By Sonya Rehman
There’s something about Mobeen Ansari’s photographs that take one by surprise.
Whether landscapes of ethereal valleys, snowcapped mountains, architectural wonders and heritage sites, overlooked regions, to the faces that inhabit them, Ansari brings a unique sensitivity to his work that is at times lacking in travel photography.
Born in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, the 34-year-old is currently working on his third book, Miraas (meaning hereditary), which highlights some of Pakistan’s most iconic figures and social activists. Having traveled extensively across the country, Ansari’s photographs are an endless, enriching pursuit of the Pakistani identity – in all its myriad of colors – and what it encapsulates.
Born into a family where photography was a constant feature in his childhood, Ansari mentions that not only has his father shared a passion for the art, but his grandparents too (from his father’s side), enjoyed photography. In fact, he still has his grandfather’s images from World War II and his grandmother’s photographs of her partition journey.
Perhaps Ansari’s eye for seeking out things that one would normally miss is because of his hearing loss diagnosis when he was only 14-months-old. While his mother wasted no time in training to become a speech therapist, Ansari’s father, an IT engineer, was compelled to learn audiology and the mechanics of hearing aids. The young couple were adamant about giving their child a normal life.
Throughout his childhood, as he learned to grasp the ability to communicate, Ansari found photography to be a thrilling medium. It was photography which allowed him to convey what he was seeing and experiencing with his loved ones. When he was in school, his love for the craft became so well-known that Ansari’s principal awarded him with the title of ‘Pictorial Historian,’ much to Ansari’s delight.
“To this day, that award means a great deal to me. I started photography about two years before that award was bestowed on me and I grew more fond of it with each passing day,” he says.
“That recognition gave me a lot of encouragement and I still find joy in looking at some of the most intimate moments I captured in school so many years ago! I don’t think I had figured it out then that I would get into photography, but I knew that I always wanted to be an artist. My love for the arts goes way back. Photography just happened to become my most honest medium, despite having studied every medium of art from painting to printmaking.”
As a photographer, Ansari’s approach is meticulous. It isn’t a fly-by-night process. Rather, he immerses himself in the surroundings and the communities that he photographs, with a sensitive consideration for his subjects.
Take for instance Ansari’s trip to the Chiporsan Valley in Hunza (part of the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan) in 2019. Braving the -25 degree Celsius weather, the photographer wanted to understand and document how the locals endured nature when she was at her fiercest.
“I think my sensitivity to life and to people has grown over time,” he reflects, “It has definitely grown with people. These last few years I’ve actually made it a point to photograph the same individuals again (in some cases, interview them on my podcast). It helped me understand their humanity and grace better. When it comes to places, I think I am now more sensitive to the fragility and even the spirituality of old places in ruins and try to understand what has happened there over the years.”
Throughout his travels in Pakistan, one memory in particular stands out for the photographer.
During a very difficult expedition through the Wakhan Corridor (a narrow strip in Afghanistan’s north-east, also known as ‘the roof of the world’) in 2016, Ansari fell very sick.
While other members of the team had reached the campsite, he and another trekker were lagging far behind. As the hours progressed, nightfall brought on a sharp drop in temperatures. By this time, his fellow trekker had made his way ahead and Ansari soon realized that he was on his own.
“Things got so bad that I started hallucinating and eventually accepted whatever fate was meant for me that night,” he states, “I found a rock, huddled next to it and recited every prayer I knew. Somehow by a miracle, I just began running through the severe cold, through the hallucinations, through my life flashing before my eyes. Something in me kept telling me to move, to keep going.”
Reaching the spot where the other trekker was, they were immediately rescued by one of the mountaineers (part of the expedition), who had set out in search for them.
“I remember not going inside the tent immediately,” Ansari says, recalling the relief after the horrific ordeal, “I cried so much and looked up at the clear Milky Way. Those were the longest twelve hours of my life. It taught me how fragile we human beings are in face of the ever-powerful Mother Nature.”
During the lockdown, Ansari has kept himself busy by way of his podcast, Talking Portraits, and also investing in a new 360 degree camera (Ricoh Theta), that the photographer has begun taking for a spin in the hopes of publishing virtual tours of Pakistan’s historical sites.
“Every day I get to know about a new location [in Pakistan] that I didn’t know about before. I think while I’ve been very lucky to see the country, it’s time to see it differently, as my aesthetic sense and style changes and evolves over the years,” Ansari says. “For example, I always photographed the Wazir Khan mosque in Lahore using a wide angle lens and spent many years doing that. But last month, I went and used a zoom lens instead and ended up capturing a completely different perspective and light.”
Having been a photographer for over fifteen years, Ansari states that his experiences, particularly the subjects he has photographed, have left an undeniable impact on him.
“I have always felt that there’s something to pick from every nuance and culture. In a way they become a part of me. I think emotion is very important for the craft if I have to express my photograph in the most honest way and ensure that the viewer also connects with it on an emotional level. For me, photography is no different than pouring your emotions onto a canvas to paint.”