Describing her work as an ongoing effort to “capture the true placidity of our existence,” Pakistani photographer Maryam Arif has gained wide acclaim for her ability to produce stark images of everyday life across a wide range of cultures. Last week, Arif spoke with Vanichi about her development as a photographer and what it means to be an artist from Pakistan.


Vanichi: How did you get your start as a photographer? Was there a specific moment—a photo you took or a reaction from someone toward your photography—that convinced you to seriously pursue a career in photography?

Maryam: It’s interesting to note that I am a trained medical doctor and a self-taught artist, which makes my journey towards my chosen profession of photography quite interesting. I think subconsciously, my interest in this medium was always there, as I can’t recall any time in my life when I did not have not have a camera with me. Even as a child, I had a fascination with photography. I used to prefer to shoot with black and white film, and my choice of subjects was also strikingly similar to my current work, in which light, shadow, architecture and its relationship to the surrounding space play a pivotal role. In retrospect, another peculiar observation was that unlike most amateur photographers who tend to use photography to capture [subjects like] family, I was never drawn to people as a subject—my interests were more abstract.

After completing my medical studies in Pakistan, I moved to Arizona for a year in 2008 where I did extensive landscape photography. There, for the first time, I started taking notice of my work. With the passage of time, as my interest in this field started growing, I [began] sharing my work with professionals [in] the field of photography. The positive critical response I received from people in the field of visual arts was extremely encouraging, and it fueled my desire to explore the medium further. Eventually, this positive reinforcement led to a change in my career path. The most important reason for making this change was that through photography, I embarked on a journey of self-discovery that was not possible had I continued in the medical field. My work resonates with my life principles and is a strong depiction of myself as an individual. This medium has 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 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.


Vanichi: You explore a range of subjects in your work. What are your favorite subjects to photograph—people, architecture, nature, or some combination of the three?

Maryam: Manmade environment and the relation of human beings to their surroundings is a common theme in my photography. My work is heavily influenced from my scientific education. The human mind fascinates me. Every human being is different—each has a different way of perceiving and relating to their environment, and much of this perception is controlled by the human mind. In my work, I try to explore the intricacies of the human mind by choosing abstract subjects. 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 [it becomes] very clear what they want to choose as their subject. In many ways, I’ve tried to pinpoint 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…I think the reason why I gravitate towards architectural photography is because modern architecture plays with lines and light in a way that creates shadows and symmetry.


Vanichi: As a Pakistani artist, is there any social or political commentary in your work pertaining to your home country that viewers from other countries may not perceive?

Maryam: My approach is about self-discovery and [my work] pertains to the individual’s experience—hence, the narrative I build in my work is universal. People in this world share common traits and perspectives about the world at large. Therefore, I believe people all over the world can identify with the ideas and concepts I bring forth through my work. Having said that, the general problems and difficulties I observe in the society in Pakistan—for example, injustice, corruption, lack of basic principles and values in daily life—has propelled me to urge people to consider self-development, self-criticism, and spiritual enlightenment in order to create a balanced society. I believe social equilibrium can only be achieved when every individual adopts and practices the change they wish to see around them. When I travel to other countries, I get a chance to observe and compare different viewpoints and perspectives. 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.


Vanichi: In addition to being a photographer, you’re also a curator at the prestigious National College of Arts in Pakistan. What kind of work do you try to promote as a curator? Are there any themes, messages, or styles that you specifically seek out?

Maryam Arif: The gallery at the National College of Arts here in Lahore, Pakistan, serves as an experimental cell where artists are encouraged to participate with ideas and concepts that would otherwise not be encouraged in commercial venues. Some of the recent exhibits we have hosted [feature] artists in residencies at the college. Also, we encourage established artists in the country to exhibit with us so that the students can not only view their work, but also interact with [veteran artists] in a meaningful way.


Vanichi: In what direction do you hope to take your work in the future? Are there any styles, subjects, or even mediums beyond photography that you would like to explore?

Maryam: The evolutionary process [that] you as an individual go through, and how you process and see your images—I think it evolves and changes constantly. In my recent 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 sitting in a place with high art, yet this person [is not] 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? 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 becomes dissociated from its surrounding—i.e., it does not seem to be a part of the environment it’s 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 disassociated way.

I think this process of [artistic] 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…I’ve started to go into the fine details of not just the image but also how I observe things around myself. This observation takes you beyond what you see. 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.