Taking public transport is an inevitability for most people in Pakistan, but not everyone takes that time to think about the stories they carry with them. Faizan Ahmad of the 'Lahore by Metro' Instagram blog did just that. Based in Lahore, Ahmed is a photojournalist, a visual storyteller and a researcher, who focuses on the art of voices, particularly those who exist in the city of Lahore.
In a conversation with Youlin Magazine, Ahmed explained that he decided to tell these stories because he was tired of the angle that the media took while trying to describe Pakistanis. "These channels are massively overtaken by politicians, businesses and religious scholars. And the average person is represented by nothing but a number. This is often the number of those affected when catastrophe strikes, not by the stories they live and tell every day."
He described the process, and how it came to be a full-fledged project, "I started conversations with strangers while on my way to and from college, and most of these turned out to be stories that left a lasting impression on me." For Ahmed, this project was an exercise in actively listening to the diverse array of passengers who regularly take the Lahore Metro Bus.
Ahmed said that many of the people he meets on the bus are either visiting Lahore after a long time, or are migrants who are seeing the city for the first time. They are new to the city, but are excited to be on the Metro Bus, and open to sharing a part of their lives with him. "Some mention their dream, others talk about how they have been struggling in the face of adversity," he said.
"These stories might not be worthy of prime-time or a television talk show, but they are meaningful to many of us, and a beautiful reminder that we all are the same people and face similar challenges of living in Pakistan," Ahmed elaborated.
When asked why he does what he does, Ahmed described himself as a storyteller, who is incredibly fascinated by the way people talk about their lives, and, the way they interact with the city and public transportation.
"My favorite story of all time was that of a rickshaw driver who fell in love with a woman, not knowing that her religious faith was different than his. He talked about how they overcame those boundaries, and now live the life of their dreams," Ahmed smiled, glad to know that some of these stories do have happy endings.
Ahmed is upfront in his approach, but tries to weave his search for a story into a natural conversation. He begins by asking a few rudimentary questions to start the conversation, but then allows the answers to dissolve into a conversation. He explained that he is often surprised when he occasionally asks a personal question, and people answer them in all honesty. “I think they choose to tell me because no one has ever asked them such questions before."
After regularly venturing to the Metro Station, and speaking to many people from different walks of life, Ahmed finds that he is a better judge of those who will speak to him, and those who prefer not to be included in his project. Not everyone is forthcoming in their interactions, and according to him, 70 percent of the people choose not to have their photo taken.
"There are thousands of people who have told me “no”, and I think it is completely within their right to not be okay with sharing their story with the world on the internet," he said, explaining how he is much better at handling rejection now than he was when the project began.
Early in 2019, he compiled the stories into a photobook, which he launched at the Lahore Literature Festival. The result is a collection of hilarious, poignant and moving stories of the people of the city. It was met with great acclaim by people like writer Muhammad Hanif, National Geographic photographer Reza Dehgati, and artist Salima Hashmi who remarked, “Faizan Ahmad has revealed yet another facet of ever-changing Lahore. It is absorbing, humbling, and deeply inspiring. The Metro reveals the multi-layered Lahore; its people, its sorrows, its histories and its tenacity. This book is worthy of our City!”
When asked how difficult it was to publish a book in Pakistan, and why he decided to do it anyway, Ahmed explained, "When I started photographing people for my blog, I read some photography books online. A lot of the good photobooks were not available in Pakistan, or were extremely expensive. I saw that there was a huge gap that needed to be filled, to make photobooks accessible for people in Pakistan.”
"When it came to compiling the stories into a book, the biggest challenge I faced was the fact that I took my photos with a mobile phone camera. Their quality would have deteriorated significantly had I printed them directly from my phone, hence I switched to a professional camera. Some photographers who already knew how to compile photobooks helped me out, without asking for anything in return."
As for taking the project forward, Ahmed admitted, "The project started when I came to Lahore to study in 2013, and now I work here. I don't know what the future holds. But one thing is for sure, I cannot stop telling stories, I plan to continue the project and keep highlighting people's lives on social media."
Even under lockdown, when public transport is not as crowded as it normally is, he has found creative ways to tell people's stories. He hopes to move beyond Lahore, and do his best to capture and share the stories, struggles, hopes, and aspirations of the people of Pakistan.
Photo credits to Faizan Ahmad. To follow Ahmad’s blog, and read the stories he has complied, click here. Those interested in Ahmad’s work can visit his website, or follow his accounts on Twitter and Instagram.
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