Introspection; outside and beyond

November 13, 2022

Amna Zuberi explores a fantasy world that resides in quotidian life through her images

Images taken from the book.
Images taken from the book.


n eye is trained to look at thousands of curated images daily that have ceased to be remarkable due to their abundance. We consume them through advertisements, marketing communication campaigns and surface-mounted screens. Yet, we continue to inhabit images that draw attention to the selective artistry of photographs.

A well-thought-out idea that lets us have pleasure in our tedious lives provokes a dreamscape of commonplace encounters that emerge as a reason to celebrate, honour, lament or mark time. A well-apertured frame conveys strange comfort as the wanderlust unfolds on the other side of the optical lens, employing the blend of photography and ideas to make nothing that feels ordinary. One wonders how this particular photographer froze the right moment, which expresses the manifolds of fiction, dealing with and dissolving time, space and cultures in an independent mount.

A picture may evoke the desire to capture the vastness of the boundless landscapes or tightly-knitted cityscapes and note many tonal differences somewhere new with greater mindfulness. Is it just a reckoning of the opportunity to photograph people in the places one visits – or a desire to be on the perpetual journey instead of reaching a destination?

Amna Zuberi is a Lahore-based creative practitioner trained as a communication designer at the prolific National College of Arts in the late ’90s. She had a successful career as a communication strategist for a decade before starting teaching at a university for several years and finally opting for photography as an artistic medium to construct honest photo essays. Amna focuses on exploring a fantasy world that resides in quotidian life. The more we see her images, the more we discover a wealth of distinctions in a collection of people’s activities and locales she decides to capture. Her formative design training certainly helps her visually negotiate the simple exchange of ideas. Her attention is always drawn to visual correspondence since she is curious and sensitive to organic dialogue.

She has understood this matrix and trained herself to make a photograph, not just to take one in a hustle – encountering new incongruities to comprehend and conclusively apprehend while adjusting a lens to its snappiest focal length. She synchronously tells herself that the pictures will always feel truthful if the excitement remains intact, even after finding the right subject, context, and frame. Amna’s passion for acquiring new lenses, unlearning and relearning based on thorough research before trying them out in the open fields, deserted terrains, snow-covered mountains, and sometimes picturing within the built environments of city dwellings and dwellers themselves has been exceptional. I can relate to this exploratory stage very well, as any curious creative would do that when exploring the photography gear. These little optical gadgets are intricately built with a particular rugged outer casing, offering unrestricted function, settings and viewpoints. Once you learn to control the mutual agreement of the aperture and focal length, you will start taking excellent photographs. But, Amna didn’t stop there and went on to obtain confabulated narratives of her choice, as one’s eye needs to be trained further, not just with the art/ design elements and principles to balance off the contrasting values, proportion, hierarchy, rhythm, variety of patterns, negative and positive spaces and movement, but the veracious emphasis on subject-object relativity.

Introspection;  outside and beyond

Once she started putting up her work on Instagram, along with usual likes and followings, an exciting enquiry popped up one fine morning from a Karachi-based book publisher, Markings, a few years back. They showed interest in Amna’s photography, and she couldn’t resist collaborating with a relatively new yet promising creative entrepreneurship. After she did a few freelance assignments with Markings, they planned and published a coffee table photo book titled A Reel on Karachi in 2017. Karachi is cosmopolitan in the global context and has a mature palpability. This fantastic book takes the reader around Karachi’s expansive, liberal, encompassing cityscape – art installations. The book focuses on cable spools donated by Pakistan Cables that have been re-made/ re-painted in collaboration with the Karachi Biennale Trust, engaging several local and foreign artists. The re-imagined reels have been placed in various locations across the city. Amna has been asked to venture into many reel sites and document the places, culture, landmarks and rich legacy surrounding these reels. Written by Raisa Viyani, with a history of Karachi narrated by a famous architect-activist and urban planner, Arif Hasan, they have provided thought-provoking factual records and the associated fables to support the visual evidence. Amna herself developed a plethora of communication about the vast and exciting history, philosophy and culture of the Quaid’s city through this engaging exercise.

Although technology advancements encourage images to seem better and better on screens as time passes,physical photo books only become more desirable. Even the best digital image can’t match the sensation of leafing through a book and the tactility it evokes.

Amna, a photographer, and Markings, a publishing company, discussed another phenomenal artistic project a few months later. Visions Unveiled: Allama Iqbal’s Worldview is a fantastic coffee-table book with original writings showing Iqbal’s poetic components of his philosophy across Europe and the Muslim world and honouring his contributions to some great literature. This compendium, compiled by Mr Khurram Ali Shafique, an expert on Iqbal’s prose and poetry, clubbed with photographs taken by Amna at Javed Manzil (Allama Iqbal Museum) of his personal belongings, manuscripts and other archival materials epitomise the everlasting and overpowering splendour of the poet’s writings. These are supplemented by translations, images, and exciting insights, allowing the reader to fully appreciate Iqbal’s poetry. The Citizens Foundation (TCF) Pakistan funded this vital piece of visual communication.

Introspection;  outside and beyond

While living an imbalanced virtual life, we all preserve our fondest memories on gadgets or cloud drives as storage space has immensely expanded over the last decade. Although technology advancements encourage images to seem better and better on screens as time passes, physical photo books only become more desirable. Even the best digital image can’t match the sensation of leafing through a book and the tactility it evokes. Still it was not easy to decide what to include and exclude and correlate with the book’s title — out of seven years of personal work. Another critical factor impacting the outcome is identifying the thematic and sequential narrative, which will cut through the entire photo book and interest the audience. Finally, there comes the magic of like-mindedness in the creative, collaborative process; Amna and Markings understood each other’s novel dialect and a book called Finding Lahore was done.

Living in the second most populous city in Pakistan, one can easily say that they live in the Old Lahore or a new part of this significant cultural capital. For Amna, going back to explore Lahore’s Walled City always felt like a tourist. It always enriched the salvage of her conflicting relationship with this historically layered metropolitan. The city is a collection of stories, people negotiating in and around their usual spaces and places every day. Finding Lahore is an attempt to liaise with a city where she was born and grew up knowing nothing about it by deconstructing the semeiology, emotions, layers of sensual struggles and trade tricks, the pattern of chaos, not just documenting the articulated facades of world-famous monuments, minarets and roads. The length, width and height of the city has expanded almost organically. Its people have added a certain depth to it: from a sufi who stayed and imparted his wisdom here to a person who sat every evening with friends to discuss vernacularised socio-politics. Amna expresses her thoughts in one of our conversations.

A renowned photographer from the 1970s, Diane Arbus, first got her work displayed at the Venice Biennale, an important and prestigious art exhibition event. In the contemporary subcontinent, an Indian photographer Dayanita Singh gathers hundreds of photographs, edits them ruthlessly and then non-statically sequences them to either go in her next book or become part of mobile museums that allow her images to be edited, sequenced, archived and displayed, with poetic and narrative possibilities. Shadi Ghadirian, a modern Iranian Muslim women photographer, creates photos that exaggerate Iranian traditions and the outdated prejudices they impose on modern women. Ghadirian started staging portraits of her friends and family to confront issues of female identity, censorship, gender roles and geopolitics after encountering paradoxes and prejudices regarding her place as a woman in society. Ghadirian has humorously and ironically portrayed women reduced to their stereotypes, usually homemakers covered in veils and having the features of household objects like pots, pans, brooms and meat cleavers substituted in place of their faces. One doesn’t know how to further argue over a naïve claim, whether photography qualifies as art. Curious, intelligent minds keep coming up with brilliant visual stories; as Amna Zuberi explains, her second career chose her, not vice versa – exploring topographies and layers of human emotions.

I can’t agree more with Elliott Erwitt’s quote: “To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”

The writer is an art/ design critic. He heads the Department of Visual Communication Design at Mariam Dawood School of Visual Arts and Design, Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

Introspection; outside and beyond