Restitution of Life | Through the Lens of Maryam Arif

Quddus Mirza

Lahore based self-taught photographer Maryam Arif explores the subjects of individuality, perspective of life, and the reflection of the urban environment in the behavior of society in general. In her recently held fourth solo exhibition titled ‘Restitution of Life’, at the prestigious National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan she talked about her work and experience in a series of questions aimed to dissect and understand the narrative suggested through her thought provoking images.

Q: Why are most of the images included in your exhibition black and white?

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A: For me, color has to come in the process in a natural way. In this particular exhibition, when I started the process I went through stages in which the images were black & white and color. The concept of the show develops over time, which is why the process of putting up a show is so educational for me, I feel that this is how I teach myself, and in fact it teaches me. Going through it step by step, developing it; what you see in the final show is the most refined form of the exhibition. I have witnessed so many other forms; initially there was more color in it, more structure, less forms, it was more complex and it simplified itself over time. By the end of this refinement process somehow the colored photographs had all disappeared and it all happened as part of a natural process.
Q: There can be two types of processes, it can be technical/mechanical or it could be some sort of a formal/mental process. Photography is an art, which captures reality as it is… but you seem to have transformed reality into an abstraction, which comes through in your work. Do you think that in your work is the image more important, it’s meaning more important or the formal/thinking process behind the work more important?

A: We are bombarded with images every single day, morning to night in different ways, so the images that we see or create, whether it’s through photography or any other artistic medium; there has to be a difference for one to say that I am using the tool that I have chosen as an artistic medium. So that means that my individual sense of how I see the world, how I perceive it, how I would like to showcase it, is in my hand, it is not dependent on anyone else’s judgment, also it does not depend on anyone else’s say or understanding of the medium. You are free, and the freedom that thought gives you, leads to creation. That freedom is required for you to take whatever tool you have in your hand, whether it’s a paintbrush, whether its clay (you’re a sculptor) or you are a photographer you have the camera, and embark on a creative journey. What is that creative journey? It’s almost a self-discovery, because you are going within yourself, seeing or trying to view the world through your eyes and also it makes you think about the world at such a different level because then you start analyzing… you could be sitting on a subway train and you would be looking at the characters on that train with a different eye, someone might be coming back from work, somebody might be on their way to a party… you can tell just by looking at the facial expressions. So the image making process starts prior to me even lifting the camera, because you become an observer. For me the dissociation from the environment you take the picture in is crucial. The formal process starts later when you see multitude of images similar to each other, taken in different surroundings. In each exhibition I have done so far, I’ve gone through this process over and over again. I see the same photograph taken in different locations with different people, and this observation makes you think how your mind is operating while you are travelling through your life and through your work. And then when all the images are there in front of me and I see the similarities, and I see that story, I realize it’s my story, it’s not the story of the subjects I choose; it’s my story, it’s how I’m looking at the world around me. The lives of people, what they are doing, that interests me. The thought that there are so many human beings in this world, and some of them come into your life for a fraction of a second, for e.g. a train stops and somebody comes off that train and a few seconds later they are gone out of your sight, but they are captured by your lens forever. They become a part of your life, and they can be viewed, only from your perspective. I feel it’s my story told through so many other characters. In that way I can say the formal process or the concept behind the work is most important in my work.

Q: When you are taking a picture and you see randomly thousands and thousands of options in front of you; what really attracts you to open your eyes? As your eyes are an extension of the camera and the camera is an extension of your eyes or the manifestation of the eye, first you open you eye and then you look through the camera. So what really fascinates you and how do you select your subject? As you have been working in this domain, for the last four years.

A: I think the individual’s mindset makes the selection. I see pictures before I take them. Every photographer at one point in time will tell you that they start experiencing this for themselves, and then they are very clear as to what they want to choose as their subject. And I think I’ve tried to pin point my subject through my mindset. I like peaceful situations, everyday situations, nobody is even aware that there is a photographer around. I don’t try to change the environment I find myself in. What prompts me to take a picture is the natural rhythm of life… and light. Until light comes into play, generally I am not urged to take a photograph. So light plays a very important and crucial role in my work. I think the reason why I gravitate towards architectural photography is because modern architecture plays with lines and light in way that it creates shadows in symmetry, which is naturally my aesthetic requirement as a photographer.

Q: Well one can see that, but there is another level as well, which is about narrative. When we see these works, even within the singular works we can see a narrative; a story is taking place, so please share with us what kind of a narrative you want to create with this body of work?

A: The evolutionary process you as an individual go through, and how you process and see your images, I think it evolves and changes constantly. In this body of work, I have started fragmenting reality into smaller bits. When I find myself in a cluttered room my mind focuses on more than one point of focus, and I see multiple stories simultaneously; two people not connected to each other walking through the room or a person could be sitting in a place with high Art, that people would flock from all over the world to see… yet this person would not seem interested in it, they have a dead, dull expression on their face. I look at that person and it makes me think… what kind of a life would bring a person to that point where one could sit in an environment where people would want to travel and walk miles to visit and get inspired from, as Art should evoke a feeling of life, and for them to sit in that environment as a dead person, it makes you think. I started fragmenting the image within itself… it’s almost like you start to fragment life bit by bit, and I think that interest slowly started coming through in my work, where the subject matter become dissociated from its surrounding i.e. it does not seem to be a part of the environment its placed in, even though it is a part of it. It’s not like I have added or deleted them from the image, they are a part of it but in a dissociated way. That thought was the driving force behind this body of work.

Q: Somehow when we are look at your work we are aware of this desire to see things and look at them. For instance it is visible in one image a woman is looking at a painting and there is another woman who is looking at her from the side and then there is another person who is looking at her from the back and then the viewer is also looking at her from a distance, so there is a chain of observation. Also there is a similar narrative in some of the other images as well, where we see works of art, other people looking at them and they are also looking at us. In that way, most of these works have a similar narrative. However there are other images based purely on architecture, how do you feel these images can enter into the space of the other images?

A: I realize that I have placed abstract shots next to images with a strong narrative, so I must have a certain reason for putting them together. I am a doctor by training, and the education I have received plays a vital role in my work. I just can’t isolate myself from who I am. I have spent a great deal of time studying human anatomy, and how the human body functions. The abstraction of the human mind can never be taken for granted because the human mind in itself is the main source of the abstraction that you create as human beings. In some images in this show you can see the chaotic framework of structure; for me these are all representations of the human mind. Human beings are an easy subject to photograph, but if your subject is as abstract as the human mind you can choose anything to depict it. In some images the thought in your mind is represented with linear, straight lines, the thought pattern could be as straightforward as that. Creative minds have a more complex way of looking at life; they observe things at levels of intricacy, which is beyond the normal frame of thought. Sometimes they are so intricate; the framework is so chaotic that it does not make sense; it does not have to be so cohesive. Like you say there are intermixed images, there are some images with a clear narrative and then there are the abstract architectural shots, in a way I think the structural shots take the other images forward in terms of abstraction of life.

Q: Something that binds together all these images is that you can keep on looking at them and keep on discovering. They are kind of puzzles that you can keep on opening and you can’t be sure if you have seen everything, it’s almost like each time you see the image, you perceive it in a different way and you see something completely different. This is something, which is really interesting in these works, which is why this series of work is a great leap from your earlier works, which were more straightforward images, while these are constructed images with layers. How do you compare these two types of works, the constructed image and those, which do not strongly convey the constructed feel? Do you feel this is the line you would want to pursue further? Do you think the language these constructed images build convey whatever you want to say more convincingly?

A: Compared to my past practice there has definitely been a change in how I see and process images. I think this process of change is so slow and so natural that I can’t predict how far down the road I would like to take it or explore it, but whether I want to or not? Definitely I want to! I’ve started to go into the fine details of not just the image but also in how I observe things around myself. This observation takes you beyond what you see, similarly I’m taking my images beyond the realm of the image itself and I think this process is so rewarding because now I see each image in a way, which prior to this process, I would never even have looked at in the same light. I feel the evolution of this work is significant for me.

Q: Are you concerned about the cultural significance or the cultural connection of these images? Your work does not depict familiar or immediate experiences in Pakistan. There are some references to culture like a man who’s praying or there is a window in which you can see the reflection of a multinational organization, so in those ways you are denoting globalization. These days the division or demarcation or definition of what is alien vs. what is local and what is familiar vs. what is strange have been changed. So if someone says as a form of criticism that your work is detached from the place you come from, what are your views about that?

A: I would again refer to how I grew up as an individual and how my circumstances shaped my mindset. I never considered localizing myself. I believe you are not born in one small section of the earth but you are born in this world. My work is universal; and because I travel so much, a lot of my visual experiences are in terms of the cultural differences I observe, which inadvertently plays a role in the concepts I develop. So in a way my work is a cross-cultural study. You can’t sever a part of yourself and say that since I was born in this part of the world, my work should represent it. You as a human being, your experiences should be free of that. How your experiences shape your mind should also be free from that. So if the critique is that there is dissociation… then all I can say is that my work has helped me find my home more so than most people can say Pakistan is their home. A lot of people will be showing work that is very Pakistani, but probably inside they will be dreaming of going somewhere else. But this work, even though it does not represent Pakistan, it has helped me find my home here. I don’t block myself from the experiences that I go though. My experiences have been diverse, and my work might show something unfamiliar but I have always been true to experience that I was going through.
Questions by Quddus Mirza

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