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Positive diaries

In this photographic odyssey Sara Farid records crises and polemics without dehumanising her subjects

Positive diaries
Farid lets her lens come close to the subject so that the rich lantern colours are enhanced.

At the heart of Sara Farid’s truthful and intense body of portraits lies hidden Nan Goldin’s statement, “For me it is not a detachment to take a picture. It’s a way of touching somebody — it’s a caress.”

Farid — freelance photojournalist — uses photography as a personal attribute. Two assumptions underpin her attitude to portraiture, distinguishing it morally and visually from the tradition of the genre. First, that portraiture requires complicity with the subject, and secondly, that it is about the exchange of gifts — the moment, and the consent. Her status as a photographer is built on this modest foundation. Moreover, the circumstances and the inseparability of Farid’s art and concerns mark her as an important witness to a generation that is undergoing a social withdrawal from the Pakistani mainstream. The HIV carriers from various backgrounds who she captures in the camera eye turned away from national values (seen as both saccharine and arrogant) and adopted a position of permanent marginality.

The particular address embraced by Sara Farid is very different from a fly-on-the-wall approach, even when the evident instantaneity of her photographs may seem to suggest amateur snapshots. A short revelatory essay that chronicles stories of courage, resilience and endurance accompanies each portrait. Her subjects are kept emotionally and physically close to her, infused at the moment the shutter and flash is released with a strong sense of grace and a flattering glow. Farid’s empathetic sensor locates the person’s self-definition; relaxing her subject with her inquisitive and appreciative conversation, she enhances their beauty. As with the heroes and heroines of great novels, we begin to feel we ‘know’ and can identify with them._MG_9583-12x18

She confesses, “Many of these people (her subjects) were rejected by their families. Spending time with them was definitely heartbreaking. I am hopeful these photos will trigger much-needed change to eliminate discrimination against them.”

Sara Farid and her peers invented for themselves an aesthetic that favours indeterminate gender informed visually by a European sense of culture and innuendo, and has some of the bittersweet sense of permanent rebellion that was the legacy of Oscar Wilde. The bravado of these young and middle-aged HIV-positive Pakistanis in ignoring the barriers of conformity and family wilfully is visible in their head-turned-over-the-shoulders poses, shot against a backdrop of seedy interiors or pitch-dark backgrounds. In a way, it is difficult to define the feeling that comes from the shiver and sympathy in their expressions; the photographs foretell the perilous consequences of defiance. Take, for instance, the portrait of a 30-year old Saima who lives in Hafizabad with her HIV-positive husband. Treated with an infected needle for a minor abscess in her leg by one doctor, she feels guilty for transferring HIV to her husband and her two daughters.

Solemn, sharp-focus images of poverty, agriculture and the ritual cycles of life all over the world were recorded through the all-seeing eyes of American photographers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange (or those with a similar aesthetic and gravity such as Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Robert Capa). Two decades later, Farid has begun her odyssey recording crises and the polemics. Her photographs give a historic identity to a brave group of HIV positive people living in their own gender around Kasur, Vehari and Jalalpur Jattan. Conceived under the aegis of Joint UN Program on HIV/AIDS Pakistan in collaboration with National AIDS Control Programme (NACP), the suite of 25 odd portraits called ‘Positive Diaries’ is faithful to real stories as well as to personal affinities. The verbal and visual portrait of Javed from Okara is a ‘positive’ image of a ‘hero’ who’s lived a life of extreme vulnerability and insight. Kidnapped at a young age and gang raped by a group of men, he decided to quit dancing at a circus in Sindh. Faced with social isolation and ostracism, he renounced the life of a transgender, got married and took to tailoring. Three years ago, he discovered he was HIV-positive._MG_9968-24x16

Another portrait of a 44-year old Allah Rakha is one more poignant tale of ‘wrong choices and wrong decisions’ made while living in Dubai. With the help of New Light AIDS Control Awareness Society, he regained balance in an otherwise despicable world of derogation and ridicule.

Sara Farid credits the work of photographers who recorded the daily life of ordinary people, especially August Sander, Diane Arbus and Mary Ellen Mark, by responding to their early work and her potential as an original voice. Seminal as Arbus’s work was in reflecting dysfunction back on the viewer, and empathetic, as she may have been who lived in the lower middle-class developments like blocks in the Bronx, she still produced a kind of classic photograph. The deliberateness of framing and the high tonal contrast in Farid’s photographs serve as a protective shield to contain a degenerate impulse that might prove contagious. She lets her lens come close to the subject so that the rich lantern colours and cinematic enveloping powers are enhanced.

A peculiar way of both examining and eulogising experience through a number of telling moments in close proximity can be exhausting. However, the subjects’ naked feelings are moderated by an almost Oriental delicacy. This appears visually in the lustrous skin, and metaphorically in the wasted time. Whereas in the work of Farid a faint suggestion of disgust or fear is present, it is very hard not to surrender and become a silent fan and suitor of her euphoric dramatis personae.

Nevertheless, Farid remains in the continuous present; first names and intimate locations are central to the formal and moral story. The idea of a diary rather than a document goes with a bold contemporary rejection of the notion of the crafted, perfect photograph. The shutter click should be regular and mesmerise, like a rock beat or a heartbeat. In spite, or because, of the perils of a life of freedom and intimate confidence, of moments of monotony as well as crises, Farid herself has come to depend on the act of taking photographs as a tool to remain alive. In the postmodern interpretation, she has been predicting the time when a lens-based record will prevail over the vapours of memory.

Treating her audience as individuals, holding their needs and empathy close to her own, remaining exposed to disappointment and betrayal as well as rescue, Farid suggests the power of human bonds that lies beneath the weakening crust of global capitalism. The recent work vindicates the 1970s slogan, ‘The personal is political.’

Nietzsche said that the only way to survive ‘a circular time’ (a time of personal disasters and of philosophical consciousness), a time of tragic repetition that crushes the individual, is joyfully to accept this burden, and assent to the inevitable. From this supreme acceptance of what would otherwise grind humanity to dust, comes the strength to achieve mastery over life. ‘Positive Diaries’ has just this sense of an extreme effort to turn annihilation into a rich and lasting rebirth.

Aasim Akhtar

aasim akhtar
The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad.

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