Pakistan’s Beating Heart: An Interview With Mobeen Ansari

Photo of Culture Trip
6 January 2017

Mobeen Ansari’s recently published book, Dharkan: The Heartbeat of a Nation, captures the lives of Pakistani people in a series of insightful, unique photographs. Through their stories, faces and landscapes, Ansari explores Pakistan in all its dazzling beauty.

Mobeen Ansari | © Ally Adnan

What is your background and how has it led you towards photography?

I’m from Islamabad (Pakistan), 27 years of age and have always been inclined towards arts. I graduated from the National College of Arts, where I majored in painting (minor in printmaking and sculpture). At three weeks of age I had a severe meningitis attack due to which I lost most of my hearing and smell. Somehow this strengthened my visual sense and keen eye for observation. Over the years it led to my love for painting and then photography.

Lower Shani camp, Gilgit-Baltistan | © Mobeen Ansari

How would you describe your photographic process?

I’m a freelance photographer and inclined towards photojournalism. At the moment I’m travelling all over Pakistan to capture ‘uncharted territories’, beautiful heritage as well as inspirational stories. I have worked with publications like Newsweek, Timeline, The Friday Times and a few others. My desire to capture the human condition has led me into portraiture and since I have to travel a lot, I just love the immense variety of the land- and cityscapes, the mountains, deserts and ever-changing landscape. This forms the base of my travel photography.

I recently launched my first book, Dharkan: the Heartbeat of a Nation, which includes portraits and stories of both iconic and very ordinary people, the visible and unsung heroes of Pakistan, who have shaped it and continue to work for its betterment. The book is an eclectic collection of photographs of people from all walks of life from sanitation workers to humanitarians to actresses. I had been working on this book for the last three years. My second book is on the lives of minorities in Pakistan and will be out sometime next year.

What inspired you to take on photography?

Portrait of a Man, Fateh Jang, Pakistan | © Mobeen Ansari

It was about ten years ago when I was in school and my father had just bought one of the earliest digital cameras (a Kodak). I would occasionally take it with me to school and take pictures of everything from trees to portraits of my friends and teachers. One day a fellow classmate got into a fight and afterwards stormed off to a basketball court to cry. I happened to be there with my camera but he did not see me. Curious, I zoomed and photographed his anguish. At that very moment I felt a connection and an unusual interest in photographing human emotion and spontaneous moments. Having been an introvert most of my life due to my hearing challenge, this became my mode of expression. It helped me understand people better and completely changed me.

I was always a student of Fine Arts – from O levels to university. This taught me composition and aesthetics, which I kept learning in parallel while continuing with photography as a hobby. Both my grandparents did photography as a hobby as well as my father, who taught me the basics. All these factors came together and inspired me to take on this as a medium for my expression. I consequently started it professionally when I was in freshman year at university.

Do you see yourself as a street photographer, an art photographer or a photojournalist?

I think a bit of all three. I think street photography and photojournalism go hand in hand. I spend most of my time traveling and photographing all over Pakistan looking for positive and inspirational stories and for people with character. I did some art and conceptual photography when I was in college and plan to revisit that soon.

Ainak wala malang, Mian Mir Shrine | © Mobeen Ansari

What are your favourite subjects?

A year ago I would have said my favourite subjects are people. This time I can’t decide if it is people or landscapes! Though I started photography with landscapes, I didn’t actually start having fun with it or experiment until recently, thanks to my expeditions to North Pakistan. I do that every summer but most recently I have started traveling around the Sindh side where it is all an amazing desert landscape.

In terms of photographing in Pakistan, what are the challenges you face?

Several, actually. Due to the volatile situation in some locations, photography is either not allowed or some folks get uptight about it. Being a portrait photographer I have to earn my subjects’ trust while doing street photography. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to photograph everyone I wanted, but it takes a lot of communication and trust-building. Also, Pakistan is a culturally diverse country and sometimes visiting a different city or province is like going to a different country! So in some places there is the language barrier. But then that is fun, and not really a challenge!

Mithi, Pakistan | © Mobeen Ansari

Are there any subjects you would love to take on as a photographer?

As clichéd as it sounds, my biggest dream is to capture the Earth and other wonders from outer space! I am fascinated by nature and I am in awe and envy of the amazing nature photos being shared online these days. I would love to capture the Northern lights and landscapes in Alaska.

Like any other photographer, I would also love to do portraits of the most famous and important people in the world. I’ve had the opportunity to photograph some of the most iconic people in Pakistan. It would be very interesting for me to use this approach on iconic celebrities abroad!

Which other photographers (or artists/filmmakers) inspire you in your work?

Steve McCurry is my favourite photographer. I am very inspired by him and am a crazy collector of his books. I also like Gregory Crewdson as well as Jonathan Besler, Shirin Nishat and Yousuf Karsh. I love the works of artists like Andy Warhol (whose work heavily inspired my college thesis), Glenn Brown and Rembrandt. I often use Rembrandt’s lighting techniques in my portraits to add a painterly feel to them. I am a huge fan of filmmakers like Lee Tamahori, David McKenna, David Lean and Steven Spielberg. The cinematography in their films is like seeing a beautiful photograph in every frame.

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