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Irfan Ahson captures beautiful moments. Three years ago, the wedding photographer was an engineer on a one-way ticket from Texas to Pakistan. The US Economic Bubble had taken its toll on him and countless millions.
But heading to Pakistan did not make things easier. Initially confident with his civil engineering degree in hand, Irfan thought Pakistan would embrace his skillset. As an emerging market, the country surely needed engineers to help renovate its sometimes dilapidated infrastructure.
But after searching long and hard, Irfan was unable to find an attractive engineering job. So, on a long-shot, he took a chance on a passionate hobby, photography. Irfan decided to shoot a wedding. It has paid off handsomely. He now shoots over 150 weddings a year. Demand for his work is growing in Pakistan and has gained followers in the United States, Canada and Europe. When not shooting weddings, Irfan gives time to various causes such as supporting humanitarian aid organizations.
Changing The View
"Nothing changes, unless we adopt a different mindset," said Mr Ahson, speaking to me by phone from Lahore, a thousand-year old city that is a backdrop for the ancient Grand Trunk Silk Route made famous by Marco Polo. Before he arrived in Pakistan, one of life's greatest moments, a wedding shoot, was an otherwise routine and often, mundane event.
Pakistani couples typically had their wedding photos shot in drab indoor studios in front of lifeless backdrops. Forced artificial smiles for the camera were mandatory. What often got missed was the spontaneity of a natural smile or a fleeting moment in time. A new mindset was needed for professional wedding photography. Mr. Ahson decided to fill the gap and exploit an opportunity to document these special moments.
He exploited the environment by capturing the beauty of nature's ambient light, whether it was a golden sunset or the eerie mist of an overcast day. Ahson changed the status-quo. He mixed the beauty of the natural environment with professional portrait photography. His pictures are imbued with unique moments.
"What has always fascinated me with photography was being able to stop the flow of time." said Mr. Ahson. His photography freezes the human emotions within their environment. It can catch the smile of an almond-eyed beauty in an embroidered sari or lenga, frolicking with her bride-groom in front of Mughal-era haveli (castle).
A Pakistani In Cowboy Country
Irfan came to the United States to study engineering at the University of Texas in Austin. Texas is known for being a fiercely independent 'God-fearing' republican state. Its unofficial motto is "Don't mess with Texas!" and surprisingly, more than 1 in 5 Texans even support seceding from United States.
While attending college, Ahson enjoyed photography and supported his taste for expensive glass (camera lenses) by charging fees for small events. As his work became known, he would receive requests to shoot weddings for American couples. But, photography was just a hobby.
Eventually, Ahson graduated from UT and found a good job as an engineer. However, after a few comfortable years in the US, he became a victim of the 2008 economic recession. Seeing a moment of opportunity, he decided to take a chance and head back to Pakistan with his engineering degree in hand.
But in Pakistan, he found opportunities lacking, even as a professional board certified civil engineer from a top western university.
A Short History On Pakistan
Pakistanis are a hospitable people. However, Pakistan is a nation scarred by political corruption and tribal allegiances. Unlike India, which forced its Landlord class to cash-out at the inception of its independence, Pakistan's landlords successfully embedded themselves in Politics when it gained independence in 1947.
Today, the differences between these two nations are striking. Pakistan has some pondering to do as countries like South Korea and Turkey flourish, having successfully utilized Pakistan's original Five Year National Economic Plan, while Pakistan sputters forward. Though Pakistan has many educated people, it still lacks the infrastructure and business environment to garner a successful merit-based society. Further, its geopolitical location as a Cold War buffer between the US, Russia, India and China has often held it ransom to world power interests.
The Wedding Photographer
Irfan Ahson decided to hang up his engineering degree and take a chance on his passion for photography. "My parents didn't want me to give up a career in engineering," said Ahson. But in less than 3 years, his world has shot up. He now has a grueling schedule, shooting 150 weddings a year and working with a whole team of assistants. Early on, he recalled shooting a friends wedding in Pakistan. He was surprised to find his friend telling family members that he was not the official wedding photographer, but just a friend shooting some pictures.
Ahson was surprised by this action. His friend later explained to him that he could not tell guests that he was the official photographer otherwise he would be treated poorly, as if he were a menial servant. Ahson admits that the traditional view of photography is that "if you couldn't do anything or get a good job, you became a photographer in Pakistan. "So I had to change the mindset of the people...there has been a paradigm shift here when it comes to photography." He now gets treated almost like a celebrity. Photography has gained newfound respect in Pakistan and wedding photographers like Irfan Ahson have made it happen.
Ak-47s, Kalishnikovs and Cameras
Photographing a wedding in Pakistan can be very grueling. Getting from one location to another is often a logistical maze. In Pakistan, weddings need to end by 10 pm due to power shortages (load-shedding). This leaves little time for outdoor wedding party pictures. Ahson scouts various Mughal architectural locations and gardens. He has to juggle through the chaotic traffic of Lahore, while trying to keep everyone in the wedding party on the same page.
Unlike American weddings, there is no simple white dress for the Pakistani bride. The intense heat can melt makeup and wear out a jeweled bride wearing a 30-pound ornate Mughal-era style dress. He has never attempted to shoot a wedding in an open unsecured public place.
Outdoor shoots require a security team provided by the wedding party. Pakistan is a nation caught up in the middle of the so-called War on Terror as well as internal sectarian bloodshed, making security an ongoing concern. So the backdrop to a wedding photo shoot often involves a security apparatus protecting bride and groom with AK-47s and Kalashnikovs.
In light of the realities on the ground, I asked Ahson what he thought about the ongoing violence and politics in Pakistan. He said, "the average person on the street is more concerned about their day-to-day survival, about feeding and providing for their family; they are not as concerned about what is going on with geopolitics."
Films with a "classical, almost mystical style" influence Ahson's photography. He admires movies such as The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life (by iconic director Terrence Malick), and Paris, Texas. Many of these movies contain sweeping images of nature and the environment. They often document "the flow of time" through natural scenery and poetic narration. Irfan ruminates over nostalgic imagery from classics like Casablanca, (staring Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart). He is also a great admirer of photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, considered by many to be the father of modern photojournalism.
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