Lens: The Distant Vision


Through a montage of images shot at slaughterhouses, in Pakistan, Rashid Rana makes a comment on violence, death, and existence.

The Red Carpet series can probably be traced back to my discomfort at witnessing the gory details of ritualistic sacrifice as a teenager. Later, as a young art student, I was able to overcome this by placing the filter of the camera in between. However, it was only in 2007 that I developed a series of works titled Red Carpet, whereby I used the camera (a device that I consider detached) paradoxically for immersion in an otherwise disturbing experience.

At the macro level, the image is that of an easily recognisable Indo-Persian carpet. My intention of using an image of this intricate craft, often burdened with the task of representing the ‘orient’, was firstly to refer to and undo the notion of labor that is typically associated with its making. Secondly, I hoped that the image underscored the complexities of this representative burden by situating it between a rejection and an embrace of the oriental carpet.

On the other hand, at the micro level, I was interested in some strains of formal concerns present throughout art history. I observed that all artwork is a re-invention of the three most common subjects in art history—landscape, figure, and still-life. The Red Carpet series occupies coordinates within still life. I imagined an abundance of fragmentary still lives coming together in one image. Still life has been a traditional conceptual concern in artistic practice called ‘nature morte’; literally translated as dead nature, and thus the subject matter has typically symbolised mortality.

Red Carpet–2, C Print + DIASEC 60 x 72 inches, 2007.

I also felt that the idea of death is similar to the idea of stasis where one attempts to freeze a moment in the inevitable continuation of time. I observed this ambition in a wide variety of artistic production, from photography to the convention of European oil painting. This stasis eliminates the past and the future, it elevates a given moment and erases the rest. I felt that, in a way, it even undoes the linearity of time in favour of fracture. On the other hand, I was also observing pictorial space depicted in traditions of painting from regions other than Europe. A number of these seemed to have a more fluid approach to storytelling, with the picture plane composed in a manner where multiple views of the same environment can be seen simultaneously. Once again, this technique, presented a way to experience time in a non linear format, where synchronicity takes precedence over sequence. In the Red Carpet series, I brought both of these approaches to non-linear time, on one plane—multiple photos of the same act (slaughtering) shot continuously from various angles come together to form one static image of a carpet, thus telling a story through multiple frozen moments. I imagined that these frozen moments may represent beginnings, middles and endings of scenes, but not necessarily in the same order.

I contemplated with the idea of visiting a slaughterhouse long before I actually did it. When the day of the visit arrived, it coincided with Benazir Bhutto’s return to Pakistan, after a long period in exile. The city was celebrating a change in the political arena, and televisions were running marathon transmissions in anticipation. I had been glued to the screen as well, until I left for the planned visit to the slaughterhouse.

As I entered, there was an assembly line slaughtering ten to twelve animals at a time, and seeing this swift mechanised death overwhelmed me, and I thought of leaving. But moments after being there, I became desensitised and oddly, adjusted to the situation. Perhaps, once again the lens, made the experience less visceral for me. At the end of this overpowering experience, I decided that a work produced in two-dimensional format will not do justice to the experience, so I decided to give up on the idea. However, when I reached home, and turned on the television, I was presented with the imagery of death and carnage, similar to what I had experienced. It was at that moment that I decided to go ahead and work on the Red Carpet series. A bomb blast had targeted Benazir Bhutto killing, 138 and injuring 545. Benazir survived the attack, but many others did not.

Rashid Rana is renowned artists from Pakistan. His work revolves around the exploration of media and identity. Rana’s work has been shown extensively around the world, including the Mohatta Palace Museum in Karachi, the Singapore Art Museum, the Hong Kong Art Center, and the Cornerhouse, Manchester.

This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Better Photography.