Tracing Contemporary Photography in Pakistan through the Lens of Arif Mahmood and Nade Ali
Tracing Contemporary Photography in Pakistan through the Lens of Arif Mahmood and Nade Ali

Pakistan has seen a growth in the ever-evolving state of photography, especially after the ‘Digital Boom’ that exploded in the country, in the beginning of the twenty-first century. Along with this expanse came a great influx in the variety of print and digital media coming out of Pakistan, which in turn, allowed for an increase in the need of photography for commercial projects. Without the photographer’s keen sense of design, advertisements would be nothing more than monochromatic text on a bleak surface.

Photography has been a part of the Pakistani art scene for a long time; it has seen many unique photographers explore the medium through both analogue and digital. Therefore, to achieve a holistic understanding of the medium, it is important to not only look at it through the eyes of someone who has seen the shift from analogue to digital, but also understand the perspective of an up and coming talent and see the challenges he faces today. This essay will therefore, understand the art of Photography through the practices of Arif Mahmood, an artist who has been living the genre for almost four decades, as well as Nade Ali, a recent but dedicated addition to the contemporary scene.

Mahmood began his photography journey in Pakistan while working for the airline in the 1980s and what began as a hobby soon developed into a fully-fledged career, which has included both commercial and conceptual photography. Nade Ali is a self-taught photographer from Lahore, and is one of the few contemporaries dabbling with both 35mm and digital formats of film.

During his developmental years, Mahmood was part of a club, the ‘Photography Society of Karachi,’ which comprised of photography-hobbyists eager to expand their technical skills, and though this helped hone in on his own abilities, Mahmood eventually realised that the club was not interested in grooming individuals. That was something that he had to do on his own. This is also something that may hold true today. Many institutes and programs are only interested in producing photographers that fit the demand of commercial clientele but Mahmood explains that this is only a facet of what being a photographer truly means.

‘There is only one way to learn the medium and that is to live it. There is no shortcut; you have to go out the explore it.’ – Arif Mahmood

Arif Mahmood, The Shrine of Hazrat Bodla Bahaar at Sehwan
Arif Mahmood, Crowd gathered at Navratri at the Hindu temple Laxmi Narain, on M A Jinnah road

Ali believes that photography must be approached as one would any form of art; with persistence, dedication and patience. To truly excel at achieving a photographic eye, one needs time and an interest in understanding the medium. It is true that the digital camera has made photography highly accessible, but just capturing an image does not a photographer make. Instead, both Ali and Mahmood agree that to truly live the art, one must be unconcerned with society’s perception of photography; in order to improve, one must constantly be working.

The age old notion of the starving artist sadly also applies to photographers who have to find ways to earn a living. Commercial projects are a key form of income but Mehmood emphasises on the point that there should be a healthy balance between the commercial and conceptual. Unfortunately money often strips away a photographer’s creativity and boxes it up to conform to a client’s demands. Multiple photography workshops and classes are available to groom individuals into exploring the commercial side of photography, but then it depends where the photographer takes it from there.

Mahmood’s work continues to be a source of great inspiration to numerous local and aspiring photographers, including Ali, and it is often exciting to see how visual perspectives develop among different generations. Mahmood revealed that with the introduction of social media, it seemed that some have lost sight of what it means to be a photographer. Images are constantly being uploaded for ‘likes’ instead of an investigation into the medium. However, though Ali may also agree with this, he goes on to say, that at least there is a space to share work. While there is truth in what Mahmood says, it becomes the artist’s responsibility to keep their focus on experimentation and living the medium. Both Mahmood and Ali share their work through digital platforms making it easy and accessible for their audience, and it is evident that the avenue has not affected their styles of image-making. Both work with a steadfast understanding of their concerns while meticulously exploring how they can take their photography further.

Nade Ali, Eman Pehalwan, Shahiya Pehalwan Akhara, Walled City, Lahore 2017
Nade Ali, Candy bags, Data Darbar, Lahore, 2017

Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ali and many others have lost several avenues of their income, be it print media or event photography, and it has been through social media that these artists have found solace. Multiple digital platforms are now materialising significantly, providing new portals of exposure and revenue. There has been a substantial increase in virtual talks across borders and time zones, a positive response to the grim present.

Unlike other forms of image-making, advances in technology have made photography the ideal medium through which an instantaneous representation of the real world can be captured, thereby, making it a seemingly easy form of creating art; this, however, is far from the truth. A true artist lives and breathes the medium, as Mahmood and Ali have been doing for years. Both artists have journeyed through analogue and digital forms of the photo making and present a unique outlook of the world around them. Mahmood has been synonymous with the strong dark visuals he creates, though his coloured photography are also an object of marvel. There is an almost humanistic touch to the way his images are created as though each blemish, film-grain and shade has been physically painted on by Mahmood. The same so-called mistakes in his work that didn’t allow him to adhere to the standards of his photography group in the 80s are now the same ones that have opened a new avenues for emerging image-makers of the 21st century. His influence can be seen in Ali’s work who dives into a world of abstraction that looks beyond the ideas of simple representation. His oeuvre can be seen shifting from dramatic lighting and hues to double-exposure and photo-manipulation resulting in multi-layered visuals that entice the eye.

However, as with any form of art to succeed, support from a greater force is imperative, be it on a national or individual level. Pakistan greatly lacks in providing promotional arenas, such as photo festivals, public exhibitions and the production of photo books, for photographers to showcase their work. There is also a huge gap in the academic knowledge available on the art, as well as sizable quantities of written information on local photographers and their accomplishments in the field. Along with this, Ali criticizes the lack of darkrooms or film available in Pakistan, making it impossible for someone interested in exploring analogues formats. Strict lockdowns have further worsened conditions and Ali explains that he is now in a constant search for grants and funding programs to support his personal practice.

When one is of the arts, the best thing they can do for themselves is self-educate. Ali concurs, saying that the pandemic has given him new perspective into his practice and the forced isolation has opened a new door to various literatures that have been published about photography. Pakistan and her people are resilient and unrelenting, and with each passing day support for local talent grows. New, independent platforms are arising to showcase artists. Even during this dire time, many are finding hope and new ways to overcome the obstacles faced before them. The government, too can be seen slowly emerging in support of local artists, and we hope that this only increases exponentially in the years to come.

This article has been written over a span of two years (2019-2021) and looks at photography in Pakistan before the spread of COVID-19, as well as how it has evolved in present day.

Title image: Nade Ali, Blood Valley, rippled tent, Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj Bhai Taru Singh, Naulakha Bazar, Lahore 2019


Mahmood, Arif, interview, Jovita Alvares, 2019.
Photo essay. Arif Mahmood.
Ali, Nade, interview, Jovita Alvares, 2019.
Ali, Nade, interview, Jovita Alvares, 2021.

Jovita Alvares is an artist and art writer from Karachi. She graduated with the title of Valedictorian (Class of 2016) from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture with a BFA. She frequently writes for local publications. Recipient of the Imran Mir Art Prize2017 and Resident Artist of the 4th Sanat Residency 2017 she regularly participates in group shows and artist talks.

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