By Kamran Rehmat
Mobeen Ansari is one of Pakistan’s ace photojournalists known for his dedication, adaptability and skill. The gift of observation apart, he is imbued with a sound temperament and the kind of patience that is imperative for great art.
A graduate of the National College of Arts back home, where he majored in painting (whilst also pursuing printmaking and sculpting), Ansari found the Midas touch in photography thanks to an innate ability to reflect on life and explore the hidden.
Based in the federal capital Islamabad, Ansari, 31, likes to focus on places off the beaten path and passionately, pursued the unseen side of Pakistan as well as getting up, close and personal with both national icons and unsung heroes for the world to see — a result, he says, of a mission to change the negative portrayal of his country.
His celebrated work Dharkan: The Heartbeat of a Nation is a collection of stunning portraits and landscapes.
With the fairytale rise of cricketer-turned-philanthropist-turned politician Imran Khan as Pakistan’s prime minister to-be after his party Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf galloped to victory in last month’s general elections, Gulf Times reached out to Ansari to give us an offbeat insight into the man who featured prominently in Dharkan.
In your celebrated work Dharkan, you have photographed the who’s who of Pakistan. Imran Khan, one presumes, was an obvious choice, but for what avatar exactly?
Dharkan features the iconic people of Pakistan who have shaped the country over the course of time in their respective fields. Imran Khan was indeed a conscious choice for all sides of his personality — his cricketing exploits and charity work, if not for being a prominent political figure.
Imran Khan is arguably, the most popular living Pakistani on the planet with perhaps, only Malala Yousafzai in contention. How do you view him as a political leader/ex-sportsman/philanthropist/person?
He has proved to be a strong leader in both cricket and politics. Now, the decisive stage of the latter remains to be seen, given his victory in the elections. As a philanthropist, he has done remarkable work and I personally know many who were treated at Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital. Now, with two new such hospitals in Peshawar and Karachi, I think the scale of achievement in providing treatment to the less possessed is truly remarkable.
When you decided to shoot him for your pictorial, what exactly did you have in mind? Please describe to us the whole experience.
I’ve photographed Imran Khan three times and all shoots were very different from each other in terms of looks and circumstances.
The first time I photographed him was at an annual fundraiser Iftar (the time when fast is broken during Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month) for his hospital. It so happened that he shared the same table so I had a very good angle and opportunity to photograph his various expressions. I had met him after 16 years (the first time being when he visited my school) so it was a good connecting point.
The second time was two years after that event and it was completely by chance. A magazine hired me to take his portraits at his house. I got to photograph him while posing and also while giving the interview so I could witness and capture different moods. The magazine was kind to let me use the photographs for myself which I later used in the book.
The third time was an informal shoot at my request which he kindly entertained. At this point, my photography had improved and he remembered me so I was able to take better portraits. This time the focus was on black and white portraits and with shirt and jeans attire instead of shalwar kameez. He was quite relaxed and had not shaved which allowed me to take different photos of him.
Talking of portraits, how do you figure out the coloured and black and white choices?
Both have a different appeal. A portrait allows you to understand the subject better — you need to follow the body language. It is like a silent communication.
As for choosing between colour and black and white, I’d have to quote Ted Grant, a veteran Canadian photojournalist, who famously said: “When you photograph people in colour, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls!”
Having said that, there are of course, technical aspects involved. For me, the best time would be late afternoon when the light is good for a portrait. I like to use the iconic Rembrandt’s lighting techniques to give my portraits a painterly feel.
I love black and white and would prefer my subject to be near a window with light seeping in so that I have more control. It enables to hide flaws as well.
Is Imran Khan a photographer’s delight or nightmare? Does he pay attention to how he looks, or is he the letting-hair-down type without a care?
I have to tell you that he is actually quite camera shy and very rarely poses, and also he is not self-conscious. My first shoot with him was during summers and he was wearing a coat, so he was sweating a lot. The magazine team gave him a tissue, but he refused to wipe it as he was in a hurry and had to do the interview before heading to a meeting. In my second shoot, he was more relaxed.
How would you rate him in comparison to other celebrities you have shot?
Every person has his or her own characteristics and looks, so it would be difficult to compare. On this note, whenever I photograph anyone, for me it does not matter if they’re a celebrity or not. My aim is to capture the soul, and them, at their most human selves.
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