Tag Archives: Pakistan

Reflections in a Pashtun Cinema

Photographer Omar Mullick has spent the last decade passing through the countries of Central Asia on assignment. Here, he reflects on his photographs of a Pashtun cinema in Karachi, a space he found defied the preconceived images of the region.

These photographs were created, if I am brutally honest, from a loss of faith. Not in my religion or way of life, but from my understanding in how the eye of documentary photography portrays the Muslim world.

I didn’t buy it: the blurred melancholy and humorless conviction with which we documented native, usually Muslim peoples. It did not resonate—not even slightly, and even if I registered good intention in the work, it never mitigated my feeling that there were a thousand ways of looking at people in the West and only one way of looking at other people on the brunt of war. They were often confined to one visual language, or, to extend the metaphor, one set of visual phrases: suffering, victimhood, violence and trauma. And in the effort to prompt outrage and underline how bad war was, their subjects were often confined to the ‘other’. More specifically, people never surfaced in photographs—only symbols of war. What resulted was the worst absence possible in a photograph of another person: empathy.

The resulting photographs were shot, I realize now, as a response to that.

They were taken in Karachi at a Pashtun cinema before I was scheduled for an embed in Afghanistan. Working on a project called Basetrack and a documentary film about a Pashtun runaway boy, the photos were snapped on my days off. This place was my retreat, just as it was the retreat for the subjects in my photographs. My work, I hoped, was a portrait of people as they collectively exhaled. And in that I also hoped they kept, modestly enough, the company of photographers that emphasized sympathy over a desire to continue the string of visual metaphor: Kuwayama’s doves at Mazar E Sharif, Balazs Gardi’s tender Afghan father holding his son or Ladefoged’s The Albanians.

Pashtuns are known by legend and myth as warmongers, kohl-eyed and unforgiving, even unconquerable patriarchs to the last man—the blood and muscle of the Taliban. Here, displaced and withdrawn from their beloved mountains and heaped en masse in Karachi’s urban sprawl, they came to this movie theater—feared by outsiders—to see films and hear songs in their native tongue. And I—with my personal stories of bloodlines running all the way to Kandahar and Waziristan—schoolboyishly wanted to lose myself in their fold.

Men huddled and laughed in the aisles, smoking hash in advance of the film, people who saved their pennies for stale popcorn or samosas to be had in the intermission. Also men who, left alone, sat in the front aisles waiting in anticipation for a Pashto song to come on and then rushed the screen to dance against the projection to the song, cheered on by all. Runaway boys, who had made their way from Afghanistan or Waziristan to Karachi to pick trash by day, now chose the afternoon after Friday prayers to see a film. They preferred the sound of cinema to the buzzing drones that soundtracked their nightmares. Then there were the drug dealers, the boys looking to pick up johns by the bathrooms and the bulk of men who swore to kill any pedophiles they found taking advantage of children. But mostly it was of people at rest, disarmed. They were having fun.

These were men and young boys at ease enjoying themselves. In that they mirrored the loose pop flash photos I took of friends back home. I photographed the cinema barely looking through the viewfinder, the camera lofted above the fray and through ongoing laughs and phrases in Pashto, asking them what Waziristan looked like and who had been to Kandahar. And then I would shoot more, telling stories about my grandmother and her pride at being Pashtun and my mother’s own deep reservoirs of will and piety—markers they would surely recognize. In this recognition I found the most personal visual language I could muster.

Shoot them like you would your friends at home, I told myself: free of abstraction, their dignity intact. Shoot a portrait they might recognize of themselves, something they might love, something that may make them smile. At least once, let’s do that.

Shoot them as if your loss of faith in photography were redeemable, as if an image might actually be a chalice for humanity and you were all going to pass around the cup.

Shoot them as if your faith were already back.


Omar Mullick is a photographer and filmmaker based in New York City. He was an embedded photographer in the Basetrack project out of Afghanistan in 2011. His work on Muslims in America titled Can’t Take It With You received a solo show in 2009 at Gallery FCB in Chelsea, N.Y., and his recent film These Birds Walk was selected for 25 new faces of Independent Cinema in 2012.



Pictures of the Week: November 9 – November 16

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From escalating violence in the Gaza Strip and austerity riots in Europe to the flooding of Venice and murmurations of starlings in Scotland, TIME presents the best images of the week.

Pictures of the Week: November 9 – November 16

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From escalating violence in the Gaza Strip and austerity riots in Europe to the flooding of Venice and murmurations of starlings in Scotland, TIME presents the best images of the week.

Pictures of the Week: November 2 – November 9

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From President Obama’s reelection and Superstorm Sandy’s aftermath to a deadly earthquake in Guatemala and a train cemetery in Bolivia, TIME presents the best photographs of the week.

Pictures of the Week: October 26 – November 2

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From the devastation brought by Hurricane Sandy and Eid al-Adha celebrations around the world to the final week of campaigning for the 2012 U.S. presidential election and a suspected smuggler’s jeep perched atop the U.S.-Mexico border fence, TIME presents the best images of the week.

Pictures of the Week: October 12 – 19

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From Space Shuttle Endeavour’s Los Angeles street journey and the second presidential debate to the world’s highest freefall and a pair of painted camels in Pakistan, TIME presents the best photographs of the week.

Peter van Agtmael Receives the 2012 W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography

On Wednesday night, Magnum photographer Peter van Agtmael received the $30,000 W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, joining a legion of photojournalists that includes James Nachtwey, Paolo Pellegrin and Brenda Ann Kenneally. Established in 1978, the W. Eugene Smith Grant is one of the most esteemed in the industry, named after the legendary photographer whose harrowing pictures of World War II gave an unparalleled and poignant view of the human toll of the conflict. In a fitting tribute, the annual grant aims to recognize a photographerwho has demonstrated an exemplary commitment to documenting the human condition in the spirit of Smiths concerned photography and dedicated compassion.

Van Agtmael has done that with his long-term project, Disco Night September 11, which focuses on the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and their consequences within the United States. But it was his existing work along with his proposalto show the side of the ongoing wars through Iraqi and Afghan perspectivesthat earned him this years honor. An additional $5,000 fellowship was awarded to photographer Massimo Berruti for The Dusty Path, a combination of works examining victims of drone strikes, missing persons and the fight against militancy in Pakistani classrooms.

At 24the same age as many of the soldiers he would go on to documentvan Agtmael began the project during an embed with Americantroops engaged in heavy fighting around Mosul, Iraq.As an American of the generation shouldering these wars, I feel a strong responsibility to document their cost,” says the photographer, whose lens captured everythingfrom violent firefights and days-long foot patrols to the rehabilitation of those maimed by war.”Over the course of my lifetime, I intend to keep returning to [these conflicts] to create a comprehensive document.

To that end, van Agtmael, now 31, plans to use his grant to capture the other side of the conflictto give face to our ‘enemies’ in the fight. “Im ready to shift my focus to the other side of the war,” he says. “The Iraqis and Afghans that have been most affected remain depersonalized and shadowy in our collective consciousness. We live in a self-absorbed cultureone largely unburdened by memory.

Van Agtmael plans to return to Iraq and Afghanistan to follow these stories, but will also travel to the Middle East and Europe in hopes of documenting their diaspora. He’s timed the conclusion of his project to the American withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014another reminder of the human sacrifice and cost of the war. Heplans to use photographs, video, audio and text to share the entire range of what hes witnessed over the last seven years; still, van Agtmael maintains it’s a small shred of the whole. “Most stories will remain forever anonymous, and I’m very grateful to the W. Eugene Smith Grant for the opportunity to document the stories that would otherwise go unseen,” he says. Ive seen a nasty and primal side of mankind, but its been balanced by enough displays of extraordinary humanity to give me hope.”

The $30,000W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography is given once per year along with an additional$5000fellowship to a second recipient. blog comment . LightBox previously featured the work of 2011 Smith Grant Award winner Krisanne Johnson.

Pictures of the Week: October 5 —12

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From the Taliban shooting of a 14-year-old activist in Pakistan to the vice-presidential debate in Kentucky to angry protests against the German Chancellor’s visit in Greece and a human tower in Spain, TIME presents the best images of the week.