Hello and welcome to the BCU Alumni podcast. I'm Bethan and each episode we welcome a different member of the BCU alumni community back onto campus. Find out all about what they've been up to since they graduated. Today, we're joined by Maryam Wahid, a photography alumna who uses her photography to convey her identity as a British Pakistani Muslim woman through her deep rooted family history and the integration of South Asian migrants within the UK.
Her photographs explore womanhood, memory, migration and the notion of home and belonging. Since graduating in 2014, she has won many prestigious awards, including The Portrait of Britain 2021 by the British Journal of Photography. In 2020, she featured on BBC's Great British Photography Challenge, and her work has been commissioned by the likes of The Guardian, the Financial Times and the Telegraph.
She was also invited to be on the selection panel for a prestigious competition held by the National Portrait Gallery, which is spearheaded by the Princess of Wales for the project Hold Still, which was a unique collective portrait of the UK during lockdown. Alongside this, she has judged competitions for photo works and the new art gallery. Also, she was the lead artist for the Creative Connections Project for the National Portrait Gallery, which is currently on display at the Gallery in London.
Her work has also been exhibited in Granary Square at King's Cross in London, and last year she had a major solo exhibition at the Midlands Art Centre, and also Impressions Gallery in Bradford, which included photographs, moving images and writing. In this episode, we're going to be exploring more about Mariam's career so far, how she has used the power of networking and social media, and how important her work is for underrepresented communities.
Maryam, thanks so much for joining us today. So for those listening, Maryam has actually been a photographer over the last few weeks on photo shoots taking place with some of our chosen graduates in this year's alumni festival. So what's it been like to be back on to campus? You almost feel like you've done a bit of work.
A full circle. Yeah. Thank you so much for that wonderful introduction and it's been an absolute pleasure to be back here working with the alumni as an alumnus and also just seeing the great campus and facilities of BCU. I feel like I'm getting to know more about the university and I'm falling in love with it again. Yeah, same reason why I actually came here was for the facilities and I'm getting to see, you know, the broader things that BCU do, which is great.
Okay, so it's been around five years since you graduated from BCU then, but you've done a huge amount in that time. So what were those kind of first initial steps after graduating like for you?
So the initial steps after graduating were I actually didn't know which direction I was going, but when I was due my final year, we had the Inspired Festival where, you know, we got to exhibit our work in the in the actual university and we got to invite, you know, people to see the exhibition.
And then also from that exhibition, you could kind of nominate yourself for a certain award. Yeah. So I had nominated myself forward for a mentorship award with green projects. So quite luckily, I was awarded that. And what that award entailed was that you would get, you know, 6 to 9 months mentorship with GRAIN.
And my mentor was Nicola Shipley, who's the director at GRAIN Photography. And I think that really, really kind of facilitated and encouraged me to create a career in the art side of photography. You know, when I started university, my end goal, why, what kind of photographer I would be was was one thing. And then when I actually graduated, I didn't actually realize that this is what I actually want to do and this is how to implement it.
And actually I didn't realize I didn't feel like I would get the opportunities that I you know, before starting as a student, I didn't think I'd get those opportunities. So how do you think you've been able to establish yourself almost like very early in your career then? I mean, lots of people already know who you are. They know you.
I'm sure like whenever you do what you do and you love what you do, you don't really think about getting popular in your field or you don't really just want to basically get by and make it work for you. And that's the way I thought anyway.
Like, I just wanted to be able to create photographs that I love and also really enjoy my career. And I think that's been easier because I have actually had the right opportunities come up. So in terms of like when I graduated, for example, I wanted to create more work and I was like, What can I do? You know?
And I was constantly literally living and breathing photography and I was so dedicated and I went completely freelance. After my second year of university, I went completely freelance. So I actually quit my call centre job and I was like, I want to focus on photography. And I think that's the stuff I don't really talk much about because people see the achievements.
But I think if you are dedicated, you have to constantly be connected and involved and you know, networking is one part of that. But then also constantly, constantly looking out for the opportunities and you have to put your private life on pause for a bit and you have to kind of focus on what is it that you know, where are the opportunities, how do I get there.
So, you know, I was consciously looking on newsletters online, looking, following galleries, going to exhibition openings, connecting with other photographers, reading, which is the kind of fun stuff still because you when you love something, you will literally spend time on it. Yeah. So, you know, I loved reading and I love looking into other photographers, looking at the other works of art across the globe, basically.
And that really kind of helped me kind of report on to other opportunities. I would kind of find my way around things I really love doing. So for example, like in 2019, which was a year after I graduated, there was an opportunity that came up called Transforming Narratives here in Birmingham, and it was a project that Culture Central was running basically, and it was funded by the British Council and Arts Council England.
The project itself was connecting Birmingham, Pakistan and Bangladesh and basically like an art exchange between three places. Yeah. And you know, with my fascination and interest with, you know, photography around race identity, I thought this is a great opportunity. And I really pushed myself forward and just applied for it. I thought, What's the worst that can happen now?
I'll just get a no or a decline. And I think prior to this I had been declined ,and, you know, I think maybe things on my CV just didn't match up to it. And this opportunity, though, came to me, I felt like at the right time. And I think if an opportunity doesn't come to me, it simply isn't that time for me.
And, you know, I just wait and I keep trying other things and trying to find my way around. I'm lucky because I feel like things that have worked out for me have been the right things for me. And I've developed my career in, you know, wonderful ways. So yeah, So I when I applied for that, I was successful and I did a research and development project, but it was actually not photography was just carrying out research.
But I took the opportunity, took my camera along and then take portraits in Pakistan. And I photographed women because that was my studies. Like, yeah, my thought, my focal points. I really wanted to look at the female identity in Pakistan. And yeah, I had so much fun. I interviewed women of all ages, all backgrounds. I didn't actually realize being a British Pakistani, I'd never been to Pakistan before, right.
So seeing how diverse Pakistan was, because I see in Birmingham especially, we are very close knit, like the community, you know, you know, community. I didn't travel very much there and to Karachi and Lahore mainly, and just a town near Karachi, like a small village, but just exploring those areas and then meeting women.
I was 23 years old at the time. I was also, I think that's a young girl like in my in my head, I was like a very young girl. So I was really moved by the stories that I was I was discovering. And you can see in the portraits as well, like, you know, the there's that little bit of I've treated them with a bit of delicate, like I've, I've treated them very delicately because I feel like we connected more than just, you know, Hi, what's your name?
What are you doing and what do you what are your struggles? Talking to them about their lives and really trying to understand, but then also taking it in. As a young woman myself it was a moving experience and I definitely will never forget that experience in my life and what I've learned from that place.
I won't forget that, basically. So you aim to represent the under represented in your photography. So where does the need for this kind of stemfrom? And also how do you go about doing it? So my motivation to photographing the underrepresented is because when I was growing up as a young girl in Birmingham and going to galleries and museums and just strolling down the streets and seeing the city, yeah, I felt like women who were from the South Asian background in the UK, or women who wore the hijab, women who even women in general that just looked like me.
Basically, they just weren't represented and not necessarily even in the arts, but even in the mass media. So this is where I felt like there was, you know, I was motivated to create my own projects. And when I was quite little, I loved history. I loved learning about the Tudors and Victorians. This sounds really cringe, but I really loved learning about this.
Like my history lessons. I would be so excited. And I think especially because my history teacher was an exciting like teacher. So I would just be fascinated that there was all these people before us and this was their identities and this is how they dressed. And I think it just felt very, just very magical to go back in time.
And whenever I would hear about, you know, the history of the UK, I just never really knew like the history of British Pakistanis. So my Family album, I'm the youngest in my family and my parents got married in 1982, right? And they had me in 1995. So when I would look at my family album, I saw like almost two generations before me because I was literally like quite little when I was born quite late in the family.
When I see my family album, I kind of see a little bit of the history of them actually coming and settling here because they were first generational Pakistanis. And then I would see photographs of Pakistan. So because it was two different places and times in the family album, there was like these little jigsaws that were missing in my in my world of like history, in my own, like personal history.
So I think this is where I started to really investigate, like, you know, my family heritage, but also like their journeys to the UK. And obviously I would watch documentaries and find a photographs. Even in the Library of Birmingham, there are many collections that holds portraits and photographs of the South Asian diaspora and just, you know, South Asians in the UK.
But there's never that back story of who this person was. And sometimes there's no names either. And like you know who this person is. And so I just thought, well, let me just start with my own self, because this is where my fascination starts from. Like who and where I came from. And I never had this identity crisis.
Like, I always I always felt like growing up in the UK and literally never visiting Pakistan, I always felt like Britain was my home and, you know, yeah, I'm British and my parents are from Pakistan, but like, they've lived here like, all their lives because my mum came. She was 18, my dad came 26. So like there was always this kind of like connection with Britain.
And there was also this like cultural connection with being from the Pakistani, like community. So I never had this kind of complexity and people never made me feel like, you know, you're not British, you're not this, and you know that. Like just I think the you know, the the generation, the kind of time that I was I was raised and like growing up and people were, you know, integrated.
And also people were yeah, people were a lot more connected and there was a bit more cultural understanding. So, yeah, just going back to, you know, what fascinates me in terms of representing the underrepresented, I feel like a lot of that has come from my own experience of growing up in the UK and just feeling like there needs to be a little bit of story, like there needs to be some stories about us in photography and in arts, you know, and we should be then represented in the collections in museums.
All our stories should be archived, because if we're not archiving this when we're literally removing like a whole community and a whole massive people that lived in Birmingham at this moment in time, yeah, I felt like there was a huge need to be represented and also to encourage other people to represent because one of the things I found as a student was trying to have conversations about identity and race.
I was quite awkward because, yeah, nobody in my class was doing it and it was quite nerve racking. I think especially when you grow up as a British Muslim, there's always this tension that people are already going to judge you. You know, they're already going to have a perception of you, but you know, me growing up, I went to Islamic faith primary school like.
And also my parents are not super religious, but like, you know, I'm aware of my faith and I'm aware of my community. And I feel like there's so many amazing things that we can talk about and there's so many things that have just been labelled on us. An even labelled on as South Asian women. It was Muslim women that were very sheltered like this.
And I just think like photography has been one of the wonderful ways that I have come out and I've met people that have probably never even spoken to a Muslim woman or never even seen a woman in a hijab in places, and even from the from the South Asian diaspora understanding as well that we are very diverse as South Asians is not just one type of South Asian.
Yeah, you know, there's been many British Pakistanis that have seen my exhibitions like openness in Bradford and in Birmingham when at the mosque, they've come up to me and said, you know, we actually feel like there's a representation of us because whenever we've seen photography about South Asia, there's only one type of, you know, place as shown in South Asia.
And so they feel like, you know, and even other people from outside of South Asia, they felt like, you know, we've had very similar experiences of memory and also very similar experiences of having other, you know, cultural connections. And I think one of the biggest aims of my work is not to create that difference, but to create cultural understanding in Britain, because like I said, I'm also proud to be British.
And I think the one of the great things about Britain is how diverse we are and how we have. You know, different people. We've got an Indian prime minister right now. So it's all these things that, you know, these jigsaws that make us who we are, which I think are great and they should be online and they shouldn't just be one story being told about Britain.
Yeah, I think that definitely gives a lot of pride and confidence to other British Pakistanis and it gives you that peace in your heart that you belong somewhere. You know, going to Pakistan and discovering Pakistan. I definitely didn't feel like I was Pakistani, but, you know, it made me feel peaceful that I know where my grandparents are resting.
I know the life that they lived. I've seen a bit of my background, a bit of my life. And I, I love that I have this heritage and I have this connection. But I also love, you know, that I've grown up in the UK and I've you know, I've got this kind of British cultural experience as well. And so how do you find what they're not?
Do people like approach you for commissions and how often are you able to just, you know, be able to focus more on your personal projects? So this is a wonderful question because a lot of people ask me this because I'm self-employed and freelancing. I have to go and do the hard work and find people. And all these accolades that I get, I have to use them and carry them on my shoulders and say, look, you know, this is why you need to get me for this.
I definitely feel like I could work a lot harder. And I definitely feel like I need a manager at times. But yeah, in terms of like getting the opportunities, definitely like I have to constantly look and obviously it can be quite draining mentally. You do need to stop and break and I have to take those breaks. And sometimes when you are so active in the photography, see, you know you have a presence there.
If you snooze, you just kind of feel the pressure, like you have to go back into it. But actually for me, like I've learned that actually it's okay to take a back seat for a second. It's okay to just breathe for a minute and reset and yeah, definitely, I feel like you do need to like with networking, especially like for talking about networking, you have to get that time to yourself.
You can't always expect. And I think it's really frustrating as well because sometimes other people in the networking groups or something, they might feel like you always have to be posting, you always have to be doing something. Yeah, it's natural pressure now anyway. But I think, yeah, I try and keep a balance between that work because as I said, I'm fully freelance, so sometimes the work can be constant, constant, constant, and sometimes I have to just physically like stop at some point and take a break and then go back into it.
And that's the best way I functioned. But in terms of like looking for the opportunities, signing up to certain newsletters in the city like Culture Central are great in Birmingham, even just visiting certain galleries that you like, like signing up to the Midlands Art Centres. Yeah. Newsletter Because then people can, they can post regular updates like this is happening that's happening.
So yeah, that's been quite useful. And yeah, just trying to stay kind of active in terms of looking for the opportunities. That's the way I've done it mostly. Okay. So what have been some of your I guess like favorite moments of your career so far then? Have you got any like major highlights? My career highlights so far has got to be traveling to Pakistan with the British Council on Arts Council and then being funded for the Zionist project by the Midlands Arts Center, because not only have I, you know, been able to go on a personal journey from it, but I've been able to capture that through something that I love and something that I
feel is so powerful photography and bring it back to the UK and then to see the response and support that I've got here from, you know, even just community members. I mean, I'm not even talking about, you know, people who are, you know, commissioners and all those people, but I'm talking about the actual community has made me feel so complete.
And, you know, one of the kind of aims of me being a photographer with my personal work, because I also my commissions are different to my personal work, is that, you know, I want to be able to create that cultural change. But also as we create that cultural understanding, but also really build bridges between communities and really, you know, make people feel like they can actually be impacted through a photograph.
Yeah. So yeah, in terms of that, like that was one of my, you know, kind of highlights. Yeah. So what is next then? What you kind of currently working on? And I guess also what does the future hold for you? Okay. Well, I think for me the goal is to just keep on creating photographs. I don't want to stop that.
So I'm currently working on a photography commission with the NHS where I photograph or I'm photographing people from underrepresented backgrounds, and that is again, one of the things that I want to keep doing. I want to keep representing and I keep I want to keep photographing people, but in different interesting ways. So yeah, I want to be more creative and more experimental with future projects that I do.
That's one of things I want to do anyway. And I also just want to keep on traveling with my camera as well, because I think going to Pakistan made me realize that there's so many interesting stories and people within, you know, my my kind of motherland, I could say, And I want to just keep continuing that in some way.
Yeah, but we'll see what the future holds. You've been selected as one of our industry icons at this year's festival. What does that mean to you? It's honestly an honour and actually because I'm actually getting to know each and every one of those people as well that are sharing this honour with me, it's I just feel even more happier and delighted, really, because there are some really remarkable people in this in sharing this opportunity, but also just to be able to be recognized like this by BCU is very like wonderful. I want to say thank you.
And final question then, if you could go back to your very first day here at BCU, which was 2015, what is the one piece of advice that you would now give yourself? Oh, nice question. I would probably say to myself to one, take it easy. Everything will be okay. Yeah, because I think when you were at university, there's all this pressure and maybe because I'm in a family of people who just study academic and like subjects like not really practical, like arty subjects.
So for me, like going into photography and like being the only kind of all you kind of person in my family. Yeah, pursued photography at university. I would probably say just have faith and believe in what you're going to do and just enjoy the experience of it. I actually came through clearing, you know, people don't know this, but I actually had applied to have a completely different career.
So I when I was at college, I studied photography and I really enjoyed it. Yeah. But I also was studying religious studies and philosophy, and I loved religious studies and philosophy equally. And when I was applying for university, I applied at UOB for theology and I think it was theology and like, I don't know, it's a good joint kind of degree.
And I applied for that and I was getting ready of a summer and I think two weeks before or three weeks, two weeks before results day. Yeah, I just had an enlightening moment and I was like, I was like, I woke up and I was like, you know, I've always wanted like photography in the background of my life as in I've always wanted to have my business in photography and do this, this, this, but I'm not going to be studying it.
I'm going to be studying theology and religion. And I like this as well, but it's not really what I want to do. Yeah, and I didn't even wait for results. I just said to my mum and dad, I was like, I'm going to change my direction.. And I would like to, you know, when telling my family members that some of them were a bit reluctant, they weren't really they didn't really get it.
And my mum was the only one that was like, Do what you love, do what you want to do. I think some of the youngest as well, I got away with it. It was just like, Do whatever the hell you want to do. So yeah, I obviously I put it in my head that whatever subject I'm going to do, I'm going to give it 100%.
And this is what I felt about photography. I felt like it was the love of my life at the time. So I was like, Yeah, I'm not going to change my career path. I think I'm going to go and jump on photography and I'm going to do it as like a 100% thing. I'm not going to do as a side hustle.
I'm going to make a complete thing out of it and like just I'm so blessed that I've actually gone down this route. And yeah, I mean, if I study theology, religion, I would have been a teacher. And that kind of got through that route. And with photography, I've, I'm still, I've still got my business, but I still have a wonderful art practice and photography where I'm really focusing on deep things that mean a lot to me and religion to seed into work culture, the seed into it, which has been really, really nice.
So yeah, I wouldn't, I wouldn't change. I want to go back and change that. Yeah, not that I know where, but at the time it was scary. And I think when you, when I started uni and I looked at all these people around me talking about camera functions and like how to set up a studio life and all this and you know, I've got this camera and it's like the latest Nikon
and you know, like you still find those like, you know, the, the technical photography. Yeah, fellows. But for me it's more about telling the stories through the photographs and, you know, really just, yeah, just doing what you love. And I've been very blessed that I've continued that and I've just given it my all in that sense.
Maryam, thanks so much for coming on to the podcast. So nice to talk to you and find out more about your journey and hopefully we'll see you again very soon. Thank you so much. Bye then.