Reviews & Recommendations

Vignettes from the ‘frontier’ city 

Photo Peshawar is the result of the authors meeting and interacting with photographers and critically viewing their work

Pramod Pushkarna

The camera and the gun arrived hand-in-hand on the Frontier—the border area between British India and Afghanistan—in the 19th century, writes Omar Khan in the foreword. Both were apparently taken up with relish by the locals despite the Islamic injunction against human depiction.

The book, a labour of love by Irish ethnographer Sean Foley and Austrian artist Lukas Birk, calls photographers ‘the true filmi heroes’, working against heavy odds in a perpetual conflict zone. Peshawar, ostensibly the oldest city in Pakistan, was an important stop on the silk route and is now home to many Afghan refugees.

But neither the conflict and the drone attacks nor the Taliban and conservative forces have been able to stop people from getting photographed or photographers setting up studios and recording history, people and events. What began as the ‘Afghan Box Camera project’, a research into the culture of Afghan photography, led the authors to Peshawar over the Khyber Pass in search of Afghan photographers who had fled as refugees. The book, embellished with a selection of some 150 photographs, look into Sikandarpura (Town of Alexander), Ladies’ Market, which sells women’s cosmetics, jewellery and fabric, Cinema Road in the old city and the Sadar Road, the elite, new area of Peshawar, where photographers who practise their craft.

The section on ‘Women in Photography’ is absorbing. In a gun-ridden, conservative society, it is not uncommon for husbands to ask the photographer to leave while he himself takes the photograph

Portraits, wedding photography and news photography have all survived in the city, find the authors, despite ‘purdah’, the Taliban and often violent and deadly retribution for taking photographs. Indeed, they stumble upon women photographers who operate inside beauty parlours and ‘ Taxi Photographers’, the studio-less travelling photographers moving on the highways and the tribal areas, gathering customers as they rolled on.

The section on ‘Women in Photography’ is absorbing. In a gun-ridden, conservative society, it is not uncommon for husbands to ask the photographer to leave while he himself takes the photograph.

The digitised file is then transferred to a CD without any employee of the studio viewing it. While people were eager to show and share baby shots of their daughters, they would often scratch out the faces of women in photographs. Photo Peshawar is the result of the authors meeting and interacting with photographers and critically viewing their work.

As they say in their forward, they “meandered at will and stumbled across all types of photographic wonders: studios still using large format film cameras, hand colourists of black -and white portraits, and –imagine!- paper negative box cameras on the streets”. Besides 35 pages of text, Photo Peshawar is naturally devoted to photographs that represent lives and times of people. The book is a delight for photography buffs and the serious researcher of the ‘Frontier’.

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