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DIFFICULT AND VAST

Ongoing conversations between a photographer and a writer sometime make memorable books that weave together images and text to create a layered work. James Agee’s writing and Walker Evans’s photographs came together in this way, in 1941, to create the great prototype for this genre, Let us now Praise Famous Men. BALOCHISTAN AT A CROSSROADS (Niyogi, Rs 2,495) is another example of this kind of photo-book. The photographs of Marc Wattrelot (who studied journalism in Paris and is now a documentary filmmaker in Beirut) and the reportage of Willem Marx (Classics at Oxford and journalism at NYU) interleave with a sort of restrained and humble eloquence in this sparely designed book to conjure up a nuanced yet dramatic account of this difficult region of a difficult country. “Travelling across the backcountry of Balochistan was exhausting and sometimes dangerous,” writes Marx in his introduction. But their collaboration is refreshingly devoid of the swashbuckling visual and literary machismo that often characterizes such endeavours.

Wattrelot is evidently aware of his distinguished predecessors — from the crystalline inwardness of Fazal Sheikh’s photographs to the gorier theatre of James Natchwey, or Graciela Iturbide’s haunted geographies. Yet, vividness and quietude combine in his depiction of how history, topography and people fold into one another in this “forbidding, forbidden” part of the world. At the heart of this land of masks and disguises is a landscape that is “endlessly beautiful in its emptiness”, but inhabited by human beings for whom recklessness is a matter of habit. The picture above was taken while driving fast through scrubland close to the town of Mastung.

Emptiness, however, is not the only aesthetic by which this book engages the reader and viewer. There is a richly ethnological dimension to it that ranges from the urban cultures of Karachi and Quetta to the fishing communities of the “ancient Makran shore”, the ports of Gwadar and ship-breaking at Gadani, the mountain-dwelling rebels, the miners and refugees, and the tribal fiefdoms of the desert: “So much in Balochistan is reminiscent of a fascinating past, but it is when you meet the people here — few though they are amid the vast majesty of the landscape — that you realize it is the future to which they are all looking, often with trepidation.”

What kind of ‘knowledge’ does this marriage between writing and photography produce? “Lying awake with my own feet half frozen I kept coming back to how tough this existence must be, how strongly these rugged men must believe in their cause to endure such discomfort,” Marx writes, “If these brief visits to such camps had taught me one thing, it was that I could never live as they lived, away from family and under constant fear of a potential military bombardment; and as such I could never really hope to understand what was in their minds.”