By Sonya Rehman
Published by Markings, ‘BHV Zoo’, by Karachi-based photographer, Amean J, is a somber, melancholic depiction of the animals that inhabit the Bahawalpur Zoo.
Set against stark, white pages, the black and white photographs illustrate a forlorn, ghost-like ambience of the zoo, with animals who wear expressions of abandonment, and resignation to life.
The print version of ‘BHV Zoo’ is also available as an e-book, which incorporates music by the duo, Zeb and Haniya, and poetry by Ilona Yusuf.
For an animal lover like myself, Amean’s photographs were painful to assimilate. The photographer captures the mood of neglect and isolation rather well.
For example, one picture depicts a wolf in movement in its cage. The emphasis of the photograph is on the rusty, steel bars and the padlock, with a panting, edgy animal, making a quick turn of movement.
On the next page, two photographs focus on the limbs of the animal. You can tell that the animal is pacing in each picture. In the center of both photos, a puddle reflects the steel bars of the cage. Turn the page over, and a single, smaller photograph depicts the wolf looking outside its cage in earnest, its snout resting against a single, steel bar. These series of four photographs alone, featuring one subject, highlights an important issue of an animal held against its will, in captivity.
Is it justified? Ethical? How much space is enough? If at all?
But the photographs in ‘BHV Zoo’ do not focus solely on the zoo’s animals alone. Other photos such as, a group of five burqa-clad women sitting in the zoo’s barren park, food vendors, a patch of grass strewn with dry leaves, and a vacant playground, all provide an interesting contrast to the images of the zoo’s animals.
Because both, in juxtaposition, seem almost similar in terms of depicting a feeling of neglect and captivity.
The Bahawalpur Zoo was once called ‘Sher Bagh’. The Nawab of Bahawalpur in 1942 used the area as a breeding ground for lions. Over time, in addition to the lions, different species of animals were brought to the vicinity. Thus, the Bahawalpur Zoo came into being.
But today, the zoo survives on limited funds and remains reliant on the Pakistani government to meet its expenses. Which is why it remains overlooked and in a state of desperate neglect.
It is unfortunate, but due to a serious lack of funds, the zoo has been unable to hire proper zoo personnel to look after the zoo and its inhabitants.
The photographer, who works as the Program-In-charge for the Post Graduate Diploma in Photography at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, in Karachi, mentions that he has photographed different zoos around the world, “for a very long time.”
“I shared my first draft of the e-book with Kiran Aman of Markings, who was moved by the images and suggested we should also do a print version,” Amean states, “BHV Zoo’s story examines the paradox between public versus private spaces, documents life in confinement and on a larger canvas, reflects upon the dilapidating state of the country.”
Having photographed animals within a confined space, interestingly, the layout of the book is such that, each photograph is given immense space.
So, oftentimes, while flipping through the book, one would notice that small and medium-sized photos are placed as sole images against stark, white, glossy pages.
This makes two things rather apparent; one, it gives the photographs depth – irrespective of their size – and two, it seems as if the photographer subconsciously wants to give the animals in his photographs, space and freedom.
Was this intentional? Quoting the writer Giorgio Pressburger, Amean states: “‘Everything is written in the white spaces between one letter and the next. The rest doesn’t count.’ I wouldn’t go as far as the rest doesn’t count, but yes the negative space around the photographs and in between pages is deliberate.”
Regarding why the photographer opted to shoot the animals in black and white, rather than colour, Amean believes that “content gets more attention when photographed in black and white.”
“Animals are extremely beautiful and photographing them in colour would’ve taken away the point I’m trying to make in this book. The audience, at times, tends to fall for aesthetic in colour.”
Perhaps one of the greatest dilemmas in photojournalism is the fine line between documenting what one sees – in a completely detached manner – and the sensitive, heartrending nature of what is being photographed at that given point. Where does reporting end and empathy begin?
Stating how Amean felt while photographing the animals, he says; “Besides the obvious invasion of private space, the state of the animals does reflect our own people. Though the difference between the animals and us is that we are not leashed, we can get out of our misery and do something about it.”
“In addition to creating an awareness of the cruelty to and the living conditions of shabby confined spaces for the animals, we hope to raise some money with the book sales and with the help of WWF Pakistan, improve the living conditions at BHV Zoo,” the photographer states.
Out of all the animals that Amean photographed during his visit to the zoo, was there a particular animal which made the photographer feel more empathetic towards in contrast to the others?
He says; “It’s not possible to select a particular animal or a favourite image from the story; each image represents, signifies or contributes to the story individually. However Image no. 4 in the first chapter does stand out for me. King of the jungle and known for their courageous personality, here, the fear in the eyes screams of the paradox that I have tried to share in my story.”
The Express Tribune Magazine