The story starts with Covid, Faisal Faroo-qui tells me. He lounges on a chair in his Lahore home, as we speak over one of the many video conferencing apps that became a lifeline for businesses and families across the planet in 2020.
The story isn’t a new one, or even unique. It is as old as, well, COVID-19 itself. During a time when public gatherings even amongst the smallest group of people were not only prohibited, but could be fatal, one of the industries to take an immediate nosedive was fashion, and fashion-adjacent industries.
But while the actual labels could eventually turn to e-commerce to survive, the absence of shows, shoots, and large-scale events like award ceremonies meant a lot of photographers, videographers, and makeup artists found work worth their time and skill hard to find.
“We adapted,” says the photographer now. Behind him I can see post-lunch activity. This somehow softens the corners of this conversation, adding layers of context to the personality of Faisal Farooqui. He is one of the most well-known photographers in Pakistan, but also, he is a family man, who has lunch with his wife and kids. It is little surprise that the Dragonfly Pakistan and its subsidiary businesses are run jointly by Faisal, and his wife, Uma Farooqui.
“There were two-and-a-half very bad years, and since the beginning of 2023, things are starting to look up again,” he says. “Right before Covid hit, things were still happening, fashion was happening, fashion weeks were happening.
“I won’t call myself a fashion photographer, but rather a ramp photographer. Now because there are no shows happening, the fashion councils – I don’t know if they exist anymore – aren’t active, and the quality required from photography has changed,” Faisal says. “There are designers who have had solo shows or presentations as they like to call them, but they don’t have the overall impact that a fashion week would.”
This seems to be a conversation that carries over to the next regardless of whom you speak within the industry. Be it designers, stylists, or photographers; the absence of fashion councils and resultant lack of meaningful activity impacts the quality of the work that comes forward, with a lot of original thought really coming out of either very young, small labels or stylists.
In the wake of the optimistic-sounding new normal and return to life, it seems that we had completely forgotten that recovery would take a long time.
Faisal Farooqui agrees with this, but he understands that businesses need to make money in order to survive.
“It’s all about money and budgets,” he says. “Dragonfly had to reconfigure its strategy too. We had to diversify.”
Dragonfly Prints, which is Uma Farooqui’s baby and core business, had become the main business now, Faisal says. Uma is a graphic designer by training, and Dragonfly Prints has really grown in the last few years.
“So, I’m a salesman,” says Faisal. “I began my career working for Kodak as a salesman. I know how to place a product, shoot a product, and sell a product. With Dragonfly Prints I get to learn more; I’m diving into digital marketing, and learning how to sell on that media.”
Dragonfly Pakistan at the moment focuses on product, food, and corporate photography. Fashion photography – even though Faisal might hesitate to refer to himself as a fashion photographer – may not be as frequent but it still does happen.
He mentions a shoot he just did for the Pinktree Company.
“There was no art director, no storyboard, but it’s still a gorgeous shoot,” says Faisal. “We shot at an old haveli in Lahore, and the pictures came out great.”
A look at the Dragonfly Instagram confirms this. The shoot features model Faiza Ansari,who looks great, by the way, and signature Pinktree outfits, which really pop against the rustic walls of the old building.
Faisal Farooqui is pum-ped while he talks about this shoot. Perhaps it had been a while since a fun fashion project came his way. The operative word here is obviously ‘fun’, because designers obviously still need their product documented.
What has happened since more and more people tur-ned to the convenience of online shopping, was that the necessity for catalog shoots emerged, and once that happened, more creative fashion shoots became more of an extravagance than necessity. One could argue that properly conceptualized, well-directed shoots are an actual necessity to sustain the ‘fashion’ element, otherwise all everyone is doing is merely selling clothes.
Then, of course, all output adapts to changing technology and media. Once upon a time, photos were meant for print, then a screen, and finally, as photographer Tapu Javeri pointed out, a 1x1 box on a mobile phone.
More recently, in the past five years or so, moving images beat static images in popularity.
They are truly more interesting, and lots more can be conveyed through them within one short frame. Fashion labels too have experimented more and more with videos and shorts, which previously had been a novelty introduced to Pakistan by Ammar Belal, in the short Satori for his brand and a highly stylized music video, ‘My Favorite Dream’ for the label ABCD, some 15 years ago.
Faisal Farooqui is not buying it.
“I’m not a filmmaker, I’m not a videographer, that is not what I am trained to do,” he says.
“They must have their appeal, but I believe you have to be up-to-date with the technology, and have the interest. There are filmmakers – I will not refer to them as videographers – who are doing that, so I will let them do their job, and I’ll do mine.”
He recalls meeting She-roo, or HSY as the rest of us know him, recently, and mentioned that he wanted to shoot for him.
HSY told him, “I’m into movement these days, is that something you would be interested in?”
“I said, ‘not really’,” Faisal says now. “You’ll think I’m being stubborn, but really, that’s just how I feel about film and video.”
Faisal had shot the first Carnival de Couture that took place in Karachi. “I had wanted to shoot ramp since I saw a show in India. The pure energy that is produced when models are walking down, that is something I want to capture. I like movement, and I like freezing it in time.”
Faisal has also shot for the very first Fashion Pakistan Week and the very first Pakistan Fashion Design Council (PFDC) Fashion week. He has photographed every Lux Style Award edition.
The Dragonfly name is synonymous with quality and reliability. You might think that’s a boring quality for someone in an industry as thrilling as fashion to have, but reliability is key when picking your team, and within a team, once obviously only wants people they can count on.
“To this day when someone – editors, reporters, blo-ggers – finds out that I am conducting photography for an event they tell me, ‘okay, now we know we’re sorted’.”
And this is something anyone could vouch for:
the Dragonfly team works overnight after any event to deliver photos by deadline to publications. There is a reason why Faisal Farooqui has built and kept his place in the industry for over two decades.
“The thing about longe-vity in this industry is that you have to work hard, you have to build your signature, you have to produce such strong images that speak themselves. To this day, when I see a Shahbaz Shazi image, or from the new ones, Alee Hassan, I’ll know whose work I’m looking at.
“At the beginning of your career, you do have to set aside your pickiness, but if you do want to be picky then deliver. If you’re asking for a larger fee or being selective, then prove why you can ask for those things.
“Finally, photographers get paid well. They get paid enough to sustain themselves. Photography has been my bread and butter for a long time, and I have had to run my kitchen like everyone else.
Photographers get compensated according to the quality of their work.
The one thing to say no to, though, is people who don’t pay on time. I will work for less money, but I will never work for paymasters who aren’t punctual.”
As the conversation goes on, it becomes very clear how and why Faisal Farooqui has come to this point in his career. He is severely practical about the nature of his work and about his own capabilities, realities and dealbreakers. He isn’t averse to growth, he keeps his skillset, portfolio and equipment on-point.
The last couple of years may have been tough, but he takes a glass-half-full approach to that too.
“Even if there’s been a downward trend, the better, good times, they’ll be back,” says Faisal. “Remember that everything that is, once wasn’t. Once upon a time there weren’t stylists or makeup artists or art directors. But things have a way of cropping up and regenerating over and over.”
Faisal Farooqui is severely practical about the nature of his work and about his own capabilities, realities and dealbreakers. He isn’t averse to growth, he keeps his skillset, portfolio, and equipment on-point. The last couple of years may have been tough, but he takes a glass-half-full approach to that too.“Even if there’s been a downward trend, the better, good times, they’ll be back,” says Faisal.
“Remember that everything that is, once wasn’t.”
Faisal Farooqui’s photo by Uma Farooqui
Faisal was present at the first Carnival de Couture, a landmark event for Pakistani fashion where local and Indian designers and celebrities met on the same stage
As fashion shoots become scant, smart companies like Dragonfly diversify their portfolios to keep business running.