It’s been decades since Tony Aftab arrived in the UK from Lahore, Pakistan but the place still has a strong impact on him and his cooking. His daughter, the photographer Tami Aftab, went back to his hometown to capture its magic in the WePresent commissioned series turned photography and cook book “The Rice is on the Hob”. This is the second time WePresent and Tami have worked together, following her commissioned project, “Children of the Wildflower”. Writer Louise Benson meets Tony and Tami in London to understand their connection through food, love and life.
When I arrive to meet Tami Aftab and her father, Tony, at a wood-paneled pub nestled directly opposite Hampton Court Palace alongside the Thames, I am struck by how immediately I recognise Tony despite having never met him before. It is like catching a glimpse of a familiar face within a crowd, with that accompanying rush of relief, as vivid as reaching out for a loved one in the dark.
For the last five years, Tami and Tony have collaborated together on a series of portraits that has seen Tony take the starring role. It is an uplifting project that began in 2018 while Tami was studying photography at the London College of Communication, titled “The Dog’s in the Car”, and has continued ever since. The creative partnership has taken the pair from the outer reaches of West London, where Tami grew up, to inner-city Lahore, where Tony spent his childhood. The resulting images in the WePresent commissioned book “The Rice is on the Hob” are intimate and relaxed, showing Tami’s natural flair for the quiet details of a smile or subtle glance; in some shots, she brings the camera close to Tony’s face as his eyes look directly down the lens. It is a study in familial connection, and in the kind of cross-generational ties that are rarely celebrated in either the fields of documentary or fashion photography, which much of Tami’s work straddles without ever fully embracing either. Most of all, the photographs are a joyful celebration of the love felt between father and daughter, and an exploration of what it means to belong to two very different cultures at once. “I feel very proud to say that I’m mixed race,” Tami says of her Pakistani-British heritage.
Their collaboration is also underpinned by a disability that affects Tony’s memory, following an operation that he underwent 12 years ago to treat hydrocephalus, which causes the build-up of water in the brain. “That operation was successful but my short-term memory is damaged for life, which means I might not remember this meeting later tonight or tomorrow,” he explains. The scar left by the operation on his shaved head is visible in Tami’s portraits of him, a wending line that traces a record of both trauma and salvation. It is a contradiction that runs boldly through the bright and playful images created by the pair, a flash of colour at the edge of the horizon. “Obviously illness was up front when we started because that is Dad’s day-to-day life, but not every picture depicts memory,” Tami says. “We started playing around with performing and collaborating to make something more special and unique than just documenting Dad’s condition.”
A string of colourful lettering appears in several of the images, spelling out statements so ordinary that their unusual prominence, displayed incongruously in public spaces, is enough to stop you in your tracks. “TURN THE OVEN OFF”; “WE’RE AT THE SHOPS”. These imperatives are taken directly from the Post-it Notes used by Tami’s family to remind Tony of recent events that would otherwise slip from his memory. Another of these notes features in the pair’s very first series of photographs together, and is referenced explicitly in its title, “The Dog's in the Car.” “No one sees these notes unless you're in the house, so I wanted to flip it on its head,” Tami says. “I wanted it to be really loud and proud and in your face, and to make people ask questions.” By choosing a type of bunting more likely to spell out celebratory missives like “HAPPY BIRTHDAY”, Tami and Tony introduce a wry sense of humour that is evident throughout the series. “People often only talk about how difficult illness is. I think we’re trying to encourage people to feel comfortable with finding it funny and light-hearted as well,” Tami reflects. “Humour can be used as a way of dealing with hardships.”
Tami and Tony have also found a way to connect with one another and their shared heritage through food. They laugh as they describe in delectable detail Tony’s hot butter chicken, crisp homemade pakoras, and flaky paratha flatbread, a favourite of Tami’s as a child that she knew only as “yummy bread”. In 2018, the same year they embarked on their photographic collaboration together, the two also staged a series of family ‘kitchen takeovers’ at Nandine, a popular Kurdish cafe in Camberwell, South London, which quickly sold out. “Dad’s an amazing cook,” Tami says. They have long dreamed of co-authoring a photobook-meets-cookbook, in which Tami’s photographs would sit alongside Tony’s recipes. For Tami, the greatest connection she had to her Pakistani heritage while growing up was through food, especially as she couldn’t speak her father’s language. Landing in Pakistan with Tony to shoot their latest series was at first disorientating and even overwhelming at times. “But then I taste the food,” she says with a smile, “and that feels like home to me.”
Lahore is a city filled with life, teeming with the comings and goings of the millions who inhabit it. “I remember taking pictures the second we got in the taxi. It's a hit on the senses. The sun is so bright and there's a lot of pollution, so there was a cloud of smog, like a haze in the sky. There are so many colours. Everywhere you turn, there's something to take picture of,” Tami describes. “It’s so different to here in the UK, to my childhood.” Meanwhile Tony recalls growing up with 19 family members under a single roof. The pair found themselves returning to his former house, which now sits empty, again and again during their trip. They even set up an informal outdoor studio alongside it, where Tami took portraits of passers-by and neighbours while Tony chatted to them in Urdu about their favourite foods. “I've never photographed strangers before. What I found interesting was that people were really willing to get their photos taken, and not one person asked to see the result,” Tami says. “I think they just wanted to be documented.”
For both Tami and Tony, these warm-hearted photographs from Tony’s home city in “The Rice is on the Hob” are just the beginning of their journey not only into their family’s past but into a shared future. For Tony, the experience has been deeply significant on both a personal and a political level. “I imagine that people like me might see the images and start talking about their own disability,” he says. “By putting my experience out there, I hope that it will be helpful for others.” The process of collaboration has forced both to confront their vulnerabilities as a family, as well as working through experiences that might otherwise remain unspoken. As Tami points out, family photo albums rarely feature photographs of parents taken by their children. “Typically you photograph downwards but this project flips that. Not many children get the privilege of taking pictures of their parents.” She turns to her father once more as our conversation comes to a close: “I would like to keep taking photographs of you for the rest of your life.”
“These guys were selling vegetables on the side of the motorway; it wasn't a market street. We were driving past in the car, and I asked if we could pull over when I saw all these vegetables and people. I loved that they had an almost all-green stand, and the next one was an all-orange stand of carrots. Only two of them in the picture are the owners of that stall, but the other two from the orange stall ran in because they were so excited.”
“I was trying to think of a way to not only narrate food but play around with it and make it more performative. I’m not a food photographer, by any means, and laying out these fennel seeds, corn and lentils felt more organic to how Dad and I work together. I was thinking of patterns that you can make in the sand, and making shapes out of the food made it more of a performance or artistic piece rather than documentation.”
“These trucks are basically everywhere in Pakistan, carrying food, produce and waste, and the truck drivers take real pride in their trucks and get them individually hand-painted. They're riding in them every single day; that's their livelihood. I think it's interesting that they find individuality in these things that you might not imagine they’d want to identify themselves with.”
“It was the end of the day when we’d been photographing strangers in an informal outdoor studio and asking them about their memories of food. I thought it'd be quite interesting to also take a photograph of myself and Dad as well. I hate being front of a camera, but I was comfortable doing it with him. It feels like a stamp of a moment in time of us both there in that space, which otherwise wouldn't have been documented.”
“These boys were running around and playing together just behind what was Dad's old house. It reminded me of how he would have been playing as a child; it was like a time capsule. Because even though Dad was growing up there in the late 1960s, these kids are still playing the same games and still riding bikes on the same streets. There was a real familiarity in the scene.”
For more information on the project, and to pre-order your copy of 'The Rice is on the Hob', visit Tami Aftab's website here.
An exhibition of photographs taken from the book will be held at Have A Butchers Gallery, London, on November 3 - 5, 2023. A limited number of free tickets are available for the launch event on November 2, which will also feature a selection of home-cooked dishes provided by Tony Aftab.
RSVP at our event page here for tickets.