Photographer Ghulam Rasool: the allure of Pakistan’s nature and wildlife
Photographer Ghulam Rasool: the allure of Pakistan’s nature and wildlife
20 August 2015
Rare wild birds, glacial lakes, deep pink sunsets, flood and earthquake survivors – shot in Pakistan – are among the images that make up Ghulam Rasool’s new photographic exhibition, ‘My Eyes are Witness’, to open to the public in the Asia House Studio on Tuesday 25 August.
For 38-year-old Pakistan-born Rasool, photography is about much more than taking photos natural landscapes – there is also a spiritual element to his work.
“The moon comes and goes, the clouds come and go, but we are busy with our lives. This system of ours, the universe, has been running for billions of years. Each aspect of nature – each has its own feelings. We just don’t see it. Even a tree can tell you how old it is. I try to communicate all this in my photography,” he says.
“Everyone has feelings and observations about their surroundings and the world around them. If it makes some sense to you, you want to convey it to others in whatever way is possible. I had only this option to take the camera and take pictures and share the findings of how I see the world. But the whole process of being able to do this has taken so many years,” he adds.
Rasool’s photos capture landscapes, people and wildlife taken from the length and breadth of Pakistan from remote villages to deserts, from Azad Kashmir to the Karakoram mountain range.
Born and raised in Gujranwala in the Punjab region of Pakistan, he started taking photos when he was at school in the 1980s. It was whilst studying a three-year accountancy degree in Lahore in the mid 1990s that he decided to switch careers and become a photographer – against his parents’ will. He left college without completing the course.
“I figured out two things about life: it’s your life and no one else is going to take care of your problems and feelings. I decided to be a photographer and not an accountant. My family were all offended I had left my education but for me it was impossible to do anything else. It was like a choice between living and not living,” he explains.
He has no formal training in photography. Instead when he was at college he ordered photography books from all over the world and read them. “My parents did not know I was doing that,” he says.
At that time he was using a Yashica electro 35 rangefinder camera. “These were what people used before SLRs,” he tells me, speaking by phone from his London home. “You can’t change the lens, you have to range find and focus on it,” he adds.
A few years ago he left his homeland and moved to London.
“There were various factors that propelled that, an armed robbery near Gujranwala in 2007 when they took everything including all my camera equipment,” he says, his voice mixed with anger and bitterness.” I was away on a photographic assignment at the time. The general chaos and security situation was another reason,” he continues. “Also there comes a point in every person’s life when the struggling phase is over and you get creative and start to develop your own style – and it was when that started happening that I had to leave Pakistan.”
Rasool’s main photographic interest is wildlife, particularly birds, and also nature.
Between 2005 and 2012 he worked as a nature photographer for WWF-Pakistan.
But why the focus on Pakistan? “Pakistan has some of the most diverse wildlife and nature in the world. It has more than 700 species of birds,” he says.
The UK, in comparison, has about 576 species of birds.
“I was the first wildlife photographer in Pakistan,” he continues. “There was no one at that time in 2002-2003 when I was carving out my career. Pakistan is the only place in the world that has such a wide scope of altitudinal variations ranging from K2 – the second highest peak in the world – to the coastline. No other country has this. Pakistan has a huge diversity in geography and landscape and that’s why there is such a variety of flora and fauna and wildlife. We have permanent glaciers including the Baltoro Glacier, one of the world’s biggest freshwater glaciers, which can be seen from space.” [Baltoro is one of the longest glaciers outside the polar regions, located in Baltistan, in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan.]
He then speaks about some of the images to be exhibited at the Asia House Studio August 25-28 in his newly titled exhibition ‘Ghulam Rasool, My Eyes Are Witness.’
Firstly we talk about Frozen in Time which captures a Pakistani family made homeless by the 2005 Kashmir earthquake now living in a tent in their village. “I wanted to capture something positive such as the regeneration after the earthquake,” he says.
Then we discuss the charming picture of Pakistani school teacher Abdul Aziz, a school teacher in the Broghil Valley of North-West of Pakistan close to the Afghan-Pakistan border, who is from the Wakhi community. “He has a horse and he lends the horse out to make money on top of his teacher’s income,” Rasool explains.
Passion and Dust shows a man holding two bulls at a Pakistani cultural festival in the Punjab, whilst Evening Retreat shows cattle herds in the Cholistan Desert area of the Punjab returning in the evening as the sun is setting.
The Tawar Chacha of Broghil shows two members of the Wakhi community who live in the mountainous Broghil Valley, which is 12,000 feet above sea-level. The region is snowbound for almost six months of the year and he shows their simple mud house. “The protein they rely on to eat is from yaks – as there are no cows or buffaloes that high up – they trade in livestock and get everything they need from the yaks and sheep,” Rasool says.
The Mighty Karakorams is a view of the 90km long stunning Karambar Valley renowned for its glacial lakes which lies in the Karakoram Mountains, 14,000 feet above sea level. Rasool himself seems to be above the clouds when he took the image. “The light in these areas can change dramatically because the mountains are so high. After rain, the sun heats up the clouds and it disperses the light in such a way that the colours you see are unbelievable. The colours in my picture are totally what was there in nature. Usually you can never capture the real thing in a photo but these modern cameras are so good now that you can pick up the real colours,” he says explaining he now uses a Canon EOS 5D Mark III camera.
Golden Shimmer beautifully captures the sun reflecting on the Mangla Dam Lake in Azad Kashmir which looks like bits of actual gold floating on the lake.
Mystic Evening captures the pink sun and blue tinge of a winter evening in Qadirabad in Punjab, Pakistan – an area of wetlands that many birds flock to. “I photographed the birds migrating from the lake to some other place and I saw this composition and I just had to photograph it. I used a 600mm lens and I was just speechless when it came out,” he says.
Circle of Victory captures horse riders taking part in a cultural sport holding lances. Then Pehli Kitab (meaning First book) is a picture he took at a village, Machlu, in Gilgit-Baltistan Province, Pakistan, which was affected by the devastating 2010 floods. The school was destroyed, so the children were taught under the trees. “The people in these villages are so humble, loving and accepting. You feel so at home. I was there on an assignment to capture the devastation of the floods,” he adds.
Another captivating picture is Group of Greens, a photo of grey-headed parakeets taken in the Kaghan Valley in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province of Pakistan. Rasool is used to sitting silently for hours on end to take photos of birds, acutely aware that at any moment they might fly away. “Normally these birds don’t sit in open areas, they sit in well camouflaged deciduous and coniferous trees. I liked the composition of the way they were all sitting on the tree,” he explains.
Rasool hopes that Londoners will experience some of the spiritual feelings that he experienced when he took these photos when they view his work. His latest exhibition, ‘Ghulam Rasool, My Eyes Are Witness’ opens to the public in the Asia House Studio onTuesday, 25 August and continues until Friday, 28 August.
“Often when I go to the mountains I have some questions in my mind and I think about these questions as I am walking along,” Rasool explains. “It is as though you are conversing with the environment and talking to it and you start feeling the answers – but this only happens in the mountains. This is because only when you are in that environment do you lose your material contact and the real natural world is available to you. There are no roads, there is no mobile phone signal: it’s just you and nature. You can feel the hiss of wind and listen to every bird chirping. You can’t find these things in the city. I try to take the audience of my photos on the same journey.”
‘Ghulam Rasool, My Eyes Are Witness’ will be exhibited in the Asia House Studio from Tuesday, 25 August to Friday, 28 August from 10.00 to 18.00. Admission is free. For more information click here.