Sean Foley and Lukas Birk
240 Pages; Rs 1,250
Before the decade of the selfie was the century of the photo studio, where life’s landmarks were recorded, where we saw ourselves in bromide mirrors, along with our dreams, fantasies and alter egos. Complicit then, instead of technology, was the photographer, invariably in a studio, but also in a tent, or itinerant on a bicycle (as in the streets of Peshawar), who tapped into the inner recesses and aspirations of his customers with beguiling elan and a rough-hewn photographic ingenuity. In those millions of glass-plate negatives and photographic prints ravaged by time, lie insights into a time, a place and a people. They are the markers, the hieroglyphics that enable us to journey back in time.
Photo Peshawar is the distillate of that journey by Sean Foley and Lukas Birk, who on their way to a follow-up trip to Afghanistan in 2005, stopped in Peshawar and “meandered at will and stumbled across all types of photographic wonders: studios still using large-format film cameras, hand colourists of black-and-white portraits, and — imagine! — paper-negative cameras on the streets.” It was a “diversion” that would bring them back to Peshawar again and again from 2012 to 2014 to explore the charming, childlike yet tenuous relationship between its people and photography.
There’s a wedding picture in the book, of a couple belonging to the now minuscule Hindu minority; ‘kalasha’ women (again, a non-Muslim minority who claim to be descendants of Alexander the Great) dancing in spring; very young Muslim girls in Western dress with short “bob cut” hair, still outside the purview of the purdah.
A different fate, however, awaits the wedding picture of a Pashtun couple, as the studio owner cuts his client’s wife out of the picture before gifting the rest of the negative to the authors of the book! Pashtun machismo is indeed omnipresent. Mountain men with thick beards and long moustaches pose with real pistols, Kalashnikovs, and, occasionally, with fake whiskey! On other pages, they slip into the arms of their favourite Hindi cinema actresses with photographic legerdemain.
For a while, montages of the film Rambo III — complete with helicopter gunships — were the go-to backdrops for Pashtun men, their faces replacing Sylvester Stallone’s, as they pounded imaginary Russians. The film struck a chord particularly with Afghan men who came as refugees to Peshawar in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The predictable Pashtun swag is evident in the first Rambo picture in the book, but in the next montage, looking somewhat bewildered, is a young, pubescent Pashtun male, still on the threshold of machismo, yet replete with the larger-than-life muscles of Sly Stallone!
While the authors focus largely on studio photographers in the city, mainly in the neighbourhoods of Saddar Road and Cinema Road, they also include itinerant studio-less “taxi” photographers who traverse the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan and return to the city to print and, increasingly, to digitally manipulate images. Particularly fascinating is the Peshawari version of the Polaroid print, “minute-wallas” who have a lens on a wooden box with a makeshift darkroom inside; and a pair of sleeves (recycled from an old jacket or a pair of trousers) to develop prints directly on photo paper!
In an extensive introduction, the authors refer to the impact of Partition on photography — from changing ownerships of the studios to old ustads who hand-coloured photographs, cut and pasted or “painted in” clients’ heads into pictures and executed dramatic double exposures; from anonymous women photographers who discreetly took pictures of their female clientele to the new generation of photographers who began photomontaging on computers.
While Islamic edicts against the depiction of the human form have always cast a shadow in the region, a grenade attack in 2014 by religious extremists on Cinema Road was a watershed moment, when five cinema-goers were killed. And yet, through all the decades since the gun and the camera arrived almost simultaneously in the North-West Frontier Provinces (as the British termed the area), photographers and their customers continued to navigate images, recording moments and memories, creating signposts for time travellers in another age.
The book is hardbound, compact in size, with a rather predictable green cover. While strong on content, it would have benefitted from more attention to design and production values. It remains, however, a fascinating and important visual document of Peshawar and its people.