The impact of the final image, the legacy of a shoot rests in the hands of a photographer and this is epitomised when one looks at the work of Pakistan’s most famous photographer, Tapu Javeri (Tapu). Considering the glorious output of designers throughout the eighties, perhaps it is not surprising that the focus has remained on them throughout the decades.
This, however, is a short sightedness on the part of the consumer and the industry—a jora can only be so much, a model can only pose so much, and a make up artist can only style so much. It is the magic of the photographer that convinces people of the image and the product.
Today, the visual legacy of Tapu’s work is recognised by Nikon, who listed him as one of ‘Asia’s 32 Best Fashion Photographers’ in 2017 and the breadth of his work is visible in eleven books. A pillar of the Pakistani fashion industry, Tapu’s work is the foundation upon which the industry was built.
Self-taught, he had already made his debut as a fashion photographer in 1980 at the age of sixteen for Teenager magazine before leaving for higher studies. In 1989, Tapu returned to Karachi after spending eight long years abroad in New York and Athens. Settling back in, he realised he had returned to a world where his friends were all doing deliciously creative work, all the while unknowingly laying groundwork for what would be a fashion industry—modelling, designing, make up, hair. ‘When I came back, Karachi, Pakistan, had changed. Everything had started becoming alive and fashion had opened up. Creativity was exploding, it was on the peak of every move.’
But what struck him was this reluctance to break the mould with regards to the physical location of where the shoots were taking place. As far as Tapu was concerned, it was time to take back Karachi, explore Sindh and to allow this region to form the backdrop against which the fashion industry would formalise.
Tapu underwent a transformation from a portrait photographer to fashion photographer
Unapologetically creative, he defined the 1990s in Pakistan. If his life and work—often merged together as a photographer’s lifestyle—is to be looked at, it is one big lesson in reclaiming a city (that was rapidly falling prey to violence), bringing back fun and adding gravitas to a field that was still very much developing behind closed doors.
Tapu’s story is one that spans several different areas in the industry—introducing concept shoots, doing music for fashion shows, discovering the most iconic models, converting film actresses into national stars, giving the youth back their sexuality, working in academia, authoring books on photography and so much more.
An unstoppable force, his endless creativity has never known any limit and upon his return, it poured out onto the streets of Karachi, a city already brimming with energy. ‘For me, the entry into the fashion world [in 1989] was taking those models out of the studio and photographing Karachi.’
Commencing on a journey of innovation that included treating shoots as a multi-dimensional art form in its own right, Tapu underwent a transformation from a portrait photographer to fashion photographer.
This process involved giving a story to a shoot, a concept, or an idea as a means of making it seem more ‘alive’ instead of the dull, static and lifeless photos that were passed as ‘fashion’ in Urdu newspapers or women’s magazines. ‘There was always a concept in mind. If you were doing a shoot in Makli the graveyard, you went there, bribed the guard, locked it, and started shooting. I guess as I started I was looking around at what was there and I tried to be a little different.’
What helped him establish his particular style was the fact that Tapu’s friends were already working in various fields related to fashion – ‘Frieha was my sister’s best friend, Fifi was in school with me, Tariq Amin was my good friend, Lulu was, again, a good friend of mine, Sara Akhtar was in school with me.’. This enabled him to settle in his role as a photographer, while maintaining the need to respect his work on a professional basis.
In 1989, his childhood friend Frieha Altaf organised a fashion event for Maheen Khan. It was the first of its kind as it was not labelled a cultural show but promoted as a fashion show. Knowing Tapu’s obsession with music, Frieha roped him into organising the music for it. The show was a massive success and it set off a series of similar shows, establishing Tapu as an integral part of every show with his vast music collection. ‘It was such an alive time! Personal shows used to happen in the 1990s. There was never a fashion week, there was a show every day! When fashion started, there was such a loud explosion. Rizwan’s show for the OGS Ball happened and it was incredible. All of a sudden Maheen’s show happened, then there was Shamaeel’s, then there was Faiza’s. Just take what you have in three days [of fashion week] and stretch that out over a year with a show every few days.’.
At another one of Maheen Khan’s shows, where the theme had been fashion through the ages—1920s onwards—, Tapu created a playlist consisting of music from the various eras the clothes had been designed. For him fashion was much more than just clothes; it was a whole experience and he wanted to share it with the entire country.
Given how most of his friends had found a role for themselves, almost magically it was natural that some form of a dream team would come together. ‘We used to meet every evening at Tariq’s house because he had an apartment with no family around. And somebody would turn up, Rizwan would come and we would ask him, ‘Oh, do you have any clothes in the car?’, ‘I have a jora’, ‘Bring the jora… where’s Lulu?’ Lulu would come in, Tariq would do her make up and all of a sudden: click, click, click! A shoot happens.’
Possessing an irresistible urge to create something fabulous, stemming from a hidden knowledge that more could be achieved than what was being churned out, Tapu was a man on a mission and ensured no one could stop him from communicating his work visually. ‘I had a prop room in one part of the house, which included anything and everything. I found somebody’s old bathtub on the road and thought I could use this. So I brought it to my garden and it stayed there for ages!’
That particular bathtub of course would be used much later in 1994 in an iconic shoot for Fifi Haroon’s magazine Xtra with the actress Resham, dressed in a golden dress made by Deepak Perwani and styled by Tariq Amin. ‘Fifi said Resham’s a new actress, she’s really beautiful and she’s such a golden goddess. I said, ‘Golden goddess?’ Sounds fabulous, let’s paint her golden and make her look like an Oscar.’
The final image wasn’t of Resham as a golden statue, but it featured her standing in the bathtub, which had been painted golden. Tapu’s attitude to work was simple: ‘Nothing stopped you from doing fun things.’
By merging culture, fashion, and art, Tapu’s work simply could not be viewed as just photography—it was always a series of conversations
With such high levels of energy fuelling creativity and innovation, designers were truly focusing on the art of fashion rather than the business. ‘The shalwar went through some schizophrenia. I remember photographing maybe forty kinds of shalwar.’
The furious churning of designs and fashion shows revealed the depth and strength of each designer’s aesthetic, sense of individuality and quality of work. ‘In those days, when a designer came, you heard them. Rizwan came, you heard him. Maheen was there for a longer time but she made sure you saw her clothes. When Shamaeel turned up, it was a bang.’
By the early 1990s, the era of categorising a fashion show as a cultural tool was over and shows were finally viewed for what they were—showcasing designs in the name of fashion.
While fashion shows catered to a limited audience to make a real impact, they needed to get their work out to the public and for that fashion shoots were required. The demand for shoots from the designers and the awareness of designers led to the expansion of fashion-related print. ‘Because there was more appreciation, we were working and rolling. And fashion started reviving as we got more designers and more people wanted to show their work.’ Shoots began to take place globally in countries including India, Singapore, China, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.
Acutely aware that while he didn’t have to prove anything to anyone, Tapu became the worst and best judge and critic of his own work. ‘A benchmark didn’t exist, you were creating your own benchmark. So you’d do a shoot and then you’d try to do something more the next time so it did end up pushing the limits.’
By merging culture, fashion, and art, Tapu’s work simply could not be viewed as just photography—it was always a series of conversations, offering a wide lens-look into a life that made opportunities possible, erasing social expectations of what a young man was expected to do.
Never content or settled, he constantly encouraged people to go beyond and more, unafraid of trampling on airs and graces, the goal always being the creation of a final image that added a new dimension to fashion as a whole. ‘I told the designers, you are giving me your clothes and I am going to do whatever I want with them. By that time people trusted you enough to let you do things such as immersing their clothes under water. It was all about the final image.’
The problem however was that fashion output in terms of images was limited—not for lack of photographers—but due to the lack of publishing opportunities in the form of fashion magazines (print would eventually evolve post 1992). Herald was the place to feature a shoot, given its readership and the team who enabled photographers to have the freedom to do as they pleased.