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An Interview with Photographer Maryam Arif

Picture of A. J. Samuels
A. J. Samuels
Updated: 17 December 2015
Pakistani photographer Maryam Arif describes her approach to photography as ‘observational and non-intrusive’. Likened to a contemporary flâneur in the city, she has a wonderful ability to capture reality’s blueprint without interfering with its DNA. A medical doctor by profession, Arif is known to handle her camera as well as any lucid European or American photographer of the contemporary age. She talks about her life and work to Rajesh Punj.

A Pakistani woman based in Lahore Maryam Arif is constantly having to make calculated decisions in a male dominated society, and one of her most difficult has been to consciously side-line medicine for photography, in order as she says, to ‘venture into the light of potential I could feel growing inside me’. Unlike in neighbouring India where photography has a lifeblood all of its own, in Lahore and Karachi photography is regarded a much lesser preoccupation; outside of matrimonial photography it has a redundant interest and Arif is conscious of altering such engrained preconceptions.

But it goes beyond that, unlike her international contemporaries, who when taking photographs espouse the need to capture ‘motion’, ‘colour’, the ‘unruly actions of reality’ and ‘light’; Arif prefers to engage in more other-wordly notions of balance and moral harmony. Going onto suggest that ‘balance is very critical in a society, in a structure and in nature. Nature maintains its own balance, so do man-made structures. The balance of a society however is more complicated to achieve. Peaceful coexistence based on trust, loyalty, and honesty is essential to have as a core of a well-balanced society, where all members have equal importance regardless of caste, colour or creed’. And for Arif it is as if the photograph is a template for a moral position in the world, as every image appears as a smaller universe in which a resilient equilibrium of actions and emotions are required of everyman. Describing herself as a ‘thinker’, such rhetoric positively illuminates Arif’s belief-systems that are as intrinsic to her photographic projects as her approach to medicine. Without any formal training, Arif appears to be at the vanguard of her profession, in a country still absorbing contemporary ideas. Reassuringly when quizzed about the profession, Arif does mention Asim Akhtar and German photographer Andreas Gursky as influences, and like Gursky she has an overwhelming interest in ‘light’ and ‘panoramic landscapes’. Specific to her works Geometry of Structure, 2013 and In the Doorway, 2013 are photographs from Arif’s portfolio that are as candid and accomplished as any from modern European architectural history, and in such black and white exposures Arif is adept at fashioning impressive photographs, as the shifting light and man-made structures are perfectly interwoven under her watchful eye.

Q: For an audience unfamiliar with your work can you introduce us to your practice?

A: In my opinion, photography just like any other medium is an exploration of the artist’s pursuit of self-discovery. I consider my work as a visual representation of my conscious and unconscious self. My style of photography can best be described as observational and non-intrusive…I don’t try to change or move anything in the space that has inspired me to take a photograph. I try to capture the emotion and joy of the moment. Ever since I was a child I have gravitated towards beauty. I love Life! People! Nature! And to capture the true placidity of our existence is what drives my interest and passion for photography. This medium had given me a way to express myself and to showcase the world through my eyes… full of love, happiness and serenity.

The one thing that inspires me the most in my work is ‘Light’… I love the way light can change the feel and perspective of something simple and mundane into something extraordinary and magical.

Q: As a female doctor and photographer in Lahore, what are the greatest challenges you face?

A: I think the toughest challenge I have faced so far is the decision to put medicine aside for a while and pursue not only my passion but venture into the light of potential I could feel growing inside me. So far this has been a rewarding and fulfilling journey. Photography takes up much of my time. Before that I found it extremely hard to balance and focus on both fields and do them justice. I am a thorough professional and everything I do gets and deserves my undivided attention. I feel that if you have your feet in too many boats at the same time, it leads to lack of focus and control in all areas of your life.

Q: How do you separate your scientific practice from your creative interests? Is one of greater importance to you or do they take an equal footing in your life?

A: My work is heavily influenced by my scientific education. The human mind fascinates me. Therefore I don’t see a clear separation between my creative and scientific interests, they are in harmony with the perspective I try to put forward through my work. Everything we do, say or believe has its origin in the brain. Every visual or tactile sensation is picked up and studied by our brain leading to the necessary outcome, judgement or conclusion. Interestingly these outcomes differ in extent and nature in every individual. This is often the theme of most of my photographs.

Q: You have previously talked about ‘detaching ourselves from the small circle we have created for ourselves’, what do you mean by that?

A: I am glad you asked this question. I feel we either overlook or are oblivious to the possibilities life has to offer. Very early in life a child is taught how to read and write and also what he/she should become in order to lead a wholesome and successful life. In most cases it is believed that becoming a doctor, engineer or banker will lead to a fulfilling, well settled, comfortable lifestyle. Unfortunately this mind-set leads one to a narrow-minded perspective of self and the world in general. From ‘the small circle’ I am referring to this mind-set, which holds us back from achieving our true potential. Once we look past this small circle the light of infinite possibility shines bright and leads the way to a heightened sense of being. This can be a very liberating feeling, and it embarks you on a journey of self-discovery, which takes away the restraints placed on the imagination. ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge.’ – Albert Einstein

Q: When did you pick up your first camera? And did it quickly become a serious vocation for you?

A: In retrospect I can’t recall not having a camera. I always had a camera, but having it with me did not seem significant for a long time. As a child I remember I would always prefer to buy black & white film. The choice of subject was strikingly similar to my current work. My eye was always drawn to light and structure and its association with the surrounding space. Many years later the title of my first show was ‘Space, Light, Structure…’ Growing up photography was a constant part of my life, but I wasn’t paying attention to it consciously. I never liked to photograph people; my visual interests were more abstract. After completing my medical studies I moved to Phoenix, Arizona for a year in 2008, to do research in Endocrinology. During my stay in Arizona I did extensive landscape photography. Here for the first time I actually took notice of my work. I was amazed that I had not paid attention before… there was something about my work that I could not ignore. Initially I tried very hard to be a doctor and think of this newfound passion as a phase. But I would soon find out that not only will this passion turn into a serious profession but will change my life forever.

Q: What kind of reception did you receive from those around you to your interest in photography? You have talked about the initial difficulty of showing your photographs to others, why was that?

A: Initially the images I made were only for my viewing pleasure. I would never share my work with anyone. Slowly I started opening up to the idea that in order to take my work to the next level I have to share my work with professionals associated with the field. The response I got was very encouraging. I soon understood that true happiness lies in sharing your work with others.

Q: When you refer in your photographs to our ‘not seeing people’, ‘but the work being about human beings’, what do you mean by that?

A: I generally don’t photograph people, even though on occasion you will see a human element in my work but it will not be in a way that it becomes the focus of the photograph. Having said that my work revolves around the human mind, so in every image the focus is on human psychology, perspective, and innovation or it is an exploration of self (the artist). Most people ask me why I don’t choose people as subjects, mainly because it is common practise with most photographers. My answer is always the same that my work is about people on a different level than just mere physical existence. It focuses more on the spiritual and intellectual existence, which I feel is largely ignored when it comes to photography.

Q: Historically photography in its broadest sense has always strived to reveal the truth and to challenge our understanding of reality. Is photography valid if it arrives at such ‘truths’ by more ‘secular’ and ‘apolitical’ means?

A: Photography has always been medium used to capture world events and to make visual documentation of facts that sometimes words fail to immortalise. When we want to research past events the most useful tools are the images of that time period. Abstract or conceptual photography on the other hand is more focused on revealing the truth in a hidden or concealed way, thus arriving at a truth which is unclear and non-subjective.

Q: You refer a great deal to ‘Allah’ when discussing your work; is everything you do bound by your religious beliefs?

A: As I mentioned before my work is heavily influenced by the human mind, and as God is the creator of human beings, the reason I keep bringing it up and why it’s so important for me to do so is because human beings are the most fascinating and intriguing creation of all. Since I have a medical background I have spent years learning about how the human body operates. The human organs like heart, brain, kidney, liver etc. all work like machines and in absolute harmony with each other. Every individual having the same organs yet every individual looks and behaves different; I look at all this as a miracle of the creator. So to answer your question yes, it is important for me to mention Allah when talking about my work.

Q: Would you consider your photographs entirely ‘decorative’? (You have referred to them as ‘beautiful images’).

A: I find paintings, sculpture, ceramics and photography beautiful. There is an element of beauty in all these mediums. Aesthetics are important but what is far more important is how the work is viewed in terms of its intellectual background. A beautiful painting, which lacks soul, will never hold any true worth in the mind of the viewer. Similarly when it comes to photography the concept or the intellectual vision plays as important a role as the image itself. In photojournalism the context of the image is far easier to comprehend than when we talk about conceptual or abstract visual expression. Every image should be open to interpretation and should lead the viewer by subtle clues into the mind behind the image. Only then can the work be viewed as a window into the soul of the artist and how he/she makes use of any medium to explore their conscious self. There should be a reflection of the artist in the work he produces only then can the work stand out in uniqueness because every eye and brain interprets the world in its own unique way.

Q: Have you ever had any formal photographic training?

A: No I have not received any formal training. I am a self-taught photographer.

Q: Are you aware of other photographers, in Pakistan and internationally? Whom are your influences historically?

A: Yes, there are many photographers at home and internationally whose work I admire and respect. In Pakistan, photographers such as Malcolm Hutcheson and Asim Akhtar have produced some great work. Internationally I am most inspired by the work of German photographer Andreas Gursky. His architectural and landscape works employ an elevated point of view resulting in images that encompass both the centre and periphery, which is not how we experience the same space in reality. I find this to be incredible; also I love the scale of his works.

Q: Historically photographers like Parisian Henri Cartier-Bresson, Americans Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, and Japanese photographer Takeyoshi Tanuma, have all taken responsive photographs of situations on the street, unsolicited and without much control, in order that they arrive at a moment of beauty. How close to that style of photography are you?

A: Yes, every moment reveals an opportunity to grab hold of unfolding time. Secretly I think I love the unpredictably of this medium. Every fleeting glimpse can produce an image a lot of planning and scheduling cannot ever compete with. The beauty of it all is to let life flow at its own pace and you become a silent spectator.

Q: Are you with a gallerist? How much do you manage to exhibit your photo-works? Is that something you aspire to?

A: No I am not with any gallerist at the moment. I have had two solo exhibitions in Lahore so far. In both instances I submitted my work for review to the gallery and subsequently was able to exhibit there. And yes, I would love to get gallery representation in the future, as I think this will help make my work accessible to the global art community.

Q: For your Spiritual Elevation exhibition, you explain how ‘individual desires sometimes make us neglect our spiritual desires’, what are you referring to when you make that statement?

A: The value system of the global consumerist society has resulted in a drive to attain material possessions at the expense of neglect to moral and spiritual growth. When the general conversation in a city revolves around who had what and how much of it, also how you can get the same if not more than this can be looked at as a cause for concern. Our spiritual side helps us look past the never ending greed for more, the desire to push people back in order to lead the way, and to be content with life beyond the limits of the momentary contentment achieved by materialistic accomplishments. Education for the sake of educating your mind is of far greater advantage than education acquired to get a high paying job. This is the mind-set I wish to revive in society by focusing on it through my work.

Q: When you go onto talk about ‘the deterioration we see of society today in the shape of corruption, theft, murder, is in a way a reflection of selfishness’, what and where you are referring to? Or are you referencing a wider social condition? And am I right to suggest you are as political as you are religious?

A: In continuation of what I said in the answer to the previous question; when society’s moral compass is disturbed it breeds a society that focuses on the needs and desires of an ‘individual’ not of the society in general. This eventually leads to corruption, theft and murder because the sense of community is replaced by selfish objectives. In today’s world where the global media readily brings every little or big news into our homes, it would be hard not to have political views and concerns. Having said that I am not a political person nor do I think my work is influenced by it.

Q: How do you see the relationship between your want for a more ‘respectful social structure’, and the man-made/natural subjects you choose to photograph?

A: Balance is very critical in a society, in a structure and in nature. Nature maintains its own balance, so do man-made structures. The balance of a society however is more complicated to achieve. Peaceful coexistence based on trust, loyalty, and honesty is essential to have as a core of a well balanced society, where all members have equal importance regardless of caste, colour or creed.

Q: Clearly your photographs are an opportunity for you to advocate your beliefs, do you consider that true?

A: Yes, photography has definitely given me the opportunity to put forth my beliefs and ideas in an abstract form. I consider myself a ‘thinker’ and my photographs as a visual manifestation of my thoughts.

Q: There appear to be very few recognised ‘photographers’ in Pakistan, why is that?

A: Unfortunately in Pakistan photography is not taken seriously, in fact some don’t even consider it art. Being a photographer and putting up shows in such an environment can be much harder than other mediums of expression. But slowly and gradually things are changing and I’m sure in the future many names will emerge onto the global art scene in this field.

Q: A majority of Pakistani artists have initially exhibited in India, for greater exposure and international interest; do you think that is something you would wish to do? Essentially how far do you wish to take your photography?

A: India has a thriving art scene and yes, I would love to show my work there. As a global citizen I want my work to be viewed by audiences all over the world.

Q: In Quddus Mirza’s article Poetics of Space, he refers to your images as ‘photographs that speak of human predicament’, what do you think he meant by that?

A: In the same article Quddus Mirza makes a reference to (Franz) Kafka’s work, and like Kafka left his characters in a state of utter helplessness, at the mercy of an unknown source of power, I feel that is what he is referring to in this statement. This article was a review of my first exhibition ‘Space, Light, Structure…’ which revolved around the human mind and the human struggle to find the right path within the chaotic framework of today’s society. Man struggles at every level to make a distinction between the socially acceptable and the avant-grade, sometimes never reaching a clear-cut conclusion.

Q: What are you reading right now and what are your other interests?

A: These days I’m reading ‘On photography’ by Susan Sontag, (a collection of essays published in 1977). My other interests include architecture, interior design, graphic design, psychology, reading and writing.

Q: Are you working on any specific series of photographs right now, and are they for exhibition?

A: Currently I am working on a series about Lahore, with an exhibition planned for the end of this year.

By Rajesh Punj