Duration: Six years.
Location: Seattle, Washington.
Education: BAs in economics management and classics, Ohio Wesleyan University, Delaware, Ohio; MFA in design, Columbus College of Art and Design, Columbus, Ohio.
Career path: I was born in Islamabad, Pakistan. As someone who came to the United States as an international student, I thought my career paths were limited to banker, computer engineer or doctor. Though I wasn’t interested in any of them, I pursued those fields because I thought that it was what I was supposed to do, and I finished my undergraduate degree all set for a career in investment banking.
When the time came to find a job, I realized how miserable a career in investment banking would make me. So I decided to spend the next few months figuring out what I wanted from life. It was a stressful period in my life, because I was on optional practical training (OPT); if I didn’t find a job within six months, I would have to leave the country. To make matters worse, having graduated with no job lined up, I did not have any money or a place to stay in the United States, nor any money to buy a return ticket home. My wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, and her family was kind enough to let me stay with them for the next few months, but I didn’t want to overstay my welcome. If it weren’t for them, I might have been homeless.
I spent the next few months at the public library discovering what I wanted to do and stumbled upon graphic design. Before the end of the six-month OPT period, I got a job as a photographer and graphic designer at Gray’s Auctioneers, an auction house in Cleveland. I photographed items for each auction in a studio environment, created email newsletters and made print catalogs. At first, it was stressful because I knew nothing about studio photography at the time—or even anything about camera settings—but since I took the job, I learned about lighting ratios, diffusers, gels and polarizers on the fly. A variety of objects came through for each auction, ranging from Francis Bacon paintings to an African elephant howdah, and this taught me how to handle lighting for a wide variety of subjects.
While I was at Gray’s, I also ended up rebranding its identity, and designed an in-house database software, apps and platforms that are still in use. It was an amazing experience because I not only learned about art and art history but I also discovered how much I love photography, book-making and telling stories. I went on to pursue that interest as part of my MFA degree at the Columbus College of Art and Design, and I’ve been at it ever since!
Artistic influences: Photographically, I’m really inspired by Robert Frank, Andreas Gursky, Saul Leiter, Fred Herzog, Daidō Moriyama, Irving Penn, Dayanita Singh and Manjari Sharma. I admire each artist for different reasons, some of which have more to do with who they were as people. I am also incredibly influenced by Alfred Hitchcock and Michelangelo Antonioni’s cinematography—especially in his color films—and by Janusz Kamiński, who collaborated on several films by Steven Spielberg. I owe a lot to movies, starting with my ability to speak English.
Outside photography, I’m inspired by world literature and graphic design. One idea that really gripped me was this idea of Gesamtkunstwerk, originally proposed by Richard Wagner, which means “complete and total work of art.” It inspired architect and designer Peter Behrens to create the work that he did for Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft, which is arguably considered one of the first proper brands in the world. The philosophy of Gesamtkunstwerk gives a way of creating work that goes beyond individual objects and extends into looking at the bigger picture.
Favorite projects: My most recent personal project, Postcard Dreams. Pictorially, I don’t consider it my strongest work, but it is my most vulnerable project as I aim to talk about myself, and some of the problems and challenges I face being an immigrant in another country.
Another personal project I’m proud of is Dhaba, a monthly zine I made with my wife.
Work environment: Since I have limited space, my work environment changes based on whether I am doing design or photography. Photography often requires me to set up seamless papers and tripods, and it can clutter up the space quickly, so I usually take it down when I’m doing digital design work. I often have a space for a mood board where I put images that inspire me or that I think work well atmospherically for a commissioned project.
My design space is pretty much the same, but the seamless paper gets replaced by lots of sticky notes and posters. Pre-COVID, my workspace was at Microsoft where I work as a digital designer; it helped having a separate space dedicated to design, but all that has changed now!
Approach: Working as a full-time digital designer, I have a thorough knowledge of the editorial process, starting from the inception of the story to how it’s laid out and distributed. This enables me to be more in tune with the needs of editors and designers. I also think my cultural upbringing in Pakistan adds a different perspective to my work, starting with my use of color.
Aspirations: In Postcard Dreams, there is one image where I explored the use of 3-D models in photography; I would like to continue exploring that to a level where I feel comfortable incorporating 3-D models in my client work. I would also like to offer video services and work with clients to create interactive, immersive editorial stories that break the traditional “image-picture-image-picture” mold. I would also like to exhibit my fine art work in more galleries.
Philosophy: Always have gratitude and show it. My career, my work or anything good in my life wouldn’t be possible without the kindness and love I have received. As far as creative work is concerned, I firmly believe in the Sufi phrase “Dama Dam Mast Qalandar.” It’s been a constant subject of songs and poems throughout the subcontinent; the most famous rendition is from a song by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Michael Brook. Being a Sufi phrase, its interpretation depends on the individual. I interpret it to mean “love, freedom and rebellion.” To quote the Beatles, “Love is all you need.”