Every afternoon after school, Shahid Zaidi would end up at his father’s studio Zaidis Photographers, and seek the coolness of the dark room. He had wanted to fly and be a pilot but was told he was to work as a photographer — and so he did. It almost came naturally to him though he maintained that to be a good photographer one had to have knowledge of the arts, to fully appreciate and understand the art of photography.
Zaidis Photographers was set up in 1930 by Syed Muhammad Ali Zaidi, on The Mall housed in the Masson Narsingdas Building. The building was magnificent and he rented the largest space in the building. It was a symbol of status and respect. Consequently, Zaidis developed a special clientele which included the Maharajah of Patiala and Raja of Sheikhupura, the British, the big bureaucrats, politicians, rich landlords and the influential families. They refused to go to any other photographer.
Shahid made his debut as a photographer when he photographed Mian Khalid Saigol’s wedding. It was a grand wedding where huge American cars drove up the drive one at a time, where guests adorning the finest jewels and watches and dressed to the hilt emerged. The air was heavy with the mixed fragrances of exotic, imported perfumes. This was also a time when young men would be seen wearing a brand new Leica or a Rolleiflex camera hanging around their necks, never to be used but worn as a symbol of success.
As he learnt the ropes at the studio, he began to realise that local, Pakistani photographers were ‘improvisers’, as he referred to them. Post-Partition, photography processes were still being developed in Europe and America. The newly-formed Pakistan was still finding its feet and in the field of photography, there had to be a local version of this art form due to the climate and the lack of availability of equipment due to high cost of imports. Consequently, local manufacturing began to take place to cater to the needs of photographers.
It was between S. Rollo, the British manager of Kodak (also located close by) and Shahid that colour photography was brought to Pakistan.
A young man learning and working as a photographer meant being on his own but he soon found a friend in Alexander Sanderson Rollo, better known as S. Rollo.
Rollo had a studio on The Mall in 1935, and he was older than Shahid but younger than Syed Muhammad Ali Zaidi. Every evening, the young Shahid found himself in the company of S. Rollo, where the two developed a good friendship, as they exchanged stories about photography and nature. S.Rollo, who was fond of hunting and fishing, would have a lifelong impact on Shahid as he developed a love for the outdoors and fishing in particular.
It was between S. Rollo, the British manager of Kodak (also located close by) and Shahid that colour photography was brought to Pakistan. With Kodak backing the two photographers and helping them gain access to all the necessary equipment, every morning S.Rollo and Shahid would sit and compare the results of their experiments, and try to come up with solutions. Although these were three different studios, there was camaraderie, great respect for each other, and the end goal was always to produce quality work.
Mastering the technique of colour photography, photographers from all over the country arrived at Zaidis Studio to see and learn about colour portrait photography. Zaidis had always taught photographers, and assisted them in setting up their own studios. Now with Shahid Zaidi at the helm, and colour photography his area of expertise, history was repeating itself. Forever in search of improving the art of photography in 1962 when Queen Elizabeth II was visiting, he was the only photographer with a telephoto lens. Consequently, not only did he take the best photo but it was also a close-up shot which none of the other photographers managed to get.
Laughingly, Shahid would refer to their branch of Zaidis as footloose. No roots or lands to limit them or hold them back, he always felt the urge to drift, explore and find what else was out there. Perhaps it was the need for creativity that caused it or a restless spirit, nothing was seen as too outlandish or dangerous. If anything was out there, it had to be explored. And so after marriage, he went to London with his family to study film at the London International Film School and decided to branch out into filmmaking. Having completed his course, he drove back to Pakistan in an old VW van, a great adventure as they crossed Europe, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan.
Forever in search of improving the art of photography in 1962 when Queen Elizabeth II was visiting, he was the only photographer with a telephoto lens. Consequently, not only did he take the best photo but it was also a close-up shot which none of the other photographers managed to get.
But Zia’s regime tested his patience. He decided to leave Pakistan, and go to the US. There he faced some of the toughest and trying times of his life. Unable to find work as a photographer, he ended up in Texas where he would walk for two hours every day from Mesquite to Central Dallas to ring media people in the directory in the hopes of finding a job. Doing odd jobs and labour work, he finally began to work on films, till in 1979 the US-Iran confrontation took place, and Iran took all the Americans at the embassy hostage. Given his name Zaidi, it was difficult to pass off even as a Mexican and as a Muslim, that incident ended his dreams of working in films in the US.
Returning to the field of photography, he was called in by man called Stan, who was the CEO of Kinderfoto in Reno in Nevada, US. During that meeting, Shahid was not asked about photography. In fact, the two men bonded over flying – Stan had been an instructor in the US Air Force and he spoke highly about the Pakistani trainees Nosey Haider, Sajjad Haider and Mervyn Middleton? Shahid, who had wanted to be a pilot had his own flying experiences with Cecil Chaudhry. Soon after the Zaidi family moved to Reno, where Shahid would work for Kinderfoto and expand their commercial photography units across the US, creating a whole new role as Director of Photography.
Returning to Pakistan in the 1990s, Shahid began to teach, and that was a source of great joy for him. It was in recent times that the thought of digitising the precious archives at Zaidis had become a main focus for him. But like all great creatives in Pakistan, who suffer from lack of support and unnecessary commentary that is of no constructive use, hindered his progress.
In the summer of 2021, I was asked to go and meet him. One meeting and we commenced on his dream project – a dream book consisting of precious pre-Partition archives paying homage to a history hidden away at the studio. Those long afternoons where I sat in his studio in his house — a quiet cocoon — away from the hustle bustle of daily life, as he narrated his life story seem almost dreamlike now. And once the text had been written up, he was so relieved. And happy.
A meeting had been scheduled for this coming Saturday to finalise his book.