TASWEER GHAR INTERVIEWS: RANGEEN PAKISTAN

Designer, Storyteller and Futurist is how Maheen Sohail describes herself on her website. Tasweer Ghar has been very intrigued by Maheen’s works on her Instagram page, “@rangeen.pakistan” – but adding color to old black and white pictures is not the only thing all she does. We sat with with the brains behind this project for an exclusive.Born and raised in Lahore, Maheen was fascinated with the art of storytelling through documentaries and film making. At Simon Fraser University in Canada, she studied various parts of digital media: product design, graphic design, filmmaking, programming, animation, game design and architecture. Her interest in future technologies was sparked around this point and she started applying this interest to her work in the non-profit world. She started a non-profit for creating accessible educational tools and empowerment programs. Today, Maheen is a product designer at Facebook, working on Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence experiences. At Facebook, she has also worked on democratizing several emerging photography and videography formats, such as 3D and 360 photos/videos. In January 2020 she began “Rangeen Pakistan” through Instagram.

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Tell us about Rangeen Pakistan.

Rangeen Pakistan is an effort to bring color into old black and white photos/videos of Pakistan. Using Rangeen Pakistan I bring back to life the forgotten stories of our grandparents and great-grandparents, as well as our leaders and the historical legacy that this country was built upon. I use a mix of AI models and traditional graphic tools to quickly convert photos/videos to achieve high quality results.

When did you realize this is a complete project and you should share it with people? 

The project started when I stumbled upon some public deep learning model that allows conversion of black and white photos to colored versions. As I started playing around with it, I realized that the models were not accurate (since they are not trained on a diverse set of data). This is where I spent some time researching the era of photos I was most curious about and researching about the people within them (for example, what they wore and what they did). This enabled me to fine tune the colors to represent reality. I started with my favourite photos of Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Fatima Ali Jinnah, once I had reached the quality that I was happy with, it was time to share it with others on Instagram.

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When we post pictures on social media, they are likely to be shared and used elsewhere. In a project like this how will you address copyrights? 

As a designer, I am quite particular about copyrights. However, with Rangeen Pakistan I am not worried about retaining rights. This is because I use public models to convert these photos from black and white to color. I also use public images that my followers send me. This project, for the most part, is possible because of the publicly available stuff, and for that reason, I am happy to keep these photos open to the public. However, I would encourage, and humbly request people to credit Rangeen Pakistan where possible. There have also been several people who have requested higher quality prints, and for those I add a small watermark when providing access to HD prints.

Where do you see this project in the future?

I want to turn Rangeen Pakistan into a repository of stories of parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, so we can all collectively learn and grow from the stories of our ancestors. Many people are fascinated by the photos I post with popular figures, but personally, I am more interested in elevating the stories of people who never got a chance to be heard. I believe everyone has beautiful stories to share, and important lessons to teach, we just all need to listen.

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As this project will contribute a lot to archives of Pakistan, please share with us your interest in photography and archiving. 

Photographs are living proofs of moments and memories that are critical to preserve. However, as technologies improve, everything that we know is becoming digital. If we care about our history and the stories we come from, then it is critical that we preserve what we have of the non-digital era. It is important we digitize our non-digital memories, so they are not lost forever.  While I am excited about the future becoming more advanced, we must also work hard to not forget about our past. 

Do you think this will help blur the boundaries between art and technology in Pakistan?

Technology is both a surface and a tool to create art. The metaphor I like to use is that technology can be both the paint brush and the canvas through which we can express ourselves. I believe art should be accessible to everyone. Anyone who has a thought or idea should be equipped with the right tools to share what’s on their mind and I believe technology is the super power that will enable that.

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How is this photography technique going to help us in the future and why do you think it’s most important for Pakistan? 

I don’t think it will be helpful in the future, and I hope there isn’t a need for this. It is more important that we digitize old photos before we forget the non digital world. If you really think about it, we might be the last generation that actually cares for physical albums. 

In the end, we took this opportunity to get some tips for all our readers who might be interested in such works. 

Any tips or advice (or book/movie recommendations) for young people with similar ideas and interests?

  • If you’re interested in future technologies like AR/VR/AI, I recommend getting into Sci-fi. Here are some of my favourite sci-fi movies: Ready Player One, Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, 2001 A Space Odyssey. 
  • If you’re interested in history and photographs, there are several amazing instagram channels to follow e.g. @purana_pakistan, @historyofpak, and @Daastangoi. 
  • If you’re interested in learning how to use artificial intelligence for creativity, I recommend learning about Computational Creativity and GANS.

Since there is a lot of information out there, if people are curious about any details in specific, please reach out to me directly on my Instagram @rangeenpakistan or head to my website: www.maheensohail.com 

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Maheen’s incredible work has brought multiple photos to life. Some of these are famous while others are rarer. Regardless, her work has made them more accessible and ignited a special interest among young people (who are the major users of Instagram) in old photographs, people, customs, histories, design and fashion. In the age of social media, it is much easier to learn, to access, and to simply enjoy such content. Incredible people like Maheen, are an integral part of that because they work tirelessly to make these works of art (and of tech!) which they share with the world. As Maheen rightly mentioned that we may be the last generation that truly values physical albums and how important it is to preserve and protect, Tasweer Ghar hopes to be a part of such archival processes. In light of all of this, to borrow from Maheen’s words that perfectly articulate it, we would like to highlight the basic element that underlines all art and photography: “I am more interested in elevating the stories of people who never got a chance to be heard. I believe everyone has beautiful stories to share, and important lessons to teach, we just all need to listen.”

Zarlasht Kamran

zarlashtkamran88@gmail.com

The writer is an undergrad in Social Sciences (Political Science major and Media Studies minor). Please contact for writing on social issues, media, film studies, popular culture, history and politics.