Pakistani wedding, Lahore 2009© Wendy Marijnissen
“That is why I was in Pakistan. To tell the stories of its people and hopefully make people care” – Wendy Marijnissen
Wendy Marijnissen is a Belgian documentary photographer and has worked in the some of the world’s most conflicted countries. Her work has focused on themes of natural emergencies, rights of women, violence and religious minorities. She has traveled and worked in Europe, Middle East, and Asia.
Q1. Tell us how you got into evolving as a documentary photographer. Also you have been in challenging areas, do you enjoy traveling for your work and being part of new cultures that are so different from your own?
Wendy Marijnissen: I started photographing in the music and theater world in Belgium, but I always had a great interest in news and loved to travel. After photographing many musicians, and artists, I decided to try to combine all these interests into a project and I traveled to Israel and Palestine to use music as my guide there to show daily life in a different way and show how people live in this conflicted region on both sides. That was really the start of my documentary path.
I love discovering new places and new cultures, but I mostly love meeting new people. A common thread that runs through my work or what I attempt to show is how similar we all are. Our religion, our clothing, our landscapes, our customs, our languages might be very different, but in essence we are all the same and we all want the same things out of our lives and for our families.
Q2: Of all the places in the world, how did you end up into Pakistan? What was the reaction of your family, did they stop you from going there?
Wendy Marijnissen: Well, Pakistan sort of was my second best choice at first but later became like a second home really.
I always wanted to go to Afghanistan instead of Pakistan and somehow I was never able to manage and get the right contacts,…But I met a friend of a friend who lived in Pakistan and was marrying a Pakistani man. After talking to her, I started researching and learning more about the region and its history, I became very interested in exploring it. Some of my friends were rather worried, but most members of my family maybe didn’t really realize where Pakistan lies and what happens there. Also they are aware that I won’t go anywhere if I’m not prepared or feel ready to leave. So I didn’t really get much opposition for going besides expressed concern and warnings to be careful.
Q3: Before you arrived to Pakistan, what were your thoughts? Mostly, only negative images of Pakistan are portrayed in the international media, so were you prepared to work in the most dangerous place in the world for women, as quoted by most western media?
Wendy Marijnissen: I had prepared myself well and was aware about the violent history and reputation of Pakistan. I knew about the Taliban and how the journalist Daniel Pearl was brutally murdered there. But as with my trips to Palestine, Iran and now Pakistan, I also knew that there is much more to a country and its people then what we hear and read about. How are regular people living there, what are their lives like? That is what interests me.
I usually work for a longer time on my projects, so the first time I came to Pakistan for 3 months; I spent time getting to know it, its people, and exploring and absorbing how I felt here. I don’t consider being a little bit afraid a bad thing. I think it keeps me alert and aware. And of course I’m lucky that I can always return home to Belgium when things would be really dangerous and bad.
Refugee Hamida’s Pregnancy, Karachi 2010 © Wendy Marijnissen
O4: You lived and worked for three years in the country, at a time very challenging and heart-breaking for common people with floods, war on terror and forced internal displacement. How did it affect you?
Wendy Marijnissen: It’s really all affected me in a big way, being there for 3 years I started having post traumatic stress syndrome symptoms and then it was time to take leave and distance myself. When you spend so much time in a country and really get to know people, it doesn’t leave you cold. You want to show people what is going on and get distressed as well when you see a disaster like the flood happening, affecting over 20 million people.
It still is mind-boggling to me how huge that was…
At the same time, it made me think about how I can show this story and hopefully make people see it’s about real families and not just numbers. That is why I was in Pakistan.To tell the stories of its affected people and hopefully make people care.
Q5: Your photography has been part of the ‘End Fistula campaign’ of the UNFPA Pakistan. Please tell us more about it?
Wendy Marijnissen: As I did my research and found out about the magnitude of the maternal health problems in Pakistan, I really wanted to work on this issue and found out about fistula in that way. Fistula is almost entirely preventable and a real sign that maternal health care is failing, and raising awareness on this became really important to me.
A Pakistani medic, Dr. Shershah Syed became my guide and is one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met in my life. Learning from him, seeing him do fistula repair surgeries, getting context of what I was seeing and hearing, made me understand the country and customs better and helped me in my photographs. Readers can watch her slideshow at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jxTv2dZtlAs
Q6: Your work in Pakistan has more and less been focused on the very dark sides such as rape, child-birth, acid-burn victims and women’s plights. What do you have to say about it?
Wendy Marijnissen: As a woman I really was drawn to documenting stories on women in Pakistan and sadly the reality is that many of them are suffering various ways of abuse or neglect. But I try to not only focus on the dark side of these issues.
With the flood, I’ve tried to show the resilience and strength of a family like Hamida’s. In the rape story, I show strong woman who, against all odds, defy a system and culture that wants to hide this problem.So for me it’s not just hard dark issues, but about beautiful strong people in it.
Rehan and Wendy, Karachi 2010© Wendy Marijnissen
Q7: What were the reactions of the people photographed by you? Were you able to communicate with them through help of local translators?
Wendy Marijnissen: I mostly worked with the doctors that I was traveling with. They translated for me or helped explain to the women who I was and what I was doing there.
In Hamida’s case, I had a midwifery student that came along often to help me talk to Hamida and her family, and one of the doctors repeatedly explained what I was doing so they knew exactly what was going on.
But I also just spent lots of time there by myself without talking, just observing, interacting with the children and basically hanging out. I don’t come in a labor room and straight away take intimate pictures.
I spend hours and hours and days there, just being there often not taking any photo’s at all. This way the women in the room see who I am as well and what I’m doing. Sometimes you just hold the hand of a woman delivering a baby who let me know she didn’t want to be photographed and that is very ok too. It’s all about earning trust and I want to take my time for that.
Q8: Mostly, Pakistanis have resigned to be portrayed by international media in negative light, many people resent western media’s presence for capturing only the dark side of stories. Do you feel there is a huge divide between how Pakistan is being portrayed or there is more to the story that remains untold?
Wendy Marijnissen: I understand people have this idea, but I do think things are changing too. In my own case, my work in its entirety isn’t negative at all I feel. I show the huge problems women face but at the same time show inspiring female doctors changing the situation.
The internet and the availability of information will also change this I hope and are a wonderful outlet for bringing stories out into the world that the traditional media isn’t interested in. I also hope that lots of young Pakistani photographers will slowly change this image themselves. They know the country and their own people best; also have the greatest access and can tell a nuanced story better than anyone else. They can use the internet and other platforms to get these stories out.
And after meeting some incredible photographers I know Pakistan has some amazing talent of its own.
Q9: Did you find something positively interesting, out of the ordinary here, any example of a meeting, interaction or work experience.
Wendy Marijnissen: I really love Pakistan and it has a very special place in my heart. I’ve made some incredible friends there who made me feel at home and part of their family, who have inspired me and without whom I wouldn’t have been able to make the work I did.
And Hamida and her family have touched me in the biggest way work wise and have reminded me why I tell stories and what kind of photographer I want to be. The first moment I saw her in her tent in the refugee camp outside Karachi, we made a connection and I was deeply honored that I got to know them, be present at the birth of her baby and became like a special aunt for this little guy, helping them choose a name out of a selection of names they had.
Q10: What are you currently working on?
Wendy Marijnissen: Well, after Pakistan, I went to Afghanistan two years ago and last year I worked with Doctors without Borders for the first time and went to Tajikistan with them to work on a story on children that have multi-resistant tuberculosis.
And while I was in Belgium, I started the project Us/Them on Muslim women in my country. This work with a special focus on the burqa ban and headscarf issue in my country has become part of the ‘Rise of Populism in Europe’ project, where together with 10 other photographers we highlight various issues of populism in our own respective countries.
I’m still working on the Us/Them project at the moment, but I am also preparing to return to Pakistan next year. Stay tuned for that I would say :)
Thanks a lot for your time. We really look forward to welcoming you back in the coming future!
You’re very welcome!!