Conversations through Photography: Broadening the lens
Conversations through Photography: Broadening the lens

Iona Fergusson and Numair A. Abbasi respond to photographer Wendy Marijnissen’s book Always the Guest. Dislocating photography from the narrative of representation both writers present the readers with multiple viewpoints to engage with her works while sparking a conversation on the role of photography today.


Iona Fergusson

1984 is a year etched on Wendy Marijnissen’s memory. That summer, her mother Maria died following a protracted battle against cancer. Marijnissen was on the cusp of her tenth birthday – too young to comprehend the true significance of death. It was not until eight years later when her father Johan died of leukemia that the full impact of her mother’s death was brought into sharp focus. In her photobook, Always The Guest, Marijnissen confronts the pain of this tragic event, her deep sense of loss and regret. However, the book is also a love story: a tribute to her mother’s memory, unquestioningly – but equally to Pakistan, a country whose people have helped her along the path to healing and selfhood. Always The Guest is a deeply personal odyssey that combines image and text to explore themes of motherhood, loss and memory as well as our abiding search for meaning, kinship and home.

In her photographic work, Marijnissen’s interests lie in long-form documentary or “slow” photography as she calls it. She is motivated to tell stories about complex social issues often relating to women, which require time, in-depth understanding and a multi-angled approach. She is adamant about avoiding the oft-repeated mistakes made by less committed international practitioners, which result in representational clichés and lazy stereotypes. Following her arrival in Pakistan in 2009, she met Dr Shershah Syed, a leading obstetrician, gynecologist, fistula surgeon and founder of Koothi Goth Women’s Hospital in Karachi. He took Marijnissen under his wing allowing her to accompany him on his rounds, into delivery rooms and operating theatres. It was a pivotal meeting and heralded the start of a seven-year documentary endeavor to highlight the plight of pregnant mothers from poor communities suffering avoidable injuries and even death. It was during the writing and editing for Always The Guest that the artist had an epiphany: that her fascination with childbirth and suffering were inextricably linked to her own experiences growing up motherless. What began for her as an important social interest story on maternal mortality evolved into an intensely personal and profound journey that went to the heart of her sense of identity and selfhood.

Photography is feeling for Marijnissen – an intuitive way to explore her interests and surroundings. In Always The Guest, her quest for authenticity and emotional intensity led her to abandon documentary objectivity in favour of an instinctive subjectivity. In his analysis of personal photography, David Bate, Professor of Photography at the University of Westminster, proposes that the genre “deals with the “structure of feeling” of a person, expressed as a flow of images”1 where “both public and private fields of thought are often merged to form the idea of a personal life.”2 His interpretation resonates with this body of personal work, whereby Marijnissen’s images become a testament to her individual lived identity. The “flow” that Professor Bates speaks of is expressed through her photographic sequencing and takes on the character of a diary chronicling her observations, impressions and experiences as snapshots of her everyday life in Pakistan. While individually insignificant, the photographs lend depth and insight into her world when viewed as a collection of images. They unfold across the pages as a visual stream of consciousness: seemingly random, unconstrained and freed from the descriptive tyranny of the caption. This diaristic approach performs a vital function for Marijnissen for it avoids the potential pitfalls of representation, which today’s post-colonial discourse is at pains to highlight. Art writer Craig Garrett proposes that snapshot diarists are able to “skirt issues of imperialism and objectification by turning their gaze inwards: this is MY life, MY observations, MY reality.”3 The autobiographical nature of Always The Guest is equally reinforced by the content and style of her accompanying text, which is dispersed as chapters throughout the book and reads like excerpts from her personal journal.

In parallel with written diaries, personal photography works best in book form: the intimate handy format accentuating the affecting nature of the images.4 The book form also emphasizes an emotional and personal viewpoint often associated with the family album – an analogy, which befits Always The Guest as Marijnissen purposefully interlaces vintage snapshots of her own family into the narrative. As the book unfolds, the reader is privy to pictures of the author’s mother nursing her as a baby, group snaps and mundane yet poignant reminders of the photographer’s happy childhood before her mother’s death. At the same time, the snapshot aesthetic is carried through into the present in the photographer’s own visual language. It is an aesthetic characterized in InVisible Culture5as one that “often embraces the fine line between formal photography and randomness, between intention, posing and editing, on the one hand, and spontaneity, photography as experience, and strategic intention on the other.”6 This interpretation of the snapshot echoes across Marijnissen’s book for as we turn the pages, our eyes encounter street scenes and cityscapes, captured moments with friends, off-kilter compositions of interior spaces, ephemeral and fleeting impressions of water, light and birds in the sky, searing depictions of childbirth as well as casual portraits of the women and children the photographer encountered during her visits.

Her use of the snapshot aesthetic is intimately bound up in her playfulness with time, which is signified not as a fixed objective entity but fleeting, instantaneous and dynamic. Unlike the traditional family album and the book’s text, which both adhere to a distinct chronological order, her visual narrative violates our sense of time by moving between different time periods and abandoning any sequential logic. Throughout the book, she interweaves vintage family photographs with pictures taken using her mobile phone and digital camera with the result that we are constantly oscillating between the past and present. Time becomes blurred much in the same way as our memories cloud and soften. Writing in How We See: Photobooks by Women, Valentina Abenavoli,7 proposes that: “visual narratives work by imagining there is no time, as well as by diminishing the objectivity of the images themselves. The photographer disappears, time disappears and images are at the viewer’s disposal and imagination; their absolute meanings (and time) lose the capacity for unilateral power and presence.”8 In this respect, Marijnissen draws us into her world of remembrance and love, but opens a space for our individual journey through her book.


Numair A. Abbasi

The definition of home cannot be limited or minimized to just a house. While for many people the meaning of home can be realized into a physical location, for others it is much more than just a four-wall structure. It is an elusive concept and a transitory sense of security and connection. It is that intangible space situated in our mind which provides comfort and familiarity. This point of view also supports the stance that home can be mobile, multifarious, and transmutative. One can be at home in the neighborhood they have grown in and yet not feel at home. Conversely, one can also feel completely at home in the company of strangers who they have just met. ‘One can be “homesick” for places one has never been; one can even be “homesick” for without moving away.9 In a multi-cultured society, where every densely populated city functions as a microcosm of immigrants and visitors with hybrid backgrounds, we no longer have the choice of belonging to one place, one culture, or one country. The sense of home is no longer equated to an unqualified sense of belonging.10

This connects us to the next proposition. One does not have to be in an unfamiliar setting to feel like a tourist; it is easy to experience the tourist perspective while remaining at home. By stepping out with the clear intent to observe and witness the mundane settings which people otherwise encounter every day, it is possible to reaffirm a foreign status that allows for an alternate interpretation and experience from the viewer. To recognize an immersive experience as tourism, one must detach themselves from the realities of the lived space. Art critic and writer Lucy Lippard argues ‘The reality of space is always contestable whether one is living in it, visiting it, or touring it.’11 She suggests that the characteristics of a familiar landscape can be easily manipulated by shifting the observers’ lens.

It is only when people from out of town come visiting that you get a chance to be a tourist at home. This experience can be easily felt by perusing Wendy Marijnissen’s anthology of images. It isolates a narrative, a visual, and situates it in a different context for the viewer. We may not have focused on these sights which we pass by daily, but by detaching and displaying these visuals in book form, the photographer calls for our attention. Arguably, the very act of taking photographs is soothing and unsurprisingly goes in tandem with tourism as it not only gives people an imagined possession of something intangible but also helps people take possession of a space in which they are unfamiliar or insecure.12 Marijnissen situates the viewers as tourists to their city.

Despite the colloquial physical encounters, they are unable to recognize the visuals as their own. Doing so positions the viewers into a Freudian state of ‘Uncanny’. The psycho-analyst in his writing introduces us to this concept where something can be familiar yet simultaneously foreign which results in an immense sense of it being uncomfortably strange or uncomfortably familiar.13 Having reached upon this ambivalent confluence of a familiar yet an unfamiliar sight creates a sense of confusion and slight unease in the viewers’ mind. This detachment due to an observer status echoes the grim realities facing the disparities in Karachi. The plight of those less fortunate is often unidentified or deliberately overlooked in the form of an otherization by those living more privileged, dissimilar and fragmented lives. We are now so accustomed to being addressed by these sights that we scarcely notice their total impact. These photographs have surrounded us for decades with wavering visibility but we treat them as fleeting sights that pass by us; when it is us who are theoretically the active agent who chance upon these anchored visuals.14 It is we who pass by these images.

Furthermore, the advent of cellular phones and social media applications dedicated solely to image-sharing along with press and electronic media has made it easier for their users to instantly stop thinking like an insider and instead adopt the casual innocence of a visitor while consuming information – particularly, visual information. This experience of viewers engaging with photographic content from the comfort of their familiar space is termed by Lippard as ‘armchair tourism’15. The firm establishment of the cell phone has radically transformed the social function of photography. In no other society or civilization from history has there been such a dense concentration of images which can be produced and reproduced as quickly as they are consumed. The omnipresence of cameras suggests that time always consists of interesting events worth capturing.16 The everyday life photos have become more spontaneous, more intimate and more emotional as well. Merijnissen curates the photographs into a personal visual diary of her present and past memories which she discloses to the readers. While the images are premeditated – the photographer has sought after each visual with clear intent – they resist being placed in the canon of photojournalism. The pictures bear the characteristics of an evoked action, yet the everyday and relatable elements captured illude the viewer into interpreting those as being seemingly unprompted. It consequently reinvigorates a tourist experience for local viewers who can recall the familiarity of taking photographs in the moment of ordinary sights they otherwise may regularly encounter and overlook. The nature of images disguises the identity of the photographer. One cannot distinguish if the person behind the photographs is a tourist/visitor, or a local who is better acquainted with the quintessence of Karachi than his/her viewers.

Always the Guest is beyond an autobiography. Marijnissen not only introduces us to herself through the collection of images and text but also familiarizes the viewers – which includes the residents of Karachi – to their city. It draws an investigation into the cultural makeup and disparities of this diverse, indefatigable city. The exploration into the spatial sense alters how the viewer will perceive the documented sights.

The reason why photography, and in particular Marijnissen’s work, successfully places the viewers as foreign observers to their familiar setting is that photography has the potency to not only make the outsiders feel at home but also expand a small world of its own. Marijnissen demonstrates how humans occupy the environment and where we fit in personally. Writer Susan Sontag states, ‘Our sense of the situation is articulated by the camera’s interventions.’17 While the sights may transform in future, the pictures will still exist, granting it a sense of immortality which otherwise would not have been possible. Photography performs as receptacles to shared fantasies. They can provide a lens through which the rest of us can look around.18 Photographers construct an experience camouflaged in a sense of participation. As we move in and out of each image, we begin to build and nurture memories and experiences even if they are not ours. As Lippard claims, ‘Once you start witnessing the stories, you become part of the narrative.’19 Photography is as an umbilical cord that allows us to observe and live a simulated shared experience. Marijnissen’s photographs bind life to life. She employs photography as a willful medium to introduce her characters and relationships, alluding as if these pictures were remembering one another as members of one family. By bringing together communities, culture and nature, past and the present in a multi-cultured, melting pot of Karachi, the imaginative act of touring our city takes on a heightened intensity.

Images courtesy: Wendy Marijnissen

Usage Right: Single Usage Right, for The Karachi Collective’s online essay ‘Conversations through Photography: Broadening the lens’ only. The photos cannot be printed, manipulated or be used for any other purpose without the owner’s consent.


  1. David Bate, Photography: The Key Concepts (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 42.
  2. David Bate, Photography: The Key Concepts (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 42.
  3. Craig Garrett, “Coerced Confessions: Snapshot photography’s subjective objectivity,” Flash Art, no.233, November/December, 2003.
  4. David Bate, Photography: The Key Concepts (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 42.
  5. InVisible Culture is an interdisciplinary online journal funded by the University of Rochester, USA.
  6. IVC Author, “Snapshot Aesthetic and the Strategic Imagination,” InVisible Culture, April 10, 2013, Issue 18.
  7. Valentina Abenavoli is an editor, designer and co-founder of Akina Book
  8. Valentina Abenavoli, “Swaying Time on a Flatland,” in How We See: Photobooks by Women (New York: 10×10 Photobooks, 2018), 28.
  9. Lucy Lippard, ‘The Lure of the Local’, The New Press, New York (1997): p23
  10. Lucy Lippard, ‘The Lure of the Local’, p66.
  11. Lucy Lippard, ‘Imagine Being Here Now’, Landabrefid 25 (2011): p85.
  12. Susan Sontag, ‘On Photography’, Penguin (1973): p177.
  13. Sigmund Freud. The Uncanny, 1919, trans. David McLintock, (United States: Penguin Classics.) 2003, p2.
  14. John Berger, ‘Ways of Seeing’, Penguin Books (1972): p130.
  15. Lucy Lippard, ‘On the Beaten Track’, The New Press, New York (1999): p4.
  16. Susan Sontag, ‘On Photography’, p178.
  17. Susan Sontag, ‘On Photography’, p178.
  18. Lucy Lippard, ‘On the Beaten Track’, p4.
  19. Lucy Lippard, ‘The Lure of The Local’, p50.

Iona Fergusson is a curator, producer and public programmer specialising in lens-based work. She began her photographic career at Vogue India as Photo Editor. Her curatorial projects include exhibitions at Ffotogallery in Cardiff, Blast! Festival in West Bromwich and Peckham 24 in London. She was Director of Public Programming at the Delhi Photo Festival 2015 and curated the talks programme at Peckham 24 in 2019. She was the selector for South Asia on the 10x10 Photobooks publication How We See: Photobooks by Women published in 2018.

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Co Author

Shah Numair Ahmed Abbasi is a multidisciplinary artist and a freelance writer who lives and works in Karachi. He completed his BFA with a distinction from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in 2014 where he specialised in sculpture and photography. Abbasi has since exhibited both locally and internationally. He was the recipient of the Gasworks Pakistan Residency 2018 in London, and Antropical Artists Residency 2019 in Steinfort. He was a Visiting Artist Fellow of the Laxmi Mittal South Asian Institute at Harvard University, Cambridge in 2020. Abbasi currently teaches Art and Design at a private O level institution.

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