An exploration of Lahore’s visual narrative

May 21, 2023

A conversation with Nad E Ali about Tasveer, a photozine

The photozine pages. — Photo: Supplied
The photozine pages. — Photo: Supplied

Curated by three Lahore-based artists, Nad E Ali, Jahanzeb Haroon and Ali Sultan, Tasveer is a photozine focused on providing a sanctuary for subaltern voices.

A filmmaker turned printmaker and painter, Ali Sultan has exhibited his work widely at home and abroad. Haroon is a visual artist and educator. He explores the intricacies that define the concept of home and human relations with the environment. Nad E Ali is also a visual artist who works with themes of alienation, belonging and the in-between spaces that exist in all cultures.

The inaugural issue of Tasveer was officially released at Tagh’eer, Lahore, last month. The zine presents a captivating collection of black and white photographs that capture Lahore as it stands today while encouraging the readers to reflect upon the forgotten remnants of everyday life in the city.

The News on Sunday sat down with one of the zine’s curators, Nad E Ali, to understand more about the emerging zine culture in Pakistan, how their first issue visually maps a constantly changing city, and the impact of AI on the creative industry. Excerpts follow: 

The artists at Tagh’eer Lahore. (From left to right) Ali Sultan,Jahanzeb Haroon and Nad E Ali. — Image by Nashmia Haroon
The artists at Tagh’eer Lahore. (From left to right) Ali Sultan,
Jahanzeb Haroon and Nad E Ali. — Image by Nashmia Haroon

The News on Sunday: What inspired you to create Tasveer?

Nad E Ali: In 2018, my friend Ali Sultan and I started an experimental magazine called Doe Number that [was about] personal stories, comics and illustrations about society and classism. Instagram was already popular and many photographers were using it. But we wanted [to create] something tangible. We reached out to our friends and asked them to contribute. We decided to publish it ourselves because that way we thought we could present our content exactly the way we wanted to. Later, we started thinking about something that focused more on Lahore. That’s how Tasveer came about.

The core idea [behind Tasveer] was to curate contemporary, black-and-white photographs from various artists into a zine. Together with a reflective poem by Dua Abbas Rizvi, the zine was a truly bohemian endeavour.

In the first issue, we documented Lahore the way it stands today. Recently, Raghu Rai, the celebrated Indian photographer, visited the Lahore Literary Festival ’23. He spoke about how Delhi has transformed and no longer feels the same. I feel the same way about Lahore. It has changed a lot [over the years]. With this zine, we wanted to communicate the lived experiences of Lahore through the visual language of photography. Every colour choice and focal length [used in the photographs] aims to resonate with the viewers and leave an impact. In this era of TikTok, we wanted to create something different, [something] that would keep the conversation on contemporary photography alive.

Nad E Ali
Nad E Ali

TNS: What is a photozine? How does it differ from mainstream photography publications?

NA: Zines are small books produced with small budgets and having very few pages. They are quite popular in the underground culture all over the world, [especially] in the music and comic genres.

A major difference between zines and other photography publications is, perhaps, the paper quality. Photography books are printed on high-quality paper and are usually quite expensive. Besides, they are mostly about a photographer’s work and have a broader scope. Zines are published on a smaller scale. They are also limited and usually have a specific theme.

Zines are all about freedom of speech. You can say anything with not a lot of censorship. There’s also something very appealing about having a physical book in your hands. There was a time in Lahore when zines used to be popular, with small bookstores in the Urdu Bazaar regularly circulating small kitaabchay (pamphlets). However, artists didn’t have a lot of resources, so those declined with time. You can still find some zines on platforms like Rekhta.

Zines are basically about community and sharing ideas freely.

Image by Nad E Ali.
Image by Nad E Ali.

TNS: Tasveer offers an insight into the crumbling parts of Lahore that most people don’t get/ want to see. What motivated you to focus on this aspect of the city?

NA: As an artist, it [sometimes] becomes very important to talk about issues in a way that is unique and thought-provoking. Entertainment is important, but there is always a need for work that can start tough conversations to make a deeper impact. It is very important to do this as art has the power to stimulate minds [and create] meaningful discussions. I think photographs affect us just like music or the written word.

In Tasveer, we wanted to capture the essence of Lahore and how it has evolved and become what it is now. The city is always changing. We wanted it to be reflected in the zine through our visual mapping. With pictures, you can freeze moments in time. These moments become lived memories or representations of the current [state of being]. Everything around us is changing but photographs remain constant, giving us a glimpse into how the city once was. They give us an opportunity to examine the city of Lahore and how it has declined.

Each photograph in our zine is about a particular time and place in Lahore. It also focuses on the positives of the city. We want people to feel some responsibility and [ask] themselves what they can do to make a difference. We will continue to focus on the changing nature of Lahore in our future issues too. Our goal is to [document it] visually through our zine.

Image by Jahanzeb Haroon.
Image by Jahanzeb Haroon.

TNS: How do you perceive the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on the creative industry?

NA: AI can never simulate the human mind or individual experience. It cannot express the raw human emotion that real artists depict with their art. It might get there in future but that will take time.

Recently, artist Boris Eldagsen won the Sony World Photography Awards for a piece titled The Electrician. During the awards ceremony, the artist revealed that the photograph had been created using AI. He declined the award and said that the conversation would continue.

Infringements on copyrights have been happening for a long time; even before the AI [emerged]. People were initially excited about AI-generated images and NFTs, but I think that excitement is fading. There’s basically no substitute for something [created by a] genuine artist. AI cannot capture the unique touch and personal expression that actual artists bring to their work.

Image by Ali Sultan.
Image by Ali Sultan.

TNS: What value do you see in the tangible format of a zine in an increasingly digital age?

NA: I believe the tangible format of books or magazines still holds a lot of value. There is a debate about the growing virtual nature of things and the decline of print, but I think printed material like books has its own charm. You don’t have to browse through them, unlike online content. You can stumble upon them in archives or personal collections. They are right there in front of you, allowing you to discover something new. That’s the beauty of the tangible.

Moving forward, we are probably going to consider a hybrid approach for Tasveer. One good thing about online spaces is that they provide access to cross-cultural audiences. But locally, print zines are more useful. It is also something that is practiced the world over. I can’t predict the future but I believe that printed material will always be around.

Launch of the photozine at Tagh’eer, Lahore.
Launch of the photozine at Tagh’eer, Lahore.

TNS: As a photographer, what draws you to Lahore and what fuels your love for the city?

NA: Well, the city is my home. There’s always a special connection one feels for their hometown. But my love for Lahore goes beyond that. It has its issues. There are population growth and environmental challenges that the city is currently facing. But there is still a sense of a rich cultural community and a spirit of celebration that is unique to Lahore. It is like there is a vibrancy that flows through its streets. Then there is the rich culture and heritage of the city, which makes Lahore all the more special to me.

TNS: What does the future look like for Tasveer?

NA: We are currently in the initial stages of planning our second issue. We are collaborating with artists from neighbouring countries. Apart from that, we are curious to see where it takes us.

Our main focus is on subaltern spaces — the neighbourhoods that don’t always get the spotlight. We want to shine a light on those and document the things that often go unnoticed. That’s basically our agenda for the magazine. We are just getting started with this project, but our goal is to keep starting [important conversations]. So yeah, it’s a small booklet, but it has a big purpose — to draw attention to the things that deserve to be seen and heard.

The interviewer is a staff member

An exploration of Lahore’s visual narrative