“I hit a depression where I didn’t know what to do with my life,” says Waleed Shah.
The photographer’s patience was fraying. For the past few months, commercial photoshoots and projects have dried up. Client calls stopped coming. The coronavirus pandemic and the consequent cascade of shutdowns struck a heavy blow to his work.
"It has completely wiped out my income. Zero," he says. "Whenever someone would call me, I would say, 'Mowjood. I'm available. You got work?'"
Shah, who lives and works in Dubai, knew he wasn’t the only one trying to cope. So he started the photo project Mowjood (which translates from Arabic to 'I'm available') to help highlight other freelancers, particularly in the creative field, who are in search of work.
The idea is to take their portraits, outline details about their skills and then share those widely online to announce: “Mowjood. I’m available. Hire me.”
“We’re all in the same boat ... the freelance community is at a standstill because most of our work, even personal projects, require us to go out and execute,” he says. Artists and creative freelancers across the globe, whose incomes are dependent on projects, have been particularly vulnerable to the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
He put out a call on social media. Soon, artists, models, graphic designers, dancers and content creators started reaching out. Shah welcomed them into his apartment from May when restrictions were eased. He improvised a studio setting, with social distancing in place, to capture their portraits.
The results are stark, black-and-white images of young professionals in poses that range from joyful to defiant. You’d be forgiven for thinking that these are for magazine covers. That was Shah’s intention. “I want to make them look like rock stars,” he says.
During the photo shoots, he listened to their stories. Two had just lost their jobs a day before; others were rethinking their career paths.
A common thread runs through these experiences – most of the subjects expressed how the pandemic is causing them to reflect on their future. “Everybody is revaluating themselves because they have time to think,” Shah explains.
It is also in these conversations that the photographer is able to capture such candid shots of strangers. "Working with models is easy. They know their angles and poses. But with regular people, it's more challenging. The process really starts with conversation. Once I'm at a point where I feel like they can trust me and risk looking like a fool, then I know it's time to take photos."
For the project, Shah asked the participants to pay what they were able to or what they felt was appropriate – “whether it’s one dirham or one million,” he quips. He says his goal is not to make money, but to help.
“I shoot the commercial stuff … the satisfaction is purely monetary, to pay bills, to live. When you have a skill or voice, the satisfaction is greater when you’re helping someone.”
He has shared the Mowjood series of portraits on his website and Instagram page, where he has more than 20,000 followers. So far, the subjects have not come back to him with news of job offers, but he says it may take a while before things pick up again economically, even after the easing of restrictions.
At the very least, the subjects have come away with a great photograph.