Photography is touted for its supreme capacity to capture reality. The frightening ease with which the physical verisimilitude of a scene or a person can be reproduced is what makes photography unique, compelling and addicting. The photograph reflects back to us what we think exists. We confer our belief in the image and thereby, reinforce the mental trick that we believe what we see.

Saqib Mumtaz, a Kashmiri photographer based in Delhi, begs to differ. Photography, for him, is not about capturing an objective reality, but rather an exploration of the possibility within reality. “I present a scene in the way that I perceive it, rather than how it appears,” he told Scroll recently. “For me, the subjectivity of a photograph and how that links back to the photographer, is the critical aspect.”

Mumtaz grew up in Poonch near the Line of Control until the age of 16 when he came to Delhi to pursue higher education. After graduating from IIT, Saqib like tens of millions of other human beings decided to try his hand with a camera. And like those millions of others his initial landscapes of Kashmir rarely transcended their post-card beauty or Facebook ‘like’ability.

“Living in a city like Delhi, you are continuously bombarded with a stream of images that in a way are documenting parts of the city - parks, monuments and markets," he said. "But this burst also leads to a loss of subjectivity.”

So as he sought to express something deeper, something less "factual", Mumtaz looked around him for inspiration. He uncovered a fascination with crowds. And how within that apparently chaotic, unruly space there resides an unseen coherence.

Mumtaz’s strongest photographs come from two projects: Shahajanhabad and Qawwal. In the streets of Old Delhi around Jama Masjid, and at the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, Saqib uses long exposure to capture that invisible coherence, be it the potentiality or the energy, that lies hidden within objective reality.

In the photo Mazdoori, for example, the blurred group of people suggests numerous realities, not just one: a funeral procession, a work gang, a gang of friends stumbling home. Depending on what you see the meaning of the scene changes.

“The position and momentum of objects are inversely related,” Saqib said. “And by giving up on position, I can better capture the motion. This is antithetical to the idea of capturing the moment. The moment is lost but the motion is preserved. This provides a sense of direction of various actors and objects within the photograph.

“In the Shahjahanabad series, the long exposures convey a sense of impermanence," he said. "For the Qawwal series, it is a means to capture the energy of the performers and group dynamics.”

Abdullah Manzoor Niazi
Abdullah Manzoor Niazi

Indeed, the notion of "the decisive moment" does not pertain to Mumtaz’s photographs.

In his street scenes, such as the one below, what is suggested is the unreliability and fragility of reality. A reality that is a continuum rather than a point, or moment, in time.

A foot planted on the pavement gives way to empty space. The young girl herself seems taken aback by this. The viewer is invited to imagine the rest of the scene in any way he or she wants. Instead of "this is such and such street at this time of day", this image asks, "What does this mean?"

A slight discomfort is aroused. As humans we prefer confirmation over imagination.

Mumtaz’s ghostly pictures remind the viewer that life is a vibrational, dynamic and never-still enterprise. Everything is in motion. Always.

Unlike purely conceptual photographs that eliminate any sense of objective reality and disconnect motion and energy from their physical anchoring forms (usually humans), Mumtaz’s pictures are grounded in strong objective reality. A face staring directly into the lens while behind and around him a wispy world floats on.

A man staring at a horse on a busy thoroughfare as traffic whizzes by. There is drama in the relationship between man and beast.

While Mumtaz shoots in both colour and black and white, it is the monochrome images that seem to have more of the "jaan" that he so highly prizes.

“I started with color photography and have gradually moved towards black and white," he said. "To be honest, color can be hard, and distracting at times. The degree of control in monochrome attracts me."

Regardless of the palette he chooses, Saqib Mumtaz’s photographs are endlessly revealing and rewarding. Sadly for the profession he has no intention of pursuing a career in photography but his work can be enjoyed at http://surnistan.tumblr.com/