Cover Image

Illustration by Baraa Al Jorf

The Visual Voice of Sohail Karmani

Sohail Karmani’s photo book, The Spirit of Sahiwal, explores a town that represents both belonging and unbelonging to the photographer.

Feb 29, 2020

Striking blue eyes, centered in a fading gradient of glow, encircled by a halo of pinprick white hair — haunting and ephemeral. Such is the cover of Sohail Karmani’s photo book The Spirit of Sahiwal, which is a bold exploration of the fleeting soul of a town and its people. It tethers itself in reality and flies off into the realm of the mystique, aided admirably by Rembrandt lighting. Oddly reminiscent of a Salman Rushdie narrative, it is a story that is aware of its own storytelling:
“I haven’t quite figured out where I am … if my work is reportage or not.”
Somewhere in the middle ground tension of this duality, or perhaps even as a disruption of it, lies his project.
Sohail Karmani moved to London when he was five, living in Bradford, “sometimes called Bradistan, you can figure that one out.” Growing up in London in the ‘70s as a person of South Asian descent was tough; something that was amplified by an internal dislocation of identity: “My parents’ side … would sort of create this idealized, idyllic version of Pakistan as most immigrant families do … you grow up being a little suspicious of that. On the other side, there was this Western narrative about how Pakistan can’t be this great place … a breeding ground perhaps for terrorists … [I was] torn between those two narratives.”
Karmani went on to construct this identity, not as a compromise between the two narratives, but as a perpetual oscillation. It was not until 2010 that he would set foot in Sahiwal, Pakistan, his father’s hometown, for the first time since he’d left to realize that it was nothing like he’d expected.
“I suddenly turned up and I said ‘Oh! This is actually really beautiful’ … it’s very diverse, it’s very colorful, it's exotic … yes, it is exotic … this is the place where Kipling must have lived and wrote about Jungle Book,” said Karmani. He never chose Sahiwal as a project; it was almost accidental as he ended up there, in the heart of the paradox of his belonging and unbelonging. The book explores both the visual dynamism of Sahiwal — overflowing with faces and stories — and his deeply personal narratives of identity: “[These] are photographs to a younger version of myself, growing up in England.”
As a professor of two courses that deal with ethics in photography, he’s aware of the possible implications of his work. “I don’t pretend that these photographs are representative of Pakistani culture, and I don’t pretend these are necessarily representative of Sahiwal.” The reportage aspect of the project isn’t meant to be the deliberately neutral eye of a photojournalist — he wants people to be aware of who is witnessing this. His perspective as a witness existing both on the peripheries of British and Pakistani culture is part of the essence of his photographs. He wants this aspect to be part of how the photographs create meaning. Questions then arise about the ethics of what Karmani displays — is it right to aestheticize people of a markedly lower socio-economic status, denied of many necessities Karmani himself has easy access to?
While such a discussion warrants a whole academic paper — something that Karmani’s class regularly produces — he said, “In photography … there is this tension between ethics and aesthetics … it’s often the case that the more … [you] concern yourself with the aesthetics of the photograph … the more you can be compromised ethically … not because the two are related, it just tends to be the case … you have to somehow find balance.”
He also emphasized that, aside from the personal dimension of the project, there is an undercurrent of themes in Sahiwal that permeates across cultures — in his subjects, he often sees a reflection of many of his own emotions. The book was launched by an Italian publishing press and Karmani was surprised by the number of people who showed interest in a small town in Pakistan.
“[People] don’t necessarily have to know a lot about Pakistan … these could be photographs of a certain socio-economic reality … a certain universality to the themes that I’m hoping can connect to people of … different backgrounds,” he said. Even in its final form, the book has Italian translations of Karmani’s scattered writing — the powerful juxtaposition of Italian with glimpses of rural Pakistan speaks to his ideals of universality.
The book exists as a palace of mirrors and contradiction — it is deeply intimate to Karmani, while speaking to the human condition. It is a Pakistani looking at a culture he can never completely belong to — coming from a culture he couldn’t ever belong to. It is the reflection of recurrent emotion in recurrent streets. It is the stories that leak out of naked brick walls and crumbling shoe shops. It is the soul of a town, whispering timeless stories in Urdu and Italian — a genie in a bottle.
It is available in select bookstores.
Angad Johar is Deputy Features Editor and Staff Photographer. Email him at
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