“As he says in his own introduction to the book, Otte engaged in a deep research of the photo archives of the Aga Khan, finding images chosen for their quality but also for the fascinating story they tell. The result is a unique collection of photos, many of which have not been published before, but which, taken together, form a visual biography. It is a book about His Highness the Aga Khan, but it is also a portrait in time and space of the world seen from a different perspective, one of endless change and movement, but also one of hope” — Philip Jodidio, Preface, p. ix, “Depth of Field: The Aga Khan Beyond the Lens”
DEPTH OF FIELD: THE AGA KHAN BEYOND THE LENS, edited by Gary Otte with texts by Bruno Freschi, Philip Jodidio, Don Cayo and Gary Otte
Hardcover 260 pp. Published by Prestel, February 2022; 220 colour illustrations. To purchase the book, please see links provided immediately after the article.
By NIZAR A MOTANI, PhD
I have used the Aga Khan and Hazar Imam interchangeably in my reflections about this visual biography of him, by Gary Otte
When I finally received the long-awaited book about Hazar Imam, I gleefully looked at the cover, actually the “jacket,” with his picture. It was intriguing that this photograph portraying Hazar Imam had part of his shoulder hidden: it was found in the inside “folding”, which also has an extract from the Preface. The complete photograph appears on page 121. Then, I instinctively and happily thumbed through this delightful “coffee table” edition, as if it was just an album, though about a familiar figure, without much thought and not reading most of the captions. It soon became apparent that the three essays preceding the photographs must have a purpose and should be read before taking a second closer look at them. In my humble opinion, this is what every viewer should do since these textual and contextual commentaries guide the viewer to not only how to view the images, but also, and more importantly, to ponder over them to see beyond these images, which collectively constitute a pictorial biography of the Aga Khan.
The editor of this milestone photographic record, Gary Otte, explains in the Introduction, that as the Aga Khan’s principal photographer for some thirty years, he had ample, varied and exhausting opportunities to capture a lot of “interesting stuff.” He witnessed happenings at “exotic and iconic locations; global leaders and ordinary folks”; — and events of great historical, cultural, religious and economic significance (p. xi).
“In an age dominated by moving images, still photographs continue to carry remarkable power. Nothing captures a moment as memorably. There is no movement to miss, no soundtrack to distract. It is the still photograph that becomes iconic – a fraction of a second with great impact that people can readily call to mind. Few moments in film or video imprint themselves so clearly. It is that single frame from a vivid scene that we carry with us… Like all the photographers who covered the life of the Aga Khan, I benefitted from his acceptance of us as chroniclers of history” — Gary Otte, Introduction, p. xiii, “Depth of Field, The Aga Khan Beyond the Lens”
The two hundred twenty meticulously selected photographs — ninety by him and 130 taken by some fifty other photographers — take the viewers on a panoramic tour of all aspects of the Aga Khan’s amazing life. They are not chronologically presented but were chosen because they were deemed “technically, compositionally, and editorially excellent” and were “more representative of geography, subject area and decades.” (p. xi).
Otte recommends viewers to inspect and revisit all the photographs because “every long look can reveal something new as you discover or imagine, what is happening.” (p. xi).
Philip Jodidio, a prolific author and an expert on contemporary art and architecture, has written a glowing Preface in which he comprehensively and chronologically portrays the major initiatives of Hazar Imam, who is described as “one of the most fascinating personalities in the world….he is a spiritual leader, the driving force behind numerous humanitarian and cultural organizations” as well as “one of the most important figures who has sought to bridge the divide between the Muslim world and the West” (p. v).
By reading this essay, themes and patterns will emerge in the two hundred twenty otherwise randomly presented photographs. The renowned Bruno Freschi’s brief but telling Foreword is centered on his deep respect for Otte’s superb photographic skills as well as his profound admiration of Otte’s extraordinary subject’s (The Aga Khan’s) ambitious, multidimensional, multifaceted mission, which has been so diligently and visually portrayed.
The Aga Khan’s mission, or more appropriately, his mandate as the Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, has been succinctly conveyed in excerpts from one of his numerous speeches (p. xvii) and from his historic address to the special joint session of the Canadian Parliament, on February 27, 2014. Thankfully, Jodidio has excerpted the essence of this speech in his Preface (p. v).
“Gary’s photography and his curation have produced a collection with a magical quality. The reader/viewer is transported into the event-image reality. The photography is the doorway into the spirit of the frozen moment. These event-moments are the curtain in the great theatre of life. Once the curtain is raised it reveals the compelling life story of the Aga Khan, an elegant portrait of his historic mission” — Bruno Freschi, Foreword, p. xv, “Depth of Field: The Aga Khan Beyond the Lens”
In my reflections on just a few of the photographs in this non-chronological historical biography, I hope to be faithful to the sound, revealing guidance on how to embrace each image. Evidently, beyond and behind the photographs, there must be careful and plentiful preparation and coordination, prior to, during, and even after each different event: airport arrivals and departures; protocols; media liaison; motorcade escorts; security arrangements; translators, meetings with heads of state and other leaders; banquets and speeches — to think of just a few. The photograph on page 212 shows Dr. Shafik Sachedina, Head of the Department of Jamati Institutions at the Diwan of the Ismaili Imamat, and Dr. Mohammed Khesavjee, who served as the Information Officer at Mawlana Hazar Imam’s Secretariat at Aiglemont for many years, playing complementary roles behind and at the scene. Most photographs do not show such senior and other personnel in the Aga Khan’s entourage doing the critical groundwork.
The photograph on page 163 shows Hazar Imam thanking the police escort for his motorcade. He is always mindful of the very many individuals, institutions and organizations involved during his official visits as the state guest of the host governments, and he is known to unfailingly acknowledge his gratitude to all of them. Only some of them can be seen in some of the photographs, but they were there and we have to imagine them, as explained by the editor.
Article continues below
In 1983 and 2008, the Aga Khan, the 49th hereditary Shia Imami Ismaili Muslim spiritual leader paid official visits as the guest of the ruling Sunni family of the emirate of Dubai (pp. 134 and 135). Significantly, the 2008 occasion was the opening ceremony of the new Ismaili Centre. We can only imagine the elaborate preparations and protocols for this historic event. Being invited as a virtual head of state by governments across the world is an unmistakable theme of this fascinating volume. So much planning and coordination by so many unseen volunteers and paid staff within and outside the Ismaili jamat is always the case.
READERS SHARE THEIR THOUGHTS ON “THE AGA KHAN BEYOND THE LENS”
This fabulous book with its layout, font, selection of photos and essays is extraordinary — Moez Murji
The photographs chosen are not only beautiful but were also very carefully selected, and each carries a deeper message of the Aga Khan’s incredible — and farsighted — vision. It’s indeed remarkable and an occasion of immense happiness for the Ismailis that the unbelievable results that have been achieved by Mawlana Hazar Imam in so many countries around the world are finally covered in such a well condensed pictorial book — Amin Jaffer
In this 280-page bumper pictorial biography of Mawlana Hazar Imam, which I ordered and have already received it as one of my living room’s table top collections, some of the pictures will bring alive our individual and family memories — Kamruddin Rashid
Beautiful! Now [after reading Nizar Motani’s reflections] I have to go back to the Visual Biography (love that!!) and look at it differently! Different viewers may have different meanings to different pictures. Great job Mr Gary Otte for the book and Nizar Motani for his reflections on the book — Mirza Smile
Gary Otte’s very first illustration is a two-page panoramic view of the October 1957 Dar es Salaam Takht Nashini. It requires deep individual contemplation to merely “digest” the thousands in attendance. And much more imagining of the hundreds more involved in numerous aspects of staging this majestic enthronement ceremony, in a British colonial African country, with several non-African immigrant minorities among the heterogeneous African populations, can be a challenging mental exercise!
It is almost on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the August 4th 1972 mass Asian Expulsion by Uganda’s mercurial megalomaniac military dictator, Idi Amin Dada, that I am encountering Hazar Imam’s somber photograph with Amin. It was taken during Hazar Imam’s critical February 1972 visit to Kampala (p. 59). I was still in London completing my doctoral dissertation on the topic of Uganda’s African Civil Service, hoping to teach African History at Makerere. It so happened that I returned on that fateful day — August 4th 1972, not to a much anticipated warmest welcome at the Entebbe Airport, but to most somber news, from my parents, about the expulsion order issued just prior to my arrival!
Such an epic volume should be an occasion of immense pride and happiness for every Ismaili murid. Gary Otte has clearly acknowledged that Hazar Imam remained very accommodating and patient during the long period of compiling this unprecedented collection…and has thanked Hazar Imam for taking the time to offer suggestions on choosing the photographs and the book’s design. Princess Zahra, Prince Rahim and Prince Hussain gave their time and advice on selection of photographs and the final draft of images and the text. Hence this official authorized visual biography of our 49th Imam and a once in a life time publication, should belong in our homes — Dr Nizar Motani, author of this post
Therefore being absent from Uganda during Hazar Imam’s February visit, I can only imagine the challenging task of the local Ismaili entourage and leadership on how to brief Hazar Imam for any meeting with such a vainglorious man controlling the destiny of all Ugandans. Could Amin have given any clear signal about what was brewing in his mind prior to the alleged dream to ethnically cleanse Uganda of its much maligned Asian minorities? Could Hazar Imam have sensed any forebodings in order to prepare for all eventualities — since the expulsion order’s short deadline was met with fairly well-organized and timely evacuation under the most harrowing circumstances? I was one of the lucky ones who chose to and could leave, within a week, for the USA, but remained tormented and concerned about the rest of the family’s fate who had to plan their escape. This image on page 59 may linger for a long while but with deep gratitude that almost all Asians escaped relatively physically unscathed.
I will conclude my brief reflections about this unique official pictorial biography of the Aga Khan, our beloved Hazar Imam, by simply stating that such an epic volume should be an occasion of immense pride and happiness for every Ismaili murid. The editor, Gary Otte, has clearly acknowledged that Hazar Imam remained very accommodating and patient during the long period of compiling this unprecedented collection of mostly previously unpublished photographs, from his childhood in Kenya to the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in various parts of the world, where he was welcomed by the host countries’ Heads of State as a virtual visiting head of state.
Gary Otte has thanked Hazar Imam for taking the time to offer suggestions on choosing the photographs and the book’s design. Princess Zahra, Prince Rahim and Prince Hussain gave their time and advice on selection of photographs and the final draft of images and the text.
Hence this official authorized visual biography of our 49th Imam and a once in a life time publication, should belong in our homes. It also makes a wonderful gift to give to thoughtfully selected non-Ismaili friends and colleagues to increase their awareness of the Aga Khan which Jodidio has stated may be lacking in the general public. But even we, his murids, will be be astonished and overjoyed to learn so much that we cannot possibly already know about or have seen images of his multifarious undertaking, as well as his personal life.
One final thought, as I take the elderly members of the Jamat into consideration. Mawlana Hazar Imam’s life, through the photographs in this book, spans three generations. How exciting and inspiring might it be for the elders, were their children and grandchildren to sit alongside them and leaf through all the beautiful photographs of their beloved Imam, not once but on multiple occasions. Old memories would be revived and new stories, narratives, anecdotes, and perspectives would emerge, individually and collectively, adding to our knowledge of Mawlana Hazar Imam’s glorious life and Imamat. This book MUST occupy a place in all Ismaili homes.
Date posted: June 18, 2022.
A slightly different version of this piece appeared recently on Simerg’s sister website Barakah under the title Reflections on Mawlana Hazar Imam’s Pictorial Biography, “Depth of Field – The Aga Khan Beyond the Lens” by Nizar Motani.
PURCHASING THE AGA KHAN’S BEAUTIFUL PICTORIAL BIOGRAPHY
The publisher’s recommended retail price for Depth of Field: The Aga Khan Beyond the Lens is US $ 60.00; £ 45.00 but retailers and on-line book sellers may sell it for less. To purchase the book in Canada, click Aga Khan Museum Shop, Amazon.ca or Indigo.ca; in the USA, click Amazon.com; in the UK and other European countries, click Amazon.co.uk; and in Spain and Portugal click Amazon.es. Elsewhere, see if there is a local Amazon chapter serving your location or visit Amazon’s global page. Note that the book is also available for members of the Ismaili community at Jamatkhana literature counters around the world or through the local Jamatkhana leadership.
Simerg welcomes your feedback, review and reflections on The Aga Khan Beyond the Lens. Please complete the LEAVE A REPLY form below or click Leave a comment. Your letter may be edited for length and brevity, and is subject to moderation
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nizar A. Motani has a doctorate from the University of London (SOAS) in African history, specializing in British colonial rule in East Africa. He has been a college professor at Bowdoin College (Brunswick, ME) and Western Michigan University (Kalamazoo, MI). He was the first Publication Officer at the Institute of Ismaili Studies (London, UK). He now lives in Atlanta, Georgia.
Dr. Motani’s previous pieces on Simerg and its sister website Barakah are:
- Simerg: Book Review: “Humanizing Medicine: Making Health Tangible” – Memoirs of Engagement with the Aga Khan Development Network
- Simerg: Book Review of Mansoor Ladha’s Memoirs of a Muhindi: Fleeing East Africa for the West
- Barakah: The Aga Khan – From an Ismaili Muslim Imam to a Global Citizen and Virtual Head of States
- Barakah: The Talks, Titles, Treaties and Walks of the Aga Khan IV: Glimpses of his “Extra-ordinariness”
- Simerg: A Review of His Highness the Aga Khan’s “Where Hope Takes Root”
A SHORT Youtube Presentation: Gary Otte on the Making of the Book
REVIEW SIMERG’S TABLE OF CONTENTS AND VISIT ITS SISTER WEBSITES
Before departing this website please take a moment to visit Simerg’s Table of Contents for links to more than 1500 pieces posted since the website was founded in the spring of 2009. Also visit our two sister websites, Barakah and Simergphotos.