Nadir Firoz Khan and Maha Burney talk about photographing fashion in twenty-first century Pakistan
Many of us don’t realize the nitpicky hard work that goes into creating a great fashion shoot. The intricacies of staging a bona fide snowy winter in hot, humid Karachi, the interplay of light along the streaks of a model’s hair, the selection of the perfect music for a short commercial or simply, how the red in the backdrop artfully matches the shade of a model’s lipstick … miniscule details that we hardly notice as our cars zip past billboards on the road or while we flip through glossies. And yet, these very minutiae make a fashion shoot or video memorable. Creating a brand image through a montage of colour, style and tiny details is an art, one that Nadir Firoz and Maha Burney have mastered.
The husband-wife duo behind Nadir Firoz Khan (NFK) Photography has skyrocketed to success in a mere three years. They stumbled into fashion by chance and are now working with some of the biggest brands in the industry. He’s the photographer with an eye for detail and he may be a hot name in fashion but he’s a basic jeans-and-tee guy with no patience for theatric fripperies when it comes to his own wardrobe.
She, on the other hand, knows how to work the glamour, not just for the models she styles but also for herself. A fashion graduate from Parsons, Maha worked with brands like COACH, DKNY Jeans and Tommy Hilfiger before returning to Pakistan. In a matter of months, she was applying her expertise to the fashion shoots her husband photographed. Together, they’re two cogwheels that fit just right, churning out great photography with spot-on styling.
"Most people don’t realize the planning and preparation that goes into creating a fashion shoot or video," says Maha. "They assume that it is plain-sailing; dressing up beautiful models, coming up with a general colour scheme and taking photographs. For us, at least, it’s a way of visually merchandizing a brand, to create a fashion-savvy aura for it while retaining the basic identity. The product itself – clothes, accessories or make-up – takes center-stage, of course, but there are so many other important details that have to be considered."
These ‘details’ range from Maha providing accessories from her own wardrobe to complement a product-line to painstakingly describing complete ‘looks’ to the hair-and-makeup team assigned to the shoot. A fun, frivolous fashion page may have Maha devising zany make-up and adding colour to the photographs through the miraculous powers of Photoshop. A winter scene, on the other hand, may actually be created on-set, right from a cozy wooden cabin to comfy fabrics on the furniture upholstery to fake snow, imported in from Dubai, sprayed realistically on to gaunt tree branches.
"We used wool to create a snowy effect only in the far distance and we definitely didn’t want to improvise with chicken feathers. There was a shoot we had heard of where chicken feathers were used to create snowflakes and half the people on set ended up developing allergies," laughs Nadir. "We actually found out about these fake snow sprays through a site that specialized in providing props for movie sets and fashion shoots. We ordered them online and created snow shavings and flakes with them."
It takes big-budgeted, hotshot clients like Bonanza to create these extensive true-to-life sets – fortunately Nadir and Maha have quite a few. And when the duo isn’t developing sets in Karachi, they’re shuttling off to foreign locales for shoots. Even on the day they meet up with Instep, they’re just about to jet set to curfew-ridden Bangkok and are in the process of considering scenic sites for their photo shoot.
"We have a madcap schedule, usually," says Nadir. "We shoot on location during the day and then we return home to take a break. From 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., then, we’re busy with post-production." This includes adding extra effects to the original photographs and coordinating on shoots due to take place abroad.
A large amount of time is invested into what they laughingly call their biggest dilemma; repairing, through Photoshop, the ‘accidents’ wreaked out on models’ faces. In model lingo, that stands for umpteen cosmetic procedures, too many times, too soon. It could be far too much Botox injected into the face, making it look puffy for days or a sculpting procedure under the knife that makes entire features disappear under the all-pervasive camera lens!
"Fashion shoots and Photoshop go hand in hand now, all over the world," says Maha, the Photoshop expert amongst the two. "Kate Moss has splotchy skin but you wouldn’t know it on seeing her in a glossy magazine still. They have very advanced tools abroad but even here in Pakistan, we’re not too far behind. There is colour toning and blending but it gets tricky when entire features have to be created artificially!"
It results in a model’s face looking considerably different year after year, putting off clients who prefer a model with more consistent looks. Nadir recalls a model (who-must-not-be-named but we can guess who it is!) who got far too many nips and tucks, with her face changing dramatically every few months. "A major brand that had been hiring her suddenly decided to let her go," he says. "She just looked too different."
"Ironically, models usually look old and tired- immediately after a cosmetic procedure. They get these procedures done because they want to look young but it’s only after a few weeks, once the puffiness subsides, that they look more normal," observes Maha.
"It’s a photographer’s nightmare. Some of these girls are stunning and they ruin their careers and looks by going overboard with cosmetic procedures," mulls Nadir.
The models that are blazing ahead are those that don’t make unnecessary, appearance-altering cosmetic changes and who diversify by working with different stylists. "There are girls who are working hard and are versatile. We love models who can take on different roles and postures. They can mold themselves to different stylists and varying client demands. One perpetually sees them in TVC’s, billboards and glossy magazine shoots," observes Maha.
What role do they play in the selection of models in ad campaigns or shoots? "Sometimes clients are particular about who they want to hire and at other times, they ask us to make recommendations," explains Nadir. Their repertoire, at present, includes absolutely any model worth her salt in the business, from veterans Amna Ilyas and Neha to newcomers Sadaf Kanwal, Amna Babar and Abeer.
"Amna Ilyas is a complete pro in front of the camera," praises Nadir. "Other girls, like Abeer, are definitely getting there. Saba Sikander has potential and her androgynous looks would work well internationally. Sadly, local clients still often prefer models who are conventionally pretty."
What about the models who insist on working with only specific photographers and stylists? "Playing favorites can actually be quite detrimental to models’ careers," says Maha. "I feel that it prevents them from diversifying their portfolio. Cybil, for instance, is beautiful but she only works with Ather Shehzad. They make her look gorgeous but with her looks, she could virtually be seen everywhere, in a myriad different avatars. I’d love to style her without make-up! Still, if a model decides not to work with us, we just move on to the next few girls – there are plenty of other options!"
Apart from models, have they ever experienced the often-notorious Karachi-Lahore bias where professionals from either city refuse to work with people from outside? "It’s not usually city-specific," says Nadir. "Every photographer has his or her own niche and we get work from clients who like our particular style."
"We’re friends with practically everyone in our field," adds Maha. "We are all busy with our own particular kind of work and there’s plenty of work available for everybody. We do have more clients from Karachi, though, since we live here."
From laying on the glamour for a smokin’ hot Shehla Chatoor shoot to a plethora of standout covers for Zahir Rahimtoola’s Labels, from edgy fashion shoots to campaigns that push the creative envelope while serving the commercial purpose, the NFK portfolio is versatile and utterly unique. They make no bones about their aversion to bridal and conventional shoots and it’s equally difficult for them to hide their excitement when chalking out a ground breaking, conceptual shoot. Tapping into their technical skills and acing their aesthetic, Nadir and Maha do make a formidable force. When you love what you do – and are so good at it – the results never fail to stand out. What’s next for them? "More work," smiles Nadir. "As much as possible!"