Mobeen Ansari’s sensitive photography tells tales of vibrant lives lived out amidst wistfully neglected structures
Lahore is not my city. This allows me to view it with a mixture of foreignness and belonging; as simultaneous insider and outsider – removed enough to be endlessly fascinated by it, close enough to be able to photograph it consistently. The Badshahi, Wazir Khan and Lahore Fort may be clichéd photographic pursuits but I never get enough of the new angles and insights they afford me each time.
I went on my routine old Lahore photography trips around fajr time each time I drove down to Lahore from Islamabad; had been doing that for a few years, but i wanted to get into the heart of these neighbourhoods, really peek into people’s lives and capture their stories. One day I got lucky. Walking into Masjid Wazir Khan – it was my second time there – I struck up a conversation with the Imaam of the masjid, sharing with him my curiosity about the man said to have built the mosque – Ilm-ud-Din Ansari. Since I shared his surname I wondered if I also shared his lineage. The Imaam asked for my ID card, squinted at my full name and asked me to follow him deep into the neighborhood, into alleys beyond Delhi Darwaaza that I could never have discovered on my own. He knocked at a door and asked for keys, I think to different areas of the mosque; one of these keys he gave to me, of a minaret I had never expected to be allowed to climb, knowing as I did that it is ordinarily closed to all visitors.
Back at the mosque I lugged my heavy camera bag up the high Mughal-era steps. The suffocating dankness of the minaret gave way to a clear Lahori dawn that I observed from a unique vantage point. The height afforded fascinating aerial glimpses into the lives of the residents of the old city sprawled out below me.
Once every week I go to Lahore for work – meetings, shoots etc. So I had gone to Lahore for one night only for a meeting. When I got done with my work I met up with a friend from college who was also in town. Both of us had laptops and camera bags but no car. We had dinner, took a rickshaw to a cinema to watch a movie, and at midnight came out into the freezing and foggy Lahore night. We walked and rickshawed (changing six of them!) till we reached his place, warmed ourselves with some chai and set out for androon Lahore, managing to get there just before dawn. It was the morning of the 12th of Rabi-ul-Avval (the Prophet’s birthday) and the night’s lights hadn’t been turned off as yet. In the eerie twilight glow, before many people had woken up we roamed the labyrinthine alleys of androon sheher and experienced it like never before in the magical hours between sleeping and waking. Why I am so obsessed with going to these places early in the morning is because there’s no rush at that time and you can see history clearly.