: It is hard to live in mountains?

MA: That is a good question, because I have just come back from an expedition.  I do it every year. I have gone to Rakaposhi Camp and Naltar for over 10 days in the past. I am not scared of living there, but it changes my life completely. Every time you are on an expedition, you have no electricity, no mobile phones. You walk for 9-14 hours.

Ideas come in nothingness.  It gives me complete clarity and focus. It’s like meditation.

Recently Mobeen Ansari went on a US Tour where he was invited by the incredible team at Pakistan Arts Council of USC Pacific Asia Museum to speak at USC Pacific Asia Museum in Los Angeles. Considering that it was his first event there, the turnout was huge! He said on his Facebook Page that, “There is something beautiful about travelling all over Pakistan and bringing these stories abroad. It was an honour for me.”

USC Pacific Asia Museum
USC Pacific Asia Museum

MSK: What sets you apart from others? 

MA:  I don’t think that it is for me to say. All I can say that you have to be very patient and positive.  When you go the extra mile, when you talk to the people and ask them to tell you something positive, you see that they have positive stories to tell. I included 95 portraits in my book but I photographed 115 people. When one tells you something optimistic it adds to the cycle. The image changes eventually.

My dad once said: “You don’t have any right to complain if you do not try to change what is bothering you.”

MSK: What are your future plans?

MA: I am working on Dharkan part 2 and a book on minorities.

MSK: A message for the coming generations of writers and photographers.

MA:  Be very patient and think hard about the career path that you want to choose. Do not go for any shortcuts. Just be very patient. Always take the longer path as it teaches you more about yourself.