Life in chiaroscuro

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Jahanzaib Haque explores a world of light and dark with Stephan Andrew.

(Published in the Nov-Dec 2009 issue of Aurora)

There is one thing that even a layman can see in the pictures of young, up and coming, photographer, Stephan Andrew: life is not easy.

A recent solo exhibition titled, ‘Trial by Existence’ held at the Photospace Gallery in Karachi, gave the public a chance to experience and engage with Andrew’s work, focused as it is on the theme of every day reality and fleshed out by characters and objects depicting the vast spectrum of existence that defines Pakistani living.

There is a sense of the macabre in an image of a child whose head floats atop the fake body of an animal. It is a carnival ‘freak show’, yet there is nothing freakish or exploitative about the image, which is shot from over the shoulder of another child witnessing the spectacle.

In another photo, reality comes to life in the dancing shadows of boxers in Lyari; a subtle play of light and dark far more striking than the almost expected blood and guts another camera and another eye may have captured. There is an authenticity in Andrew’s photographs which comes from the honesty with which his subject matter is treated.

“Life in general is a struggle, and for the people in my photographs, this struggle is much harder, and this is what most of our country endures,” says Andrew when I ask him about his perspective.

“There is unhappiness; there is discontent, and this forms the theme of much of my work. It is a reality check.”

However, the journey to this perspective and Andrew’s own struggle to become a professional photographer has been a long and often an unlikely one.

Narrating his childhood fascination with photography, Andrew tells me that his first ‘studio’ was built at the age of eight in a storeroom that he filled with old photographs, a tripod and his grandfather’s old camera. Unfortunately, this passion remained confined to the makeshift studio for some time, as photography was never considered anything more than a hobby – and an expensive one at that.

As Andrew recalls, “I bought my first camera in 1998 after I graduated from college. It was a point-and-shoot camera used at the time to capture sunsets and flowers and the usual things people photograph. One roll a month was a lot at that time due to the cost of film and printing.”

Andrew’s first real opportunity came in 2001 in the form of photographing supporting visuals for reports for Church World Service, a NGO focused on social development in rural areas.

Through the NGO, the budding photographer got a chance to take photographs in rural Sindh and Mansera which, “really helped hone the interest. I used to be out of the city for twelve to fourteen days every month.”

Although he lacked any formal training in photography, Andrew meticulously turned his hobby into a serious pursuit; documenting his photographs, learning the basics through a beginners book, constantly upgrading his camera equipment (moving quickly from a Yashica Range Finder to a second-hand Canon, the Sigma SA-9, and finally, the Nikon F4) and eventually taking a premeditated step into the circulation department of The Dawn Media Group.

“When I joined DAWN, I thought it would be an opportunity to get hold of some photographic assignments. I got to know the then head of The Review, Khursheed Haider and she told me: sure, show me a photo essay story and I might print it if it’s good,” recalls Andrew.

What followed was a string of ‘on-the-side’ assignments, whereby Andrew photographed the Lahore Fort, the Ranjeet Singh samadh (both shoots were published in The Review) as well as a series of photographs of Afghan refugees in Karachi for an NGO.

It was at this stage that Andrew decided to pursue photography as more than just a hobby, despite the considerable challenges he foresaw.

“People did not want me to be a photographer, saying there is no money in it, so why not just join a bank? However, I was frustrated by the thought of any other kind of work, so I started to do research on networking to get more assignments.”

By a stroke of luck, Andrew had the chance to meet renowned photographer, Arif Mahmood who was working on the ‘Karachi Under the Raj’ exhibition for The Dawn Media Group in 2007. While working on the logistics side of the project, Andrew approached Mahmood and forged a relationship which eventually led him to being hired as a photographer in Mahmood’s company, Whitestar.

As Andrew recalls, “I met Arif during the Raj exhibition days and showed him my photographs and he was really encouraging. This was great for me because I knew his pictures were something else! Different from the usual, beautiful pictures everyone takes. I had a real interest in this kind of photography; documenting people in their actual environment.”

With further encouragement from Mahmood, Andrew began to explore photography in terms of subject matter, developing his eye with a focus on taking pictures of street life, people and rituals. During this time, undertaking shoots such as the Muharram matam also drew Andrew into a closer intimacy with his subject matter.

“Photographing the matam was the ultimate experience; it changed a lot of things in my head. I wanted to be in it. I came home with my shirt, my face, my camera covered in blood but I wanted to get the pictures regardless…”

Officially joining Whitestar in December 2007, Andrew took on a vast range of assignments, travelling across the country to take photographs for DAWN, Herald, and Dawn.com, along with other commercial ventures.

However, despite such intimate ties to news and current affairs, Andrew is not easily classified as a photojournalist.

In his own words, he feels that “photojournalism is big in Pakistan but my style edges towards art. My photos were often rejected by the DAWN City Editor because they were considered too ‘arty’.”

This aesthetic quality to Andrew’s pictures led him to his first group photo exhibition. Held at Photospace Gallery in 2008, the exhibition titled, ‘Chiaroscuro’ (the Italian word for light and dark) featured six photographers (including Amean Jan, Arif Mahmood, Ayesha Vellani, Danish Tapal and Tapu Javeri) whose work stylistically focused on the interplay of light and dark.

Earlier this year, Andrew was also selected as one of 16 Pakistani photographers featured in a group exhibit titled, ‘I am Pakistani’ for the Italian photography magazine, Private.

The crowning moment of the experience was when, “the magazine was published and the cover photo was mine! I was surprised and shocked… it was incredibly encouraging to have been chosen for the cover out of so many talented photographers,” says Andrew.

Having gained such exposure, Andrew’s solo exhibition, ‘Trial by Existence’ was the natural next step in his career, although he clarifies that the commercial aspect of such a venture is not his main focus:

“I’m not going to become a rich man doing this. Honestly, there are only a handful of serious buyers, most buyers want something pretty to hang in their living rooms – and they will probably not want to buy my pictures… I enjoy creating images which people have to look into a little more, instead of just looking and leaving; so no flowers for me.”

And as for the future? With Whitestar providing a solid grounding for his growth, Andrew plans to “break the barrier” and further develop his style in the hope of giving people a new, more in-depth perspective on every day reality.

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One thought on “Life in chiaroscuro

    Nabeel said:
    April 17, 2010 at 2:49 am

    Wow. Great post. I’m late, I know, but have similar aspirations. Not professionally-but street photography is my thing too.

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