A tête-à-tête with photojournalist and self-taught artist, Faizan Ahmad, about his recent pictorial book, Lahore by Metro
Faizan Ahmad fell in love with Lahore the first time he set eyes upon the city. It was before he arrived in the city as a university freshman in 2013, much before he began taking pictures of daily commuters on Lahore’s Metro bus. It was, in fact, a brief hospital visit to the city that kicked it all off.
“They say that some of Lahore’s most striking features are its historical sites, but what jumped out at me instantly about the city was its diversity,” says the 25-year-old photographer from a small town, Basirpur, some 90 miles from Lahore. “The fact that you can find people from all corners of the country here, all in one place, is just extraordinary.”
Ahmad’s instant love affair with the city was undoubtedly the major driving force behind a series of photographs that would later culminate in one of the finest photography books to emerge on Lahore, Lahore by Metro. But a lot of it also had to do with his deep interest in the ‘ordinary’ stories of people, and a general love of art. In an exclusive chat with TNS, Ahmad reveals that as a child he would “sit with people and listen to their stories for hours on end. I also collected storybooks, but quickly lost interest in the ones without illustrations.”
He first got acquainted with art books at a local school library where his mother was a librarian. “That was not only an enthralling experience for me but also a challenging one. I was borrowing books from a public school’s library, where children were forbidden to do so.” The school administration eventually found out about his little adventure and dismissed his mother as the librarian.
“That was my first and last interaction with art books,” says the talented photographer who moved to Lahore in 2013 to study for his BEd (Honours) from the University of Education.
In Lahore by Metro, Ahmad captures pictures in and around the various stations of the Metro bus. The exquisitely curated book, launched on Kickstarter early this year, carries 240 photographs. “It’s the first book of its kind in Pakistan that features images taken with an iPhone,” he proudly claims.
Ahmad’s photographs bring out the raw emotion in his subjects — be it the silent desperation of children going to work instead of school on a weekday, or the unadulterated pride in the eyes of a man as he describes how he went against the wishes of his family to become a nurse, or even the childlike excitement of an old couple attempting to step on the escalator for the first time.
It wasn’t until his teenage years that Ahmad first had a camera, or a phone, for that matter. “When I first came to Lahore I got myself an old camera phone. I’d go to college in the morning and explore the city in my spare time. It was then that I began experimenting with photography. Most of the pictures that I took with my phone came out blurred but since I hadn’t attended an art school. I knew that the only way to hone my skills was to keep taking pictures.” Eventually, he saved enough money to buy an iPhone.
“That [phone] was a major upgrade; it changed everything,” he chuckles.
On the daily commute to his university, he would have enough time to strike conversations with his fellow commuters on the Metro bus. To his pleasant surprise, the conversations were often very engaging. “We like to go on needless gossiping sprees about popular people, but no one is ever interested to know more about what goes on in the daily life of the common man. We buy stuff from a local street vendor but how many of us ever make the effort to ask him about his life?”
Ahmad began sharing his photographs on social media but realised soon that he needed “a better medium” to make a wider social impact. In 2016, he submitted a picture he had taken, of two children playing cricket, in an art competition at the Amiruddin Medical College and ended up winning the gold medal. “That was when I realised that photography was where my future lay.”
he idea of a potential photography book began to take shape in Ahmad’s mind. But he was aware of the difficulties ahead. “It’s not an easy task in a society like ours, to go up to a stranger and ask for their photographs. When you are a journalist you have a press card to prove your credentials, but when you’re a regular person people become wary of your intentions.”
He admits that he made a lot of mistakes, but gradually he learnt how to request people politely for a photograph. “I’d ask them for a photograph and, if they showed interest, only then would I explain my reason for taking it. If they said no, I’d move on. I’d never ask twice.”
He also had “a couple of generic questions” in mind before he approached anyone. “Usually, there is a story in the answers to these questions.”
Most people became interested once he told them that his main aim was to let the world know about the daily struggles of the common man. “It was imperative to win their trust as most of them initially thought I was taking them for a ride or making a TikTok video.”
There were other issues that he had to deal with. “One day, on my daily commute to college, I tried to click the other passengers staring at a woman whose child wouldn’t stop crying. My motive was to depict a woman’s ordeal while travelling by herself in our society, but it didn’t sit too well with the woman. She came up to me, visibly angry, and asked me why I had taken her picture without her permission. She calmed down once I told her my purpose.”
In his career as a freelance photojournalist, Ahmad says he came across many heart-wrenching stories. “At the Model Town Metro Station I’d often stop by a channay walay uncle (street vendor) for my daily dose of roasted chickpeas. I frequently asked him about his life but he refused to discuss it.” As I persevered, one day the vendor succumbed. What he told Ahmad was heartbreaking: “Nobody in my family knows that I sell channay for a living, since I don’t want my children to feel socially embarrassed.”
The stories related in Lahore by Metro range from light-hearted to euphoric, to motivating and downright melancholic. Where one picture depicts the joy of two Sikh men visiting Guru Nanak’s birthplace, totally in awe of Lahore, another photo tells us the story of two Sikh men tired of having to prove their identity to people at every juncture of their life: “Everyone asks us if we are from India. We simply tell them we are in our homeland.”
There are pictures with captions that evoke nostalgia of a city that Lahore once was. Consider this: “Nowadays, you don’t see the Lahore I grew up in, in the 1990s and early 2000s. The trees are gone. The gardens are empty and dirty. There are no melas and no kites in the skies any longer. I am hopeful that our generation will bring back some of this forgotten Lahori culture because it’s definitely still alive in the form of a collective nostalgia.”
Ahmad adds, “These are not just stories, these are personal truths people seldom share with anyone. That is what makes them so special.”
The praise that Lahore by Metro has received took Ahmed completely by surprise. “I had no idea people would be so encouraging.” The book received orders from all over the world, with various universities approaching him to give talks on the art of photography.
“It’s like a dream. Even Brandon Stanton backed me on Kickstarter with 1,000 dollars,” says a visibly excited Ahmad. Stanton’s world famous photography series, Humans of New York, was one of Ahmad’s inspirations for his book.
Kickstarter is a crowd-funding platform that Ahmad used to collect funds to self-publish his book, a route he had to adopt after things didn’t work out with conventional publishers. “I tried for almost two years… but to no avail. Most [publishers] would ask me to invest in [printing] my book, after which I gave up.”
After all the praise and exposure his crowd-funding project got, many publishers reached out to him with offers, but he’s decided to stick to the scheme. (At the time of this interview, Ahmad had closed his Kickstarter campaign after raising a total of $20,224.)
Despite seeing so much success, Ahmad does not intend to pursue another similar project. “There is no Lahore by Orange Train on the horizon,” he jokes.
Ahmad, who is also working as a research assistant at LUMS, says that he does not want to repeat himself.
He regrets the fact that in our part of the world children are discouraged from taking up art as a career. “Hopefully, some young people will follow my example and realise that if a guy from a small village can achieve his dreams, perhaps they can too.”
The writer is a staff member