Portraits from Pakistan by Sebastián Laraia

If Taliban terror and photogenic heroin addicts form the popular image of Pakistan today, my own memories were shaped by foot-massage, smoking hashish and the cheerful company of the Sufis.

My photographs from earlier travels through Pakistan and India reflected the photojournalistic conventions of the magazines. But a short documentary film about Pakistan’s islamic Sufis, their understanding of asceticism and its relation to other world religions, provoked a curiosity in me beyond the usual fascination with the exotic. I imagined a series of posed portraits in an uninhabited landscape. The flat, undramatic sunlight of high noon would add its effect to a seemingly anonymous portrait collection. I had to resolve several difficulties financing my project, and it took two years of preparation, before I was on my way to Lahore.

I photographed many Sufis encountered at the many Sufi shrines in towns and villages. Friendly and curious about my endeavor, Sufi elders allowed me to take part in their daily lives. Using gesture and pantomine, it was not difficult to surmount the language barrier. Some invited me to their homes, where food and hashish were shared openly with neighbors, musicians and religious pilgrims. On another occasion, the musicians invited me to a wedding party where they were to perform. After the brief ceremony, guests fired their Kalashnikov submachine guns into the air, to announce the newlyweds to the rest of the village.

While photographing the whirling dervishes and observing their attitudes towards their surroundings, I developed an awareness of the Sufis’ understanding of their faith. One middle-aged woman was particularly striking. I don’t know exactly why, but she seemed to my eyes the most earnest believer of them all.


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