Starting out in the field of advertising in 1984, Asif Raza (Asif) changed the field of photography. Asif is credited for setting an unmatched bar for what constituted quality work in photography, turning it into an academic form, mentoring future fashion photographers and giving the entire field of photography a much needed stamp of respectability as a profession.
While photographers were abound in Pakistan since its birth, the profession was not viewed as a credible career or even something to be considered as a pastime. It was generally looked down upon and associated with immoral people who were in the ‘photo business’ for reasons less than respectable. Studios were seen as seedy places and the most acceptable form of photography was an official, simple ‘portrait’ shot.
Consequently, ‘fashion shoots’ were viewed as being associated with shameless hussies, women who performed as singers and dancers at nightclubs or weddings. So for the young Asif, the sole warrior taking all of this on in the hope of establishing a career in photography, it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park.
Undeterred, Asif would be one of the first photographers who gave the profession respectability and cut across various markets as a commercial photographer to a fashion photographer. He also rose above societal structures that normally prevented people from gaining access to fashion shoots or people associated with the industry.
Responsible for producing work of unmatched quality that created stars out of cricketers and injecting glamour into accessories such as footwear, Asif set a new standard in photography and was a man in demand. His work spoke for himself and that is when the seeds of professionalism in photography were sown. Photographers in Pakistan owe people like him for laying the foundation upon which they have attained respectability and success today.
What makes his achievements remarkable is that he worked at a time when the country was undergoing massive transformation and creativity was having to be drowned in conservatism. Consequently, there was very little room for flexibility. ‘I started work in the Pakistani media in the end of 1984. The media industry was disastrous and unprofessional! Backward and yet not so backward in many ways. Unfortunately when I arrived, it was the peak of General Zia-ul- Haq’s career and not the most progressive time to be part of the media.’
Undaunted, and somehow encapsulating the creative spirit of the youth at the time, he ploughed on. Finding work in advertising, he realised that the depth of creativity ran shallow, but fate was on his side and he found kindred spirits who had also joined the industry which fuelled him and his trajectory. ‘My role as a photographer was primarily with the advertising industry. It wasn’t difficult, it was comfortable. I was lucky in the sense that by the time I arrived on the scene, a couple of new players who would change the advertising landscape had entered.’
The kind of work that the duo of Asif Raza and Tahir Khan (whom Asif describes as ‘pivotal’) did, would change popular trends in media forever, injecting in it the need for innovation and the necessity of quality. And it would be his work with Rimmel Khan that would change everything from then on in advertising, as it took on retail giants like Bata and rebranded them. From here on, Asif’s name would be synonymous with the direction the media industry, advertising and photography in particular would take, to date. ‘It had nothing to do with people per se but more the styling [of the shoot] the conceptual change that kicked in, that is where we made a difference.’
Despite the ground-breaking and dizzyingly successful commercial work, Asif maintains that it was his studio work that earned him recognition, causing him to establish the gold standard of fashion photography
One of the biggest challenges that Asif took on was making shoes into a fashionable accessory that appealed to the younger crowd. Bata was an European retailer who provided the ordinary man with the everyday shoe at an economical rate. To tackle a giant retail organisation and make it appealing was no easy feat; to take on such a project and alter the course of an entire industry was almost unheard of. But with a strong creative team (Interflow Communications) consisting of Asif as photographer and Rimmel Khan as the television commercial producer, they
pulled it off. ‘Rimmel Khan and I became a team in so many ways and one of the first campaigns we did was for Bata. And it was radically different to anything that had ever been done. It was upbeat, peppy, and very heavily stylised.’
In 1979, the Soviet-Afghan war commenced, ushering in American culture into Pakistan. One of the most typical and tangible forms of it came in the shape of a soft drink—Pepsi. After a failed market entry in the 1960s, Pepsi returned as part of ‘Americana’ culture. Joining hands with the advertising organisation that Asif worked at, the aim was to re-launch Pepsi into the Pakistani market. What boosted Pepsi’s appeal was that it was being promoted by Vital Signs which was the most popular band in Pakistan’s music industry as well as the men who held the country’s heart in their hands, cricketers.
Here, Asif found himself working not just with another international brand, but added to the mix were national heroes and heartthrobs. ‘Pepsi had come to Pakistan and not India, so that was interesting. I was recognised for my commercial work like Bata and Pepsi. Pepsi, for the simple fact that so called celebrities were involved in it, and cricketers like Wasim Akram, Imran Khan and Waqar Younas.’
Bridging cricket stars and the American soft drink together in a campaign was a huge success as Pepsi emerged as a market leader. This was a massive game changer in the media industry as it bridged advertising, sport and consumer culture. It also turned Vital Signs and cricketers associated with the campaign into brand ambassadors, stars and models simultaneously overnight.
Asif’s success in commercial work had a twofold effect—one, his family who had once not agreed with his choice of profession as a photographer finally supported him; and two, he lay down a firm foundation of professionalism, respectability and standard for photography. Asif was a well- respected photographer who had proven that he was a thorough professional and more importantly his work was evidence that no matter what traits or skills other photographers possessed, he had standards which set the bar high indicating that there was always room to improve.
Yet despite the ground-breaking and dizzyingly successful commercial work, Asif maintains that it was his studio work that earned him recognition, causing him to establish the gold standard of fashion photography.
Having pulled off two successful campaigns that defined trends in footwear and beverage, it was inevitable that fashion would creep into the life of this young man who was making waves with the magic of his imagery. ‘A friend of mine who knew Zohra Karim (owner of She) suggested that there’s this guy who has come back to Pakistan.. and that’s how it all started.’ Asif found himself wading in unexplored waters of fashion photography when he was asked to conduct a fashion shoot for She magazine with models Atiya Khan and Shehpar Khan.
However, things didn’t exactly go as smoothly as one would have hoped for. ‘My very first shoot was disastrous emotionally because I was not ready for it, I had never dealt with fashion per se, I didn’t have a background in fashion. I worked with people and models in commercial work. But otherwise it was very interesting as it was my first shoot and also Atiya’s first one. This was unique.’
For Asif personally, fashion shoots were more of an improvisation act. And this is what caused him to conduct the first ‘daring’ shoot involving women for Newsline
Taking the challenge of a new project, Asif didn’t let anything get in his way and like a true professional, he delivered. But according to him, ‘nothing was organised, it was very arbitrary, preparations were not done and the entire photo session started in a small saloon on Tariq Road in Karachi.’
But, Atiya Khan the supermodel of the future, had made her modelling debut and Asif had displayed his spectacular range of skills, cementing his switch from commercial work to fashion photography. It was a successful shoot for all concerned.
While there were other studio photographers, what made him stand out was his constant approach of thinking out of the box and producing work that oozed quality, instead of a need to simply ‘produce’ work for the sake of it. ‘Rooha Ghaznavi, perhaps the first female photographer to arrive on the fashion scene had a huge impact, though her work was limited to natural lighting and surroundings. I think I was one of the only studios across town. Akbar Rizvi was doing studio work, but I think the styling was very different. Perhaps I was a little more subtle with the imagery. Despite the fact it was a concocted set-up, I still tried to somehow capture a certain level of ‘naturalness’. In that moment in time you capture a particular person, a particular styling as natural as possible in closed, forced instances.’
By the end of the 1980s, Asif found himself immersed with work. One of the major reasons why he found himself increasingly in demand was because by the late eighties designers had mushroomed all over Karachi and there was a desire on the part of designers to communicate their work visually as well as growing interest from society who wanted to see what Pakistani fashion had on offer.
Between the two, there was a need to find a photographer who could satisfy both but also establish a new style of photography that focused on what was being said via clothing in an artistic manner instead of the usual basic poses and crude imagery.
It was also a time of great creativity, as more and more people entered the media, actively chalking up and doing work which would, by the 1990s, be the framework of a separate industry about fashion. ‘I was shooting without exception, five to six days a week. Commercial work, fashion work, advertising work and whatnot. Interesting times! There was a burst of energy.’
Asif struck that rare balance between versatility while maintaining a stability in his work with the promise of delivering quality work. ‘I believe there is a consistency to a certain degree, a certain assurance of quality. That was definitely there.’ He viewed his work in fashion as a means of venturing into an unexplored area, thereby infusing the field of photography with new challenges and realising the need for a business element.
Conducting fashion shoots presented the opportunity to get his name in different publications, a most crucial requirement, given his line of work. Due to his commitment to quality, Asif was continuously sought out instead of him appealing to others for work.
Various magazines including She, Women’s Own and Newsline constantly approached him with a full brief of who the designer was, the type of clothes that needed to be featured and then ask for his suggestions and a meeting to finalise. ‘Different publications had different approaches. She magazine was very interested in showing the entire outfit in excruciating detail without much attention to style and the mood behind it. Herald would say, ‘No, no, no, we’re not necessarily interested in that but we would like to make a statement’. Newsline would have a different approach. But eventually it was always collaboration.’
For Asif personally, fashion shoots were more of an improvisation act. And this is what caused him to conduct the first ‘daring’ shoot involving women for Newsline. It was a jewellery shoot with pieces by Rehana Saigol. Two female models were part of it. The unusual bit was the way the items were placed around them. ‘People may not have seen it immediately, but it was actually a very interesting interaction between two women. There was something distinctly unique about it.’ Placing woman in poses that implied they were in control of their sexuality was a concept that would reappear in Fifi Haroon’s publication Xtra later on.
In the early nineties, Roman Ahmed and his wife Aliya Mian decided to start a magazine by the name of Fashion Collection. The husband-wife duo collaborated with Asif to put it together. While the magazine was the first of its kind in Karachi, Asif felt he needed to seek out a new identity, so in 1992 he joined hands with Batool Rizvi and started Visage. ‘The goal was not just to do fashion, but to do art reviews, etc. We used to write book reviews, satirical articles.’ The idea was to carve out a niche in the media that had traditionally been dominated by women’s magazines and newspapers while targeting the same audience.
Knowing full well of the limited audience that consumed existing publications, Visage for Asif was a whole-hearted effort to give fashion priority and to reach out to a wider audience.
This resulted in the infamous Amin Gulgee’s jewellery shoot, where the model was covered up in clay, a completely new concept from the stiff poses that were the norm. ‘This was a fun shoot because this was, again, stepping out of the norm. The idea behind it was to be statuesque, but with a live person. Nabila was the stylist and she did all the hard work, to be honest. The model stood cold and shivering but she stood strong.’
There was also another dream which sadly remained unfulfilled—to translate Visage into Urdu, therefore tapping into a huge market that remains unexplored.
Asif Raza’s contribution to the development of photography did not remain limited to the fields of advertising or fashion; he focused on making it acceptable in other forms as well. He hosted the country’s very first photography exhibition by putting his works on display at an art gallery, and the entire fashion fraternity turned out in full force, buying some of the largest pieces. ‘It was received extremely well. I did this to promote what quality could be and how it was available within the realms of our reach. The response was the best part about it.’
Informally, Asif continued to influence and guide prospective photographers who added to the fashion industry in their own capacities. ‘I occasionally mentored Arif Mahmood, he would come to my studio and ask how to do this and that. Ather and Shahzad spent six months in Karachi and I introduced them to She magazine and brought them into Visage. I would like to believe they are where they are because I gave them the appropriate starts.’
Asif ensured that photography would get that final seal of approval from society as a serious subject when he introduced it as an academic subject. In 2010, he was invited to develop the diploma program at Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi’s premier art and architecture university and one of the first to formally teach photography. ‘It was a huge deal. Starting off with photography was a completely brand new concept, and so that was one way of bringing it to Pakistan.’ So impressive was Asif’s stature that teaching his course became a badge of honour (fellow photographers Tapu Javeri and Arif Mahmood would also teach there at a later stage).
Asif Raza’s contribution cannot be measured in quantity or quality. If anything, the fact that the programs he established churn out photographers and the people he mentored, blazed their own path speaks volumes about a man who gave so much to a field that became a voice for Pakistan’s designers.