2021-10-02 17:36:53 A Pakistan Photographer Rushes to Save the Past

A Pakistan Photographer Rushes to Save the Past

LAHORE, Pakistan (AP) — Before Shahid Zaidi was born, before his country became independent, his father opened a portrait studio and documented the country’s emerging history.

In 1939, his father, Syed Mohammad Ali Zaidi, kidnapped a Hindu couple. The man was dressed conservatively in a double-breasted suit with his hair slicked, while the woman was dressed in a sari with dangling earrings and bangles on her wrists, the exact colors eluding the black-and-white negative.

The following year, he photographed a Muslim couple identified as Mr. and Mrs. Mohammad Abbas, the bride wearing a shimmer-trimmed shalwar kameez and a matha patti, an ornamental headpiece, and the groom wearing a qulla, a wedding turban.

As word spread about his studio, Syed Mohammed Ali Zaidi’s clients began to include the elite of Pakistan’s new nation. He captured Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the lawyer-turned-separatist who founded the modern country. He photographed Liaquat Ali Khan, the first prime minister, who was assassinated in 1951.

Shahid Zaidi, 79, wants to keep that history alive. He has put together a small team to create digital versions of the images his father began capturing at his Lahore studio 91 years ago. He hopes to put the entire collection online so that families can find their ancestors and learn about Pakistan’s transition.

“It is my responsibility,” Mr. Zaidi stated. “We have photographs that belong to someone. They might want them or they might not want them at all. That isn’t the point. I owe them something, as far as I’m concerned.”

It will not be easy. The studio, Zaidis Photographers, houses a large archive of approximately 500,000 negatives. Though he received some financial assistance from the United States Institute of Peace, which promotes conflict resolution, he is responsible for the remainder.

The elder Zaidi established the studio in 1930 by renting prime real estate on The Mall, a British-era thoroughfare in Pakistan’s second-largest city. Despite its desirable location, the studio struggled to find customers during a difficult economic period.

Mr. Zaidi, who grew up in the studio, said the elder Zaidi “had the courage, commitment, and wisdom to do this when he had nothing else.”

As a young man, Mr. Zaidi moved to London to study film. He returned to Pakistan in a Volkswagen bus with his wife, Farida, almost bartering his Leica camera in Tehran for gas. Mr. Zaidi later moved to Reno, Nevada, to work as a director of photography for a studio portraiture company.

When his cousin, who had been running the studio, called him in the 1980s and asked him to take over, he felt compelled to return. “There was something inside me telling me, ‘You have to go back,’” he explained. “‘That’s your father’s work,'” she says.

Mr. Zaidi and two young colleagues use a digital camera to photograph each negative and then add names, dates, and watermarks to the files, drawing from stacks of notebooks in which customers wrote their personal information by hand.

Mr. Zaidi said that when he travels around Pakistan, he meets people whose family histories are linked to the studio. “There’s always some kind of story relating to some photographs that we took,” he explained.

Today, the studio is surrounded by chain restaurants and a high-end watch store. Depending on the amount of funding available, the studio’s archival effort has progressed in fits and starts. Keeping a portrait business open in an era of ubiquitous selfies, according to Mr. Zaidi, is difficult. He admits that he hasn’t kept up with the times because changes in photography and Pakistani society bother him. He uses a digital camera but prefers the style and format of his old analog setup.

Mr. Zaidi fears that if he does not finish preserving the photos, history will be lost. Few of his father’s contemporaries, to his knowledge, kept their archives.

“Every day I spend here,” Mr. Zaidi explained, “I learn something about what he went through to achieve what he did.”

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A Pakistan Photographer Rushes to Save the Past