Sohail Karmani points out that everyone is interested in photography these days. You only have to glance around a mall and count how many people are taking selfies, he says, chuckling.
People’s curiosity about photography is not a new phenomenon. But to take that curiosity and develop it into a career that makes professionals worldwide sit up and take note is no easy feat.
The 50-year-old linguist and professor, who has been teaching in the UAE for the past 20 years, was recently a contestant on the European reality TV show, Master of Photography. Being a British national, the Abu Dhabi-based Karmani was eligible to apply for the show, and was eventually selected from among thousands of photographers to join a group of 12 contestants to participate in the second season, which is currently airing on Sky Arts in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany, Italy and Austria.
Last week, on the third episode, Karmani was voted off after a challenge that involved taking a portrait of actor Clive Owen. He had won the previous week’s challenge of taking a striking photo of the rush hour in the German city of Hamburg.
Nevertheless, Karmani credits the experience for boosting his confidence. “When I heard about the show, I thought, ‘I can do this’,” he says.
Karmani began his photographic journey only four years ago when fiddling with his DSLR camera. “I got into still photography and specifically portraits. I thought it was a beautiful art form and started teaching myself; I loved the aesthetics of it. I developed an appreciation of the beauty of photographs, and how powerful they can be as a medium.”
Although Karmani is of a Pakistani origin – his parents left Pakistan for the UK in the 1950s – he had never been there before, and decided to visit the country of his ancestry in 2010, considering its proximity to the UAE.
“I went there for the first time knowing nothing about the country, with no expectations,” says Karmani.
“I was fascinated by the place: the colours, the smells, the vibrancy, the warmth of the people. And it’s so untouched by globalisation. It’s like nothing has changed in perhaps the last 100 years or more.”
That first visit prompted a sort of obsession with the country, and Karmani began returning to Pakistan for visits as often as he could.
Then, when he began flirting with photography in 2013, Pakistan and its people became his camera’s favourite subjects. “Turning Pakistan into my photography project became an opportunity for me to get to know the country and learn about it and document it. I’ve grown as a photographer in Pakistan; it’s really where I’ve learnt my craft.”
Karmani is not alone in that respect. Some of the leading photographers of the 20th century created some of their best works in Pakistan: American photographer Steve McCurry, whose famous Afghan Girl portrait in 1984, was shot in Pakistan; Spanish photographer Fernando Morales and his striking images of child labourers in Pakistan; and Palestinian photographer Muhammed Muheisen, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer based in Pakistan, works for the Associated Press.
“There’s something about Pakistan which lends itself to amazing photography,” says Karmani.
“It’s a place of great visual beauty. I come back with really impactful imagery every time.”
Karmani’s work is predominantly made of striking portraits of people he happens to meet during his travels. Street photography, he says, is his main interest.
However, the whole point of his approach is to simply tell a good story. “A good photo is something you want to look at, but it also has to tell a story,” he says.
“It has to move you in some way and connect with the viewer, and convey something about the person or environment that the photo has captured.”
With a portfolio of some 140 photos set in Pakistan, Milan (his wife’s home city) and the UAE, Karmani has won a few competitions and has a significant online presence, with over 40,000 following him on Flickr.
He in now planning to fuse this personal interest with his professional career. A senior lecturer in the arts and humanities department at New York University Abu Dhabi, where he teaches a course on the contemporary politics of Islam, Karmani will begin the new academic year in August by teaching a course put together out of his interest in photography.
His course, on the power and ethics in photography, was enthusiastically supported by his colleagues.
“NYU has been very crucial in terms of helping me nurture this interest and develop it further,” says Karmani.
“It’s photography from an academic and artistic perspective. We will look at the ethical issues around photography in the modern day, how photographs can convey certain meanings, how images have an effect on how we understand the world.”