Pakistani photographer rushes to save the past

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LAHORE, Pakistan – Before Shahid Zaidi was born, before his home was an independent country, his father opened a portrait studio and captured the nation’s burgeoning history.

Her father, Syed Mohammad Ali Zaidi, captured a Hindu couple in 1939. The man wore a conservative double-breasted suit, slicked back hair, while the woman wore a sari, with dangling earrings and wrist bracelets, the exact colors escaping the negative black-and-white.

The following year he captured a Muslim couple, listed as Mr. and Mrs. Mohammad Abbas, the bride in a shimmeringly finished shalwar kameez and matha patti, ornamental headgear and the resplendent groom in a qulla, turban of marriage.

Word spread about his studio and Syed Mohammed Ali Zaidi’s clients began to include the elite of the new nation of Pakistan. He photographed Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the lawyer turned separatist who became the founder of the modern country. He photographed Liaquat Ali Khan, the first Prime Minister, shot dead by an assassin in 1951.

Shahid Zaidi, 79, wants to preserve this story. He assembled a small team to create digital versions of the images his father started capturing in his Lahore studio 91 years ago. It aims to bring the entire collection online so that families can trace their ancestors and explore Pakistan’s coming of age.

“It is my responsibility,” Zaidi said. “We have images that belong to someone. They may want them or they may never want them. It is irrelevant. As far as I’m concerned, I owe them something.

It won’t be easy. The studio, called Zaidis Photographers, houses a large archive of around half a million negatives. Although he has secured some financial support from the United States Institute of Peace, which promotes conflict resolution, he funds the rest himself.

Elder Zaidi opened the studio in 1930, when he rented prime real estate on The Mall, a British-era thoroughfare in Pakistan’s second largest city. Despite its desirable location, the studio has struggled to find clients in a tough economy.

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

Mr Zaidi left for London as a young man to study cinema. He returned to Pakistan with his wife, Farida, in a Volkswagen bus, almost swapping his Leica camera in Tehran in exchange for gasoline. The couple then moved to Reno, Nevada, where Mr. Zaidi worked as a director of photography for a studio portrait company.

When his cousin, who ran the studio, called Mr. Zaidi in the 1980s to ask him to take over the business, he felt he had to come back. “There was something in me that was like, ‘You have to go back,’” he said. “‘This is your father’s job.'”

Mr Zaidi and two young colleagues photograph each negative with a digital camera and add names, dates and watermarks to the files, tapping into stacks of notebooks where clients have handwritten their personal information.

When traveling through Pakistan, Zaidi said, he meets people whose family histories are linked to the studio. “There is always a kind of story attached to certain photographs that we took,” he said.

Today, the studio is flanked by restaurant chains and a luxury watch store. The studio’s archiving effort has progressed in spurts, depending on the amount of funding available. Keeping a portrait business open in the age of ubiquitous selfies isn’t easy, Zaidi said. He admits that he hasn’t quite kept up with the times because the changes in photography and Pakistani society don’t suit him. He photographs with a digital camera but prefers the style and format of his old analog setup.

If he does not finish preserving the photos, Zaidi said, he fears the story will be lost. To his knowledge, few contemporaries of his father have kept their archives.

“Every day that I spend here,” said Mr. Zaidi, “I learn something from what he went through to realize what he did.”


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