Fine Art photography is a genre of art that is notoriously hard to master. Caught between a painterly ethic and an intent to expose truth, most practitioners falter and produce work that seems inauthentic. The artist/photographer Soofia Mahmood is free of such travails for her work is richly and profoundly emotive. Her images feature Â mostly women as subjects and are often unutterably dark yet beautiful. Each image is a meditation on the possibilities of freedom and of the profound vulnerability of women in our society. In some of her work, she has used her own figure as a motif to confront the power and irresolution of societal impulses. A photograph that embodies most of her themes is entitled People I met, which Â presents a crystalline background with a twine of butterflies in the foreground of the image. These winged creatures have been captured in motion yet are transfixed by an impossible ennui, an impossible stillness. This dichotomy of captivity and release, finds expression in most of her corpus of work. Soofia tells Afshan Shafi about her metaphorical and unnerving collection of images
How long has photography been a hobby and career of yours and what motivated you to get started?
I bought my first camera in 2009. I had left my corporate career in Karachi, my hometown, to be a trailing spouse to my then husband and had followed him to Lahore. Being without work, friends and connections, I found the space to breathe, which initially was scary and depressing. Unfamiliarity in oneâ€™s environment tends to make you a little disoriented until you realize that you can survive and even thrive in new circumstances. So I decided to explore my childhood dream of being an artist instead of looking for a job, as we were there for only six months. The confusion in my life helped meÂ approach photography neither as a hobby nor a career, which was wonderful. I did not make a transaction with art. I just developed an unconditional relationship with the camera.Â It changed me and my life in a way I never anticipated.
I did not make a transaction with art. I just developed an unconditional relationship with the camera. Â It changed me and my life in a way I never anticipated
When did you start taking photos? What made you decide to explore photography as a means of artistic expression?
I started taking photos right after I studied the DSLR (digital single-lens reflex camera) menu. My daughter was 3 years old at that time, so she was often my subject. I had the luxury of a chauffeur driven car at that time and Lahore was new to me. The driver we had was the most interesting Lahori character that I have ever met. He saw me fiddling with the camera in the lawn and told me that if I wanted to take photos of the city, he could take me to interesting places. With him, I got out of my sheltered cocoon. We went to akharhaas (local wrestlerâ€™s gyms) in old Lahore where his friendship with pehlwans (wrestlers) allowed a woman to step inside and photograph them. I went to a small, dark house where they were making kites illegally for basant. I went to the farthest corner of the canal and to Heera Mandi (Lahoreâ€™s historic red light district). A series started to develop. I called it Romancing Lahore. A pair of red heels bought from the Landaa Bazaar (thrift market) that he had taken me to travelled with us everywhere and was a prop in all my Lahore photos. They were not brilliant photographs as I was just learning the skill, but naturally I was drawn to concepts and props from the start. Just taking photos of the scenes around me was not satisfying for me. I added how I connected to the scene. The red heels with two pehlwans fighting in the background put me in the picture, discovering Lahore. This was much before I started doing self-portraiture. I did not plan anything, which was the beauty of it all, and it led me to explore photography as a medium of art and not documentation.
Who are your favourite photographers and what influence have they had upon your work?
I donâ€™t really have favourite photographers. Photography as a medium of art is not that developed and remains largely shallow. I do have some favourite artists that inspire me. I am in love with Salvador Dali. His work is brilliant, but more so, his entire being embodied his art. His eccentricity depicts the fearlessness one needs to produce crude, crass and bold work that speaks the truth on so many levels and is not visible to many. I enjoyed the photographic series Philippe Halsman created in collaboration, Dali Atomicus. I also enjoy the still and moving work of Shireen Nishaat as the subject of her work is close to my heart.
Do you think talent for photography is something a person is born with?
I think every human being is born with the innate capacity to see life from a unique perspective. It is that perspective that is important to be artist of any medium. Over time, oneâ€™s life experiences either make you deepen that perspective or lose it entirely. Anyone can learn the skills. Everyone cannot have the sight. Photography especially is much easier to learn than any other medium. In this digital age, all you need is a DSLR and a Facebook page to call yourself a photographer. On the one hand, it is wonderful to see how this medium is accessible. On the other, it is diluting the possibility of photography being considered â€˜artâ€™ seriously. It is so easy to be lost in the romance of gadgetry that I feel this medium as a form of art does not get the respect, love, depth and hard work it deserves.
I have fought so much that I left a marriage, wrote articles after articles against the Sharia law, shaved my head, always wore clothes considered inappropriate and said things not suitable by the social standards
Where do you get your ideas? What predominant themes do you explore in your work?
My work is all about me: my emotions, life experiences, my skeletons in the closet, my beauty, my ugliness, my opinions and my truth. My self-portraiture journey started when I decided to leave my first husband. I used the medium to admit my raw emotions to myself to begin with and give them a representation in the form of light. When people started connecting with me to share with me how my work is impacting them, that is when I decided to continue to work and that my opinions and emotions matter to others.
The irony of organized religion, or the way a woman is perceived by herself and the society are themes often depicted in my work. These ideas are not coming from an â€˜activistâ€™ mindset. These are coming from my personal conflicts, experiences and situations I have dealt with and am still dealing with.
What do you feel is the most challenging thing about photographing what you do?
Being in front of the camera is the most challenging part of my work. I do not like being photographed generally. The only reason I started doing self-portraiture was because I was doing an art residency in Thailand, where I was again as a trailing spouse. I was given a tiny studio with glass walls to work in. It was an aquarium where people could watch you create your work. I had an emotion, leading to an idea and I had me, so I initiated. Over time, as the series developed, I started feeling differently in front of the camera. I wasnâ€™t me; I was an idea, a concept and a subject. The challenging part is, it limits me sometimes in certain concepts (if only I was a contortionist). It has also spoiled me, as I am now used to working alone being behind and in front of the camera at the same time for so long.
Your work tackles issues of an overtly feminist nature. Please tell us more about your work in this regard and the response which these pieces have received.
I am a woman; I am a woman rebellious by Pakistani standards. I fought my family as a young girl, the society when I stepped out of the house, and all the stereotypes that have come my way. I have fought so much that I left a marriage, wrote articles after articles against the Sharia law, shaved my head, always wore clothes considered inappropriate and said things not suitable by social standards. I have fought so much that I am tired. The only fight left in me now is to express my opinions in my art without any fear of judgment.
I am a human being free of imposed gender standards and I do not accept any other treatment from the law or the society. That is what my work is about.
I have received mixed responses. From women, I receive mostly positive responses. Even if they cannot articulate their opinion, they bond with me over my work, like they know, and they agree, but wonâ€™t say it. I have received lecherous comments from men and colleagues, who thought my work invited men to harass me, especially when I was a single mother. I have received threats for being inappropriate. I have received love and commendation from people I respect and adore. It has been amazing in all honesty.
What work do you do on your photos to achieve the dark effect that so many of your fine art photos have?
I chuckled a bit after reading this question. I love to play with light. Most of my work is done with artificial lighting because I can control it to achieve the strong contrast that is my style. A lot of people assume that my work is the product of digital manipulation. It is not usually, unless the concept is designed that way. For me the thrill of the craft is creating a photograph with lights. Post production is a process that you use according to your concept. The raw product has to be well thought out and planned for it to go through the desired post process and deliver on its intent.
If you could photograph anyone in the world, without limitations, who would you choose and how would you shoot them?
I would love to photograph people with multiple personality disorders. I would give their multiple personalities tangible depictions. I would show the interaction of their multiple personalities with each other and with the world.
I would love to photograph the jhallee (homeless) woman who used to roam the streets of Islamabad and ate from the same bowl as the stray dogs that surrounded her.
I would love to photograph any woman who is willing to depict her truth without definition of the society or religion. Anyone who would risk breaking stereotypes self-imposed or otherwise and allows me to create her alternate reality.
Please tell us how you were inspired to create your latest work?
I have recently immigrated to Canada, after fighting with the system for making me my daughterâ€™s legal guardian. I gave up on Pakistan and left. Here, I am struggling financially and emotionally without any reference to my history. My latest work is about surviving this phase and dealing with the emotions as a new immigrant. It is called Project Small as I am living in a tiny studio apartment with my daughter and husband. I do not have any props or studio gear or the money to afford it. After struggling for a few months, I decided to start creating work in the same small living space with no additional cost on props. The work is a mix so far from being about the mundane, which as an immigrant is also a novelty in the new environment, to being about much deeper self-introspection. Some pieces are just angry retorts to the stereotypes I come across, mostly from the Pakistani community based here. I hope in the coming months, it would take some direction, depending on where life takes me.
What are a few pieces of advice you find yourself offering most frequently to aspiring or emerging photographers?
Connect your craft to yourself and give the medium the respect any artist would give to his/her tools. And donâ€™t just take photos, make them.
If you had to pick one series as your favourite, which would it be and why?
Forgive Me is my favorite series to date. It reflects a major turning point in my life when I relinquished the guilt I was still carrying as a woman, the guilt of being a bad wife who left, the guilt of being a bad mother for leaving her father, the guilt of being a bad Muslim for not agreeing to abide, the guilt of not being thin enough, or young enough or beautiful enough, the guilt of not being a man. It was a heavy burden that would make me second guess myself often and depicted my own hypocrisy of fighting for my rights while feeling guilty at the same time.Â I let go and that series represents that. Everyone changes with time, but some changes are more drastic. This one was a drastic change that made me different, a different that I finally liked.