Gone are the days when the photographer left behind a hazardous trap of long curling wires and flashed artificial lights powerful enough to blind an eagle. Today, smartphones and DSLRs have transformed everyone into an Instagram journalist of sorts but it takes more than a fancy camera to prove your mettle as a professional.
We live in a male-dominated society where a Pakistani woman has to make calculated decisions following the limitations defined for her. Women in photography are often overlooked in favour of better-known male colleagues, but there’s no denying that female photographers bring a unique perspective to the field.
Pakistan found its first female photographer in Rashida Afghan, who began photography in 1964. People were shocked. A field overshadowed by men, they mocked, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Do you even have film in your camera?’ ‘This is not a woman’s job!’. She did not get much encouragement from her male colleagues either.
The niche for female photographers is now growing consistently in our country, although limited to mostly wedding photography, nevertheless women have been able to create brands out of their names with the exemplary work they have been doing. Countless names like Maha Wajahat, Palwasha Minhas, Waliya Najib, Fatima Tariq and many more have taken the photography game to another level, where they are at par with their contemporaries. Each photographer has an individual way of seeing the world, and female photographers bring an outlook of their own, who stepped out and decided to explore the world through their lens.
“When we were starting out in 2009, there were already established male photographers in the field who at times seemed threatened by our growing popularity,” shares the two sisters from Rammal & Nabia M’s Photography - The Visual Storytellers, who turned their passion into a business. “It was harder in the beginning as we weren’t taken seriously. We were ridiculed for ‘carrying a camera’ as it was a mere trend. When we started making it big on our own, the same people would come to us and say ‘Aap ki tou hawa chal rai hai aaj kal.’ (You’re flying high these days) or spread rumours that we were taught photography by them. Some perseverance and grit was required before our work started speaking for itself.”
The wedding industry has readily accepted the role of a female photographer, as brides and their families feel more comfortable hiring female photographers. “Photography with female aesthetics is what attracts brides to our portfolio. There’s always an added element of being more comfortable with a girl photographer. We can talk about anything. I don’t believe most men can bond with their clients in such a manner. It does make us happy knowing that we may have some small contribution in this acceptance,” the sisters elucidate.
“While working with a male competitor – we make sure our boundaries are respected and the shoot doesn’t turn into a battlefield. Referring to glass ceiling (when women are left out of executive positions and discriminated against based on their gender), we’d like to believe we made our mark with our work,” they add.
The girls shared about obstacles they had to face initially since the market was then overshadowed by men completely. “Our journey hasn’t been all smooth sailing. It’s always hard being a new entrant into the market, but it’s definitely harder when you’re a woman. We would stand still in the same space as male photographers and would try to shoot as creatively as possible. The end results, however, wowed the clients.” They believe that despite it being a bumpy road for them as women, they want to be known for their work and talent at the end of the day, “Throughout our journey we have focused on getting hired for being good photographers, and not female photographers, and we’ve always asked our clients to choose us purely on merit. We live in a very stereotypical patriarchal society and the stereotypes were hard to break; looking back a decade later, we see the number of girls who are in this field and cannot be more proud.” Both Rammal and Nabia envision women photographers taking it to the next level, making it international and being recognised and acclaimed for their talent, not just their gender.
Breaking the shackles of “Log kya kahaingay?” (What will people say?) Hira Iqbal, of Hira Iqbal Photography, is another woman who emerged as a successful businesswoman and has been in the photography business for seven years. While sharing her story she states how it wasn’t easy for her to pursue her dream of capturing images as her father was against her becoming a professional photographer. “Initially, when I was an amateur and made mistakes, male peers would make fun of me and ridicule me instead of guiding me,” narrates Hira. “Being a homemaker I managed to stay determined and did not steer from my path. I still encounter comments like “Ab shaadi hogayi, kya zarorat hay, ghar betho, bachay paalo” (You’re married now, what’s the need? Sit at home and look after your kids). My answer to that is why not? When I have the capability then why should I settle for less and not hone my skills?”
Hira trusts that nothing is impossible if you’re willing to achieve your dreams at any cost, “I see more girls entering and excelling in their career of photography just like any another field. It seemed impossible for me but I kept on fighting because I believed in me.”
Overcoming gazillions of distractions and difficulties along the way, Hira has managed to make a name for herself and believes that ‘Behind every successful woman is herself.’
Another inspiring story is of Umbreen Ibrahim (Umbreen Ibrahim Photography), who started her career way back in 2012 when you could count the number of female photographers on your fingers. Her father who belonged to the army raised her no different than boys, “The confidence he gave me shaped my personality and made me who I am today,” she tells.
Why are there few female photographers in this field? To this end Umbreen says, “The number of female photographers are still fewer as compared to male counterparts. The reason being it is a very time-consuming profession, we have a truckload of responsibilities and obligations to fulfil, apart from juggling a professional life.
A woman needs the full support of her family to excel and I am a prime example. I couldn’t have worked in this industry without their support.” Umbreen sees a lot of potential among young female aspiring photographers. “At the moment, I see a lot of potential and I wish it stays that way. But the main concern is would it still be here in the next 10 years? We live in a male-dominated society and no matter how talented women are; they cannot flourish in their careers without support from the society.”
Harassment at work place is a common issue and even female photographers are not spared. Izzah Shaheen Malik, of Pictroizzah, decided to speak up about it. She recently took to her Instagram to share her experience where she stated she was harassed and bullied by a very reputable male photographer of the industry. She has been the first out of many to raise her voice against discrimination. There was a disagreement between both the photographers on a technical issue which eventually led to a bitter fight. According to Izzah, most of the male photographers sided with the oppressor, despite the fact that he used inappropriate language for the former. Izzah’s stories reveal a dark side of many workplaces where it is extremely convenient for men to blame and shame women. Even the supposedly empowered women find it challenging to stand up against this discrimination.
However, the story of women in photography is progressing on an optimistic note. Women photographers are still significantly under-spoke in the art world. But partway through the story, we’re seeing signs on how women are shaping photography for themselves.
One example of this is the up and coming 27-year-old photographer, Rabiya Mughal of Rabiya Mughal Photography, who at a young age has managed to create a full-time career out of her passion. “I started taking paid shoots when I turned 19. Being an introvert my parents were the ones who always told me to never give up before trying and that’s how I started.”
When asked about the gradual change in the industry she tells, “Initially when I started, Karachi was mostly subjugated by male photographers and there weren’t many female photographers you’d hear about. However, in the last 3-4 years, there has been a drastic shift in the industry and today there are so many incredibly talented female photographers around who are setting a huge foundation for future women to easily enter this field.”
In the wise words of Annie Leibovitz, American portrait photographer, “One doesn’t stop seeing. One doesn’t stop framing. It doesn’t turn off and turn on. It’s on all the time.”