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Shafqat, Shama, Shahzad and Brandon

On 4th August, 2015, at 4:30 am, Shafqat Hussain was quietly led to the gallows after four last minute reprieves were each successively cancelled, despite international appeals.
“I have been told I am going to be executed seven times. The first time was in 2013,” he had said earlier. Each time, a jailer gives him a one-week notice. He is separated from company and is to await the day in solitude. Each day he is given a full medical check. His body is weighed, nudged and probed to affirm its fitness for obliteration. Towards the end of the week, activists, friends and family successfully manage to pressure the government to reconsider and investigate his possible innocence and juvenility. The fourth time, there is no halt in proceedings and Shafqat is duly hanged. The bloodlust that gained momentum as a reaction to the Taliban attack on children at teh Army Public School, Peshawar, twists, convolutes and bites a possibly innocent man. Many Pakistanis rest easy knowing that terrorists planning future suicide attacks are seriously deterred by lifting the moratorium on death penalty.
Shafqat’s case was reported widely and from a variety of angles both for and against him. Accompanying this reportage was initially a single image: a photograph of a photograph held closely between a thumb and a forefinger. It’s torn from one side to isolate an adolescent Shafqat from others in the frame, is faded and well-creased which either indicates it’s often been held or has been left neglected to the elements for a long time. This turned out to be the primary image by which Shafqat was made known to the world. As photographs are often conflated with evidence, this picture was meant to confirm not only Shafqat’s existence but also his status as a fourteen year old minor at the time of the crime. Subsequently, many newspapers cropped away what they thought was superfluous. In an attempt to glean as much ‘truth’ as possible, they chipped away at the corners, bringing viewers closer to Shafqat’s vacant portrait. Vacant not because of any lack of expression but simply because the photograph is so washed out that the excessive zooming opened naught. This exemplifies the problem with photography: it conceals more than it can reveal. The harder one tries to complete the picture, the thicker its mystery sets. One might imagine that photographs contain vestiges of the real, if they do not exactly mirror it. This indexical trace however is questionable when we consider the sheer physics of light and its inability to encompass all experience. Can immaterial ideas like guilt and innocence be photographed? If not, then by what measure do we know what they look like?
Another photograph of Shafqat that was circulated was possibly taken at the same occasion as the first one since the clothes of his mother remain the same. In this picture, the camera has zoomed out, without stepping back. His parents are seen holding his photograph, stricken perhaps in equal measure by the tragedy of their child as by the aggression of the lens. The whites of their eyes, perspiration and tears on their faces and the occasional peeking silver hair are all overly lit by the flash of the camera. Deep shadows accentuate the wrinkles on their faces and map the silhouettes of their heads in a kind of anti-halo. Their mouths hang slightly agape, which gives the impression of perpetuating their pleas. They hold out Shafqat’s photo as an offering as well as a prized secret. The documentary photograph pursues instead of pre-empting, and here it seems to have struck prey. It stops the subject in its tracks and tries to offer a distant viewer a singular version of the truth. The act of taking a photograph, however cannot always contain its consequence within fixed parameters of intent. So while casually taken photographs by a news agency were possibly meant to be one-dimensional, one cannot help but conjecture whether representation is all these images do. The aesthetics of both the photographs mentioned above point to an ill lit, possibly indoor shoot. The obvious discomfort of the protagonists and yet their set determination leads one to think that they are not often photographed and that this exception is deliberately, perhaps even painstakingly, arranged. States categorize, archive and patrol citizens through images generated from impersonal machinery. The lack of an image on identification documents legally translates into lack of a personhood. Resultantly, when a personhood is threatened, we almost intuitively turn to the photograph in an attempt to rescue it. Rallies for missing persons are especially populated by these phantom images. In this very particular sense being photographed casually, particularly by state apparatus, while obviously normative is additionally also a privilege. These photographs are made to tally existence, to furnish immaterial timelines of lives and ultimately serve to distinguish between an advantaged and disadvantaged citizen. Even when images are not generated by the state but en masse by the consumptive individual, the seeming trajectory from depth to surface is countered by the security that the construction of a virtual identity provides. Admittedly, this accumulation of data does make individuals vulnerable to breach and surveillance but it is also a way of marking class territories. Thus individuals do the job of the state for it by compartmentalizing oneself by oneself.
The last photograph of Shafqat first appeared in news coverage much later. This is Shafqat at present: a grown man, with a black beard and a cap on his head. The photograph is taken at close range by someone sitting right next to him. His body is faced forward and hunched while he looks directly at the camera with his head turned away from his posture. This range distorts Shafqat’s features slightly, elongating the middle of his face, including his nose. The image is grainy, unflatteringly lit, and emphasizes redness in his eyes. This image is more threatening than the previous photographs, subscribes heavily to negative stereotypes, and aesthetically negates the proposition of his juvenility at the time of the crime. Notably, this photograph was often used when accompanying articles were already damning Shafqat and was mostly put up by local press ever since public opinion was established against him. If photography is a play on time, then the bearing of Shafqat’s age on his case, and the progression of establishing ‘facts’, is a clear demonstration of how this time, once photographed already lies manipulated.
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On 3rd November, 2014, an angry mob gathered in Kasur and on the pretext of blasphemy, beat up a Christian couple and then burnt them alive in the brick kiln where they worked. In the aftermath of this tragedy, a number of photographs of the victims were circulated. These are heartbreaking images of Shama and Shahzad, standing and posing in a studio set-up, dressed for occasion. While Shahzad is dressed in the same outfit, his lean frame upright and his feet slightly apart in each, Shama is harder to pin down. The woman in each of the three photographs is not only dressed differently but seems to possess a slightly altered build in each frame. Perhaps, these photographs were taken at different occasions but Shahzad’s outfit and Shama’s necklace and earrings remain the same. There are various claims over whether each woman is Shama or not but that has not stopped anyone from sharing all three of these images as pictures of the couple. In each of these photos, the possible Shamas hang on to Shahzad’s limp arm in a gesture of formal affection. Both stand stiff and ready. It is obviously not a frivolous matter. Notably the charred remains of the couple were also photographed but it is these ominous precursors to the tragedy that have really shaken the public. Perhaps it is the contrast drawn between the vulnerable hopefulness in the photographs with the knowledge of their ultimately sealed fate that is so profoundly disturbing. The backgrounds in all three of the images are scenes of escapist fantasies in saturated color. From tropical paradises to surrealist architecture, Shama and Shahzad stood stoically in the foreground of their dreams. While they are no sure cure for gloom, photographs hold, however elusive, a promise of making us appear happier, more fulfilled creatures. Compare that with the chilling aesthetics of their murder and these images automatically become haunting. Perhaps, it is possible, after all to photograph guilt, particularly that of the viewer. It is this sense of guilt that in turn encourages increased viewership of these images. When no real challenge is posed to the conditions that led to this tragedy, viewership of these images is performed like penance. It is a self-inflicted punishment to look, feel disgust and then reap the reward of our reaffirmed status as humans.
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In the summer of 2015, Brandon Stanton, a photographer from New York, visited Pakistan and took pictures for his popular blog Humans of New York. By the time his first photo was published online to a network of 14 million, he was probably already safely back in New York. These photos are accompanied by prolonged captions that seem to encapsulate each person’s ‘story’, making a case for the individual. In Brandon’s own words, the blog was started to “create an exhaustive catalogue of New York City’s inhabitants”. Later, propelled forward by increased popularity and an endorsement from the UN’s Millennium Development Goals advocacy group, Brandon expanded the scope of his already impossible project to include brief stints in countries such as Pakistan. One can only imagine the paperwork that must have gone into connecting a “cataloguing” photographic project to eradicating extreme poverty and improving maternal health. He is looking, again in his own words, “to inspire a global perspective”, because of course we are absolutely clear that poverty and mothers are the same everywhere.
The photographs on their own, without the accompaniment of text, are nothing special formally. They play by the rules, using clarity, color and depth of field in most predictable ways, exactly like the camera in use is programmed to function. Most of these are taken in daylight and in recognizable locations. In fact, the breadth of Pakistan is rather superficially covered by two cities and a tourist friendly mountain area. And yet, even within Lahore, it is easy to tick locations off a list for the cautious white-skinned tourist: Lawrence Garden, Badshahi Mosque and the rooftop restaurants around it.
It is the captions, however, that have created an odd appeal for the project. Their saccharine sentimentality whitewashes structural issues such as class, gender, race and sexuality in favor of individual responsibility. Even when Stanton speaks to a person across class barriers, their situation is explained away as a result of their particular actions. Throughout this process the power dynamic of the photographer making the judgment calls, in choosing a kind of subject, a kind of question, a kind of frame, a bit from the answer, a kind of interpretation, a kind of translation, is not only left unacknowledged but suppressed. While Stanton has almost celebrity status amongst his fans, he is neither self-reflective nor takes his unassuming subject into confidence about it. By trying to erase the ideological implications of his watered-down feel-good “humanizing” project, Stanton makes the inadvertent claim that his photographs are wholly representational even in a culture completely alien to him. Moreover, the entire humanizing enterprise is ahistoric and cyclic because it presupposes a need for itself.
Of course, it cannot be denied that Stanton’s mass appeal enables him to facilitate the connecting of resources as was the case with Fatima, an activist working against bonded labor at brick kilns, as well as a few others. It is however concerning that his brand of struggle does not care for context, history, or even liability but would rather address symptoms. Moreover, the consumption of these photographs by the literate middle class and elite in Pakistan was just as problematic. While the subjects of these pictures were automatically assumed to be in need of pity, validation, or excessive emotion as one logs on smartphones and flips through Facebook, it is unlikely that similar courtesies were extended to say, domestic help, or chauffeurs. While bonded labor, chauvinism, exploitation and violence are things most Pakistanis are already familiar with (even if indirectly), it seems as if Stanton turned on the switch for seasonal acknowledgement of these. Under a photograph in which the subject (unsurprisingly) takes full responsibility of his suffering the following comment was shared by a well-meaning fellow Pakistani:
“I will be honest, even we Pakistani don’t stop and talk to these people, the fact that you are from different country and does not speak the local language, the pain and effort you must have taken to communicate with him shows that you deserve all the respect and love from your Facebook fans.”
48303 other well-meaning individuals backed this classist self-abasing sentiment, thanking Stanton for showing the “real image” of Pakistan. But if such a thing exists at all, perhaps we needn’t look further than Shafqat, Shama and Shahzad.

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