Fishtown photographer Saleem Ahmed finds human element in photography
By Logan Krum
Saleem Ahmed resides in Fishtown and teaches photography and visual media studies in the city, but he doesn’t consider the Philadelphia his only home.
His family took trips around the world together since he was young, venturing to places like Europe and the west coast. Ahmed said these trips were eight people packed in a minivan exploring the world.
Often, they would explore a new destination before returning to India, where they still have family.
On these trips, Ahmed discovered photography. He carried a camera lacking the screens modern day machines have, so one couldn’t see the photos until after they were developed. It was the 1990s, after all.
“There was the excitement of seeing what worked and what didn’t,” he said of the photos. Seeing how the photos turned out was one of his favorite parts of traveling.
These childhood trips shaped the way Ahmed lives now. He’s an accomplished traveler, having visited numerous countries including Bolivia, Japan and India, where he’s either taught or honed his own photography skills.
His first self-published art book, Rani Road, released a few weeks ago at the Philadelphia Art Book Fair. The book chronicles several of Ahmed’s trips to Udaipur, India, where he followed his parents around to get a better understanding of their lives growing up in the city.
“I always heard about where my parents grew up, but I wanted to go there and see these places,” Ahmed said. “I wanted to preserve what India means to me.”
Ahmed said that the culture his family is accustomed to in America is not the same his relatives practiced in India.
“I wanted to scan all these family albums and preserve that history because eventually it might disappear.” He said that as he and his siblings adapt more to the culture here, they get further away from culture in India.
The book focuses on the area of the city his mother grew up in, which Ahmed described as fragile and gentle. This carried over to one of the book’s main themes of fragility.
Rani Road is an actual road that passes lakes and palaces. Ahmed described the city it is in as an “oasis in the desert.”
The book lacks covering on its spine, giving off the illusion that the pages are less protected than a normally bound volume.
“For some people, it may make them go through the book a little slower,” he explained, saying it conjured illusions of fragility.
When editing the book, Ahmed tried to find visual elements that connected consecutive photos. On one set of pages, the ruby red from a vine of flowers on one page recalls decorative strings of dangling flowers next to a woman in bright pink garb on the other.
They say art imitates life. Various elements of Ahmed’s life seem to carry through to his project, just like how the photos connect to each other. Ahmed has been sporting a bright pink cast on his left wrist after a recent motorcycle accident. He chose pink to match the book’s cover.
“I literally hit a wall,” he said. Ahmed was unsure if what he was doing with his life was making him content. (Being happy, he explained, would be ideal in terms of career, but being content is the standard we should strive for.)
To clear his head one day, he went out for a motorcycle ride, a pastime that alleviates his nagging mind.
Instead of stressing him out, the accident seemed to reassure him to make the changes in his life he had been pondering.
“I tell my students to find a job that makes you content,” he said. Ahmed said he’s content teaching visual arts at several colleges and high schools in the city, a job which allows him to do the things that make him happy.
The biggest drawback of the accident? Ahmed is left-handed, which means his signed Rani Road copies are not quite as legible as they could be. (Side note: Left-handedness just happens to be a trait associated with creative people.)
The theme of peace is explored in his next book, Peace in the Valley, which was published just weeks after Rani Road (albeit with tinier dimensions).
The book focuses on Ahmed’s trips to La Paz, Bolivia.
“La Paz means peace, but everything is still chaotic,” he said. “I started walking in the morning when people weren’t around to find peace. Whatever that means.”
Walking around aimlessly is a method of photography he utilizes often, especially when he’s in Fishtown.
His Instagram account, saleemahmed, often features seemingly random shots of plants, street corners, and other small commonalities on the street most people wouldn’t think to look twice at.
“Philly’s full of odd things,” he said. “I’m interested in the human element behind these things. How the hell did that happen, and who the hell did that?”
They say art imitates life. With his photography, Ahmed has found his peace.
Rani Road can be purchased by emailing Ahmed at email@example.com. Peace in the Valley can be purchased at Another Place Press’s site.