He has been documenting Pakistan for the past 40 years – from the violent and disturbed scenario of the ‘70s and ‘80s to the death of Pakistani ex-PM, Benazir Bhutto, Zahid Hussein has seen it all. Emaho spoke to him about his work, the experiences that he has gathered and his views on photojournalism in Pakistan.
How did photography happen for you?
Although I grew up in an era when photography was not encouraged, there was a teacher in our school who wanted to modernise everything. He encouraged us to study other subjects too, among them was photography. That’s where I got my motivation from. And thankfully, I didn’t face any restrictions from my parents about it; (although some relatives objected) I pursued what I wanted to.
What are your earliest memories with the camera?
I remember a huge Kodak box camera. I had to get six rupees from my dad to shoot a picture from it. That was my first experience with the camera. I was 19 years old then, in 1969. And I got to know about a photography job with a local newspaper ‘Nawai-waqt’ but I had to buy my own equipment so I asked my father. He declined as we didn’t have enough money. So my uncle stepped up and offered to lend me some money to buy a camera. That’s how I got my first job and my career started.
“A groom at Karachi’s Race Club takes his horse back to the stables after going out to forage for grass.”
You spent quite some time as a photographer for the Bhutto family. Can you tell us more about those experiences?
I worked with them for a long time. In 1970, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto hired me for his newly established newspaper ‘Mussawat’. I worked there till 1979, after which it ceased to exist. I covered every event, delegation and celebration of the Bhuttos. They treated me like family. I also thought of Bhutto sahib as a spiritual leader. I did three exhibitions on the Bhuttos and showcased what I had documented on the family from 1970 to the late 1980s.
“A Pakistani soldier stands on top of an armored personnel carrier during an army exercise at Sonmiani firing range in Karachi”
Have conditions for photographers changed since then?
I have seen and saved Pakistani history in my images. Although I know it was difficult, I still did it. It was really difficult for a photojournalist to survive back then, especially in a society where photography is considered ‘haram’ on religious basis. We photojournalists were often beaten and wounded by ‘mullahs’ while covering them.
Zia-ul-Haq’s period was the hardest time that I have seen in my life. There was extreme censorship. You couldn’t even mention “Bhutto”, as he was the one whose government Zia had overthrown. Entire newspapers were censored at the last minute and were printed blank as they had nothing to publish. Newspapers were shut down. It was really one of the most difficult times as a photojournalist.
“Public hanging in Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul.”
You’ve shot in film as well as digital. How was the transition for you ?
I think we are the luckiest generation. I shot in black and white film. Then colour was introduced and I shot in colour. And now when it’s all digital; I have also shot in digital. The generations before us shot only in black and white film, and the current generation, most of them, have only shot in digital so I consider myself lucky to see all of the transitions. Though, let me tell you, it was not easy.
I remember when I first used a digital camera. It was the first digital camera in Pakistan. It was a Canon DCS 520. I thought I had to learn photography all over again. So did my fellow photographers. But now I think digital is very helpful and saves a great amount of time. But unfortunately, for this generation, I think they will never experience of the process of developing photographs in the darkroom. Digital has made photographers lazy. Today, many photographers are just camera operators. They don’t want to learn anymore but depend on their cameras to produce good photographs.
“Public flogging during Zia ul Haq regime in Karachi in 1980″
What is it that you wanted to achieve through photography?
I wanted to document history. Photojournalism is all about that. But apart from that, I want to create an archive of my photographs that I have shot in film. I convert some of the pictures that I have shot on film to digital every night. There are still plenty left. I want to prolong their life, as these may help the younger generations.
“Indian junior hockey team players celebrate their victory against Pakistan in Karachi”
Tell us about the photography societies you helped establish in Pakistan.
I have always helped photographic societies wherever I have worked. But now I want to establish an institute for photography which can help with funds for photographers. I have helped to establish many photographic societies through the years, like the Pakistan Association of Press Photographers (PAPP, 1974), News Photographers Association, Lahore (1976), Pakistan Association of Photojournalists (PAPJ) (2009). As a part of PAPJ, we have done quite a few exhibitions in Lahore and Japan. We promote photographers from all around Pakistan.
Any advice for aspiring photojournalists?
Have that passion in your work. You can’t achieve anything without passion. Try and learn more and more.
“Pakistani workers take part in a torch-lit rally to mark May Day or International Labour Day in Karachi”
Interviewed by: Manik Katyal and Rahul Aijaz
Pictures by: Zahid Hussein