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Spotlight: Rizwan ul Haq

What do you desperately need for an interview at an ungodly hour after a day of work with giants of your field? Energy drinks. And that’s what Rizwan-ul-Haq had in hand when he showed up at 2:00am for this interview. He was coming straight from a photo session of Mirza Khursheed Masood, Arif Mehmood and Tapu Javeri — three maestros of photography in Pakistan.

The reason for the ludicrous delay in the shoot was certainly not Rizwan’s lack of confidence in front of these giants. It was Karachi’s chronic ailment — power failure. He looked a bit tired but not nervous or exhausted of the weight of ‘shooting’ his seniors. On the contrary, he greatly enjoyed photographing them. “They all are very kind. They helped me in lighting and politely suggested tips which only contributed to the session. This is how it should be. I immensely respect my seniors and colleagues,” says Rizwan.

I was deeply impressed. If I were to interview a giant in my field (or in any other for that matter), I would die a thousand deaths. But everyone is not like me, and more than that the interview is not about me. So back to Rizwan.

I was also impressed by his sense of commitment as we had print deadlines to meet. Despite having slept very little for the last three days, he turned up for the interview. No attitude, no tantrums. Just apologies for the delay. This seems opposite to what I had heard from some people while gathering background information on him. Some people complain that he has developed an attitude since he received recognition and success. He does not give time to those who take the credit of ‘making’ him.

“If you try to be organised and work according to a schedule, then you usually get to hear such things. I don’t like to say no to anyone, but if I don’t have bookings what can I do? I certainly cannot cancel the prior ones for those who come later. I try to accommodate everyone,” he explains.

Hence, the reason he is working for 16 to 18 hours a day. Assignments ranging from fashion to advertising to portraits are pouring in. The client list is growing. Surely a sign of his popularity negating an attitude problem. Being a perfectionist, he likes to do everything by himself which adds up a lot more to his plate than he usually needs. “I miss the days when I just had to fix the lights, camera and concentrate on the shoot. My job would be over the moment pack up call was announced,” he sighs referring to his days of working as an assistant to photographer Nadeem A. Khan.

‘I am only interested in my work as a photographer. I am not a part of many things and don’t want to be. No groups, please. I work with everyone. I feel we should all concentrate on our work as we have to go very far, and this is just the beginning,’ says Rizwan-ul-Haq

Rizwan’s story from an MBA student to the rising star of photography is very simple and uncomplicated … just like him. Academically bright, he made it to the third semester of MBA (“I was a very good student, always ranked in top three students in school and secured good marks in graduation”). He liked photography, saw an advert in papers about a photography workshop at Pakistan American Cultural Centre (PACC), took courses with Rehmatullah Khan, joined Nadeem A. Khan and then went solo. No twists, no drama. Just hard work and dedication.

He cherishes the journey, though. He enjoys recognition, success and independence. “It feels really good,” he says. Is that all? “Oh! I forgot the money. That is good too,” he adds laughingly. But the deeper he is going into the field and having more interaction with fashion, the more he is getting exposed to the politics, negativity and bitchiness of the field. He observes it all from a distance and strictly adheres to his non-aligned, no-involvement policy.

“I am only interested in my work. I am not a part of many things and don’t want to be. No groups, please. I work with everyone. I feel we should all concentrate on our work as we have to go very far, and this is just the beginning,” he says in a no-nonsense tone. And there goes my first journalistic effort to wrench some controversial, juicy bits from him to make this interview salacious. Few strong words send clear signals. Sensing that Rizwan is a hard nut to crack and won’t offer spicy stuff, I immediately decide to talk to him about photography and only photography.

Gaining momentum as a name to reckon with in fashion photography, his approach to the craft is very simple. He likes to capture the personality that the clothes he is shooting bring out or portray. He aims for a beautiful image rather than a pretty one. Beauty has depth, emotions and character whereas a pretty image is just view-finder deep. “I like my women strong, natural and confident. Therefore, I try to focus on the woman who is wearing the outfits,” he says. So where do the clothes go? “They take centre stage when I am shooting catalogues and not fashion,” comes the crisp, sharp reply. He detests artificiality, hence avoids stagnant, dead shots. He thinks that good fashion is what lends confidence to the wearer and brings out the best in a model. But he gives equal credit to the carriage of a model who can make or break clothes. For him, ideal combination comes in the package of a good model and good clothes. “Sheer ecstasy,” he declares.

Good-model-bad-fashion blend is still manageable. “That’s why I prefer working with certain models who understand clothes and fashion better than others,” he confesses. I don’t even attempt to worm names of those models out of him. But the toughest is bad-model-good-clothes mix. “I pop two painkillers after every such shoot,” he says with a poker-straight face. It’s a common knowledge that along with lights, camera and computer, Rizwan’s studio has a box of painkiller strips at all times.

For him, fashion means being close to nature and self. He complains of the fast disappearance of colour from our lives. “Nature is so vibrant, so colourful. Look at animals … fish, butterflies, birds, beasts. They are all multi-hued, multi-patterned. Similarly, flora and fauna are a riot of colours. Just shades of greens are countless. And here we are becoming greyer by the second,” he moans.

The photographer notices the severe lack of colour and street fashion in Pakistan and wishes for a vibrant scene. Interestingly, he finds fashionably looked down upon and stylishly backward vicinities more fashionable and colourful than the supposed-to-be fashionable, elitist ones. “You go to Lyari and you will find someone clad in a bright yellow shirt paired with green trousers on the streets. Go to New Karachi and you will see a chap with a carefully coiffed hairstyle. They have an individualistic sense of style and refuse to adhere to the so-called fads or rules of fashion. They know how to express themselves through clothes. I find it very exciting and that is fashion for me,” he explains. To Rizwan, slavery to fashion seems mindless, which is evident in the so-called fashion buffs. “They have similar tastes and wardrobes. Surprisingly, they don’t even find it odd or unstylish,” he comments.

Perhaps, this is the reason why he finds portraits far more exciting and challenging. “Basically I am a portrait photographer,” he admits. Expressions, feelings and emotions seduce him and make his images beautiful. And all of these and more he finds in people’s faces, eyes and body language. He often goes on a clicking spree and captures faces around town in his camera memory card. But photographing celebrities is certainly far more exigent for him. “Celebrities have a self and public image. They like to maintain that before the camera. But my pursuit is to go beyond that and capture their real self. Every celebrity/personality wants to look their best in a photograph. But I want them to look themselves,” he says.

Rizwan’s personality portrait sessions are deliberate because he chats with them and puts them at easy with his disarming simplicity. During the conversations, he keeps clicking and somewhere along the line, he breaks the image celebrities want to live up to and gets the image he wants … real, deep, intense and full of expressions and emotions.

His portraits of Roohi Bano, perhaps, are best reflection of his philosophy. Shot in light and shade, the yester years’ artiste par excellence images also bear testimony to his craft’s quality. Subtle and yet intense, deep and reflective, Roohi’s portraits speak volumes of her sorrows, her genius, her recent unbearable lightness of being. Her eyes speak of a deep pain, and yet the smile has a note of defiance and mockery. Rizwan successfully managed to capture her life, her history in just few images. Simple yet extremely strong images.

The session with her has left indelible imprints on Rizwan. Initially, Roohi was very difficult and refused to be photographed. Rizwan patiently waited for her to warm up to him and the right moment. “Once she agreed to be photographed, she was a delight. Her mood was highly sensitive to lighting. She simply flirted with lighting and changed expressions accordingly. Incomparable experience. I have never shot a person who understood lighting so beautifully.” He regards the experience as a milestone in his career which may never come again.

He likes to play with light and shade. “If someone manages to learn to control these two elements, he/she reaches the height of visual arts,” his voice is clearly in awe of light and shade. He does not like flat, even lighting. “Life’s reality, beauty, mystery … everything is nothing but play of these two elements,” says Rizwan.

The words may sound very philosophical and a bit pretentious but his simple manner of speaking delivers the clarity they carry. And this is what Rizwan-ul-Haq is all about. No airs, no attitude, no pretence. Just a person with a vision of simplicity and intensity of light and shade, a photographer who does not like flat, even lighting.

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