In 1984, shortly before the inauguration of the Ismaili Centre Vancouver, a young local photographer was commissioned to take photos of the building and its gardens during the final construction phase. A few months later, to his surprise, he was invited back to photograph the official opening of the Centre in the presence of Mawlana Hazar Imam and the then Canadian Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney.
The event marked the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship between him and the Aga Khan Development Network. The photographer, Gary Otte, has since taken many thousands of photos of Mawlana Hazar Imam’s visits to his Jamats, his meetings with world leaders, and AKDN projects across the world.
Printed photographs allow us to peek into the past, to an era before camera phones and Instagram, and also help us to learn how we arrived where we are today. They enable us to observe the world and its people from different perspectives, capturing the most fleeting of moments, preserving them forever within the bounds of a frame.
In recent years, Mr Otte has undertaken a process of selecting a number of photos — taken by him and others — to feature in a special new publication entitled Depth of Field: The Aga Khan Beyond the Lens. Presented for the first time in one volume, the collection of more than 200 images of Hazar Imam spans eight decades and 48 different countries, and includes the work of 50 different photographers.
In an exclusive interview for The Ismaili, Mr Otte described the process of compiling a visual narrative of Hazar Imam’s life and work.
“The pictures have all been very carefully chosen,” he said. “I tried to find pictures that draw the viewer into the picture, that try to tell a story or make the viewer themselves imagine a story.”
Rather than being sorted into a chronological or geographic sequence, the images appear in no particular order. “They're designed so that when you turn the page, you'd be surprised by what you see throughout the whole book,” he continued.
Mr Otte also explained the thinking behind the title of the book.
“’Depth of field’ is a photographic term, and it refers to the thing closest to the camera and the object farthest from the camera that's in focus in a photograph,” he said. “But I used it because with His Highness, his field of endeavour is very deep as well — his interests, and his activities, and his successes — it's a very deep list of items.”
From the Imam’s childhood years in Nairobi, Kenya, to his education at Harvard University, to his participation as an Olympic skier, the photographs illustrate his numerous achievements in the worlds of culture, socio-economic development, international diplomacy, and humanitarian aid, especially through the Aga Khan Development Network.
Unlike photos on a screen, which appear in an instant and vanish even faster, the tactile quality of Depth of Field will stand the test of time, and would make a valuable addition to any bookshelf for many generations to come.
To coincide with the commemoration of Imamat Day, The Ismaili has secured a limited number of copies of the book Depth of Field for the Jamat to pre-order at a reduced cost, and with free shipping for all orders received by 11 August. For more details and to pre-order the book, visit The Ismaili Shop.