There is an image in Manolo Ty’s photobook Pakistan Now showing a family drinking tea next to a chai wallah — a tea seller — at the beach in Karachi. It was taken in December 2013 when Ty first visited the country. “This was actually more or less the first picture I took here,” says the German photographer. “When I arrived in Karachi I stayed right next to this place, so this was my first impression. It was interesting because of what I thought could be here because of all the terrible stories you hear. Then I found this. This is what changed my mind.”
The scene captured a normal family enjoying itself. “The tide was coming and the people already up to their knees in the water and just didn’t care because they were so into their talking and so on,” he says. “The tide was coming but they just enjoyed and stayed at the same spot.”
Ty has travelled to almost a hundred countries. Before his first trip to Pakistan, his knowledge of the country of nearly 200 million was limited to news. He had also met travellers who told him that Pakistan was a special place. He never knew why and tried to research it. “I didn’t find anything. I didn’t find any book, I didn’t find anything that was not related to fundamentalism, or you know the war in Afghanistan.” That’s why he had to see the country first hand.
The cover picture for Pakistan Now shows two men participating at an annual tournament for kabaddi, an ancient and traditional sport. “I think it was the rangers against the police force. It was like two teams. Whole villages from around the city came there and watched it and cheered for them.”
It is a sport he wasn’t aware about before. “I [had] never heard about kabaddi. Even now, I don’t even understand the rules completely. I thought it was really beautiful to watch.”
There is a deeper message in the image.
“I thought this picture also was perfect for displaying Pakistan because you have this action in it, you have the culture in it. You know all the people around cheering for it. And you also show the struggle — what the country is in some way. I mean it is not just struggle in a negative way but you know there is a lot happening here.”
Ty himself has a background in martial arts that has influenced his work. “If you photograph any kind of art you always take a little bit of your personality in the style of the picture.”
He learnt discipline and having the right flow from practising martial arts. “I think being very much dedicated to one thing and try to do it in the perfect way, I think this I brought to photography,” he says. “And from another perspective, depending on where you photograph or what you photograph, I am not afraid of it because I know I can defend myself if I need to. I think that makes me much more open to just go somewhere and see what happens.
He has travelled across the country — from Peshawar, Chitral and picturesque northern areas to places like Sukkur, Makli and Gadani in the south.
Ty is now working on two documentary films. One is an independent project and the other is in collaboration with the United Nations about transgendered people in Pakistan.
For Ty, the most important aspect of photography is art. He is influenced by old works and paintings. One memorable photograph for Ty in Pakistan Now is that of an orange seller. “He sells oranges in the backstreets of Lahore in the old city. This person has really shiny green eyes and he is just like coming out of a dark corner. The light is on him and it just like looks really timeless. I mean the oranges are wrapped in newspaper you know, it is from now, but this feeling and the composition, how he stands there, could be like an old painting in my view.”
It’s a common theme in his work.
“I try to make the pictures look like they can be from any century, like they could be old, they could be in the future or they can be now. It shouldn’t be just a picture, like what is attractive for news for one day and the next day it is not important anymore,” he says. “For me it is like I am going with the flow and making the picture. So, like sometimes I just feel this is really the right picture.”
He uses a Canon 5D camera with just a 50mm lens, forcing him to get close to his subjects. “If I want to take a good picture, I kind of stand one metre in front, so there is no way they wouldn’t see me. I also kind of show them, and ask their permission. Like language barrier sometimes, I still show them the camera.”
The scorching sun in Pakistan offers its own unique colour palette, and Ty feels sometimes he needs brutal light to take certain kinds of photographs. In Lahore, he recalls working in 46˚C: “Standing there, I was dying. I was wet everywhere. You know you could see the white thing from the sweat, from my whole body. Because I was out all day you know, I drink water and it is coming out immediately. But this is how it is sometimes.”
Before becoming a photographer Ty had studied economics but realised he wanted to do something more meaningful in his life rather than chase money and crunch numbers. He decided to become a film director but shifted to photography. “I never thought it would be a profession or anything,” he says.
Ty took three years to put together Pakistan Now because he did it all by himself, from financing it to taking the photographs to later even printing it. “I wanted to do in the best way I could because people didn’t believe in it, that this could be interesting for other people, but I could prove everybody wrong.” Despite Pakistan being in the news so frequently, Ty feels people in the west don’t know the country well. “Pakistan is an important country and nobody knows about it really, at least not in the West.” He says it’s easier to sell a negative story than to do what he does. “It is always easier to sell a bomb blast or a terrorist story.”
The book was released last year in Berlin. “I was very sceptical [about] how people would see it. A lot of people before told me when you will do this, nobody will be interested. Nobody will buy this.”
They were wrong. Pakistan Now sold out in two months and the book received a lot of interest in the German press, including Der Spiegel.
“The first thing when they see the book, they say ‘I would have never thought Pakistan looks like this and now I would like to go there myself.’ I really heard this quite often because people in Germany love to travel and I just opened up a new possibility for them. Pakistan is not full of tourists, which everybody knows about,” he says.
The book was also launched in Pakistan. Although many loved it, Ty says there were a few critical voices “The ambassador of Pakistan in Germany, he was critical. He said ‘why do you show Pakistan with a cover picture of kabaddi? Why do you show it in such a poor light? Why don’t you put the picture of the Centaurus Shopping Mall [on the cover]?’”
The answer is a simple one for Ty: shopping malls are not unique to Pakistan. “Here you have something much more important,” he says, pointing instead to the country’s cultural heritage: “This is something that is timeless... in Europe I think we take a lot of pride in our culture. In Pakistan, it is a mixed feeling. People always feel a little bit inferior about parts of their culture.”
He thinks Pakistan’s image problem is very much self-made. Ty talks about people not considering parts of their culture as their own because it came before Islam, mentioning the ancient Mohenjodarro civilisation. “I think there is a big struggle inside Pakistan to agree [that] it is all part of one culture and to be proud of it,” he says, “To bring it out and show it to the world, so what happens often is that the only thing the country wants to show is stuff like the Centauraus Mall. And this is definitely not something Pakistan can compete with other nations. Pakistan cannot compete in skyscrapers with Dubai, New York or London.”
He also talks about mismanagement in the way tourism is handled. “I think it sometimes feels for me like some people don’t really want tourism to flourish,” says Ty. “The possibility is there but they make it so hard sometimes for foreign tourists to come and to just go around and experience [the country]. They put a lot of regulations and a lot of uncertainty to it.” He talks about hurdles in getting access to northern parts of the country because of requirements to get a no-objection certificate. He feels it’s getting harder for people with a camera or a journalist to visit. “They are always afraid of somebody coming to be a spy or whatever,” he says.
He wants to change the mindset of outsiders about Pakistan. “You know it is not that scary. It is like normal people living their daily life and it’s kind of beautiful.”
Dumont, one of the biggest German publishers, will publish an updated edition of his book this year. “Now they are convinced. Now they know that it is interesting,” he says.
But what makes Pakistan so different?
“You still have the old culture here. It is not so diluted like in other places. People are still wearing their cultural dresses here. Often you have the shalwar kameez like the most common thing. In other places, you just like wear jeans and shirts — everywhere you go in the world it looks the same. But in Pakistan, you still have that even now.”
He is also moved by the friendliness of the people. “I always felt the people here have the greatest hospitality in the world. I haven’t seen anything like this.”
His work removes some of the stereotypes people have about Pakistan. “You are always more afraid of what is unknown to you,” he says. “Once you know something, it is not so scary any more. I think like this you can bridge the cultures a little bit.”
Syed Hamad Ali is a writer based in London.