Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 27 November 2020

The UAE photographer taking on body image and mental health issues through a striking series

Waleed Shah tells us how his latest photography series has helped him face his own demons

To understand Waleed Shah’s photography series, Rock Your Ugly, you first need to understand a bit about Waleed Shah. Ten years ago Shah injured his back while working out at the gym. The pain was intense and he was unable to lift any weights. Over the next couple of years, Shah, who was named Sportsman of the Year four years in a row at school, kept going back to the gym but it was no good, his back would flare up immediately. He tried yoga and swimming instead, but quickly got bored. Eventually he simply gave up exercise altogether.

Shah started putting on weight, going from 69 kilograms to 80kg. “I was very insecure about wearing my old clothes,” he says. “My shirts weren’t fitting. It didn’t look right in the mirror.” On his birthday last year, Shah posted a topless photograph of himself on Instagram, in which he was clutching his belly. “This is what my body looked like on January 6, 2017,” the caption reads. “I turn 31 today and I haven’t done anything about it.”

Using photography to heal

So that’s one part of the story. This is the second part. About six weeks ago, Shah was in the Philippines working on a different photography project when he received news that his best friend had died. The pair had been at school and university together; they had formed a band as children. Shah travelled to Toronto for the funeral and was, he says, “a bit of a mess” when he returned to the UAE.

As a way of distracting himself, Shah, who runs his own photography studio in Abu Dhabi, immersed himself in his work. He had kept a list of projects he always wanted to do, and he found himself returning to that image of himself on Instagram. The result is Rock Your Ugly, a beautiful series of black-and-white photographs of people embracing their flaws and insecurities. “I wanted to explore what other people feel about their bodies,” he says. Each photograph is accompanied by a story, some tragic, others uplifting. Talking to others about their struggles has helped Shah deal with the death of his friend. “It has been like group therapy,” he says. “Having strangers open up so deeply about themselves gave me the confidence to open up about myself and talk about my pain.”

The project is ongoing, but there are currently 23 photographs in the series. The people who have taken part are all loosely connected to Shah – friends of friends, perhaps – but he says it is important they are not close associates. “I need some distance from the person,” he says. “It’s the distance that gives you the comfort to speak up.

“My favourite part of the whole process was connecting with another human being at a level I’ve never experienced before, unless it’s someone super-close to me. It was a series of intimate and deeply emotional moments in the span of two to three weeks.”

The stories behind the photos

It is this intimacy that is so striking about Shah’s photographs. Lotus Habbab, smiling directly at the camera, her hair tumbling forward over her face, shows off a prominent burn mark on her arm. Huda Shahin fell off the top bunk of her bed as a child and her chin started to grow off centre. Joelle van Schaik displays a 20-centimetre scar on her chest, the result of the openheart surgery she had as a baby. “When I meet new people, it’s this little insecurity, always there, always with you,” says van Schaik. “I was always thinking, ‘Would they see it? Are they going to ask about it?’”

These sorts of words, found in almost every story throughout Rock Your Ugly, serve as reminders of how powerful Shah’s images are. For many of those taking part, it has required enormous courage to bare themselves in this way for the camera.

One of the most moving stories belongs to Hamdan Al Abri, who has a condition known as seborrheic dermatitis, which causes flakiness and redness of the skin. “I was always worried that people would see it and be disgusted by it,” Al Abri says. And yet here he is, staring back at the lens defiantly. “We place too much unrealistic importance on having distorted perfect physical attributes and we forget that the most important part is loving ourselves, all our perfect imperfections included.”

Unsurprisingly, the atmosphere when Shah was photographing his subjects was often charged and fragile. “Multiple people broke down during the shoots and on many occasions, I broke down,” says Shah. “You have to be very patient. I tell them, ‘If at any point you’re not OK with this, we’re taking the photograph down.’”

This understanding seems in large part to come from the fact Shah also confronted his own body insecurities by posting that image on Instagram last year. He is not asking these people to do anything he wouldn’t. “I couldn’t sleep the night before I took the photo,” he says. “I realised [afterwards] that it’s not simply about how I look, it’s about all the other cool stuff I do.”

A focus on mental health

For all Rock Your Ugly’s positivity, though, it remains a troubling project. It is, at times, less about body image and more about mental health problems or rather, the intersection of the two. Myrna Ayman, for example, has suffered from bulimia for several years and is here photographed sitting on the floor by a toilet. It is, to my mind, the most striking image in the series. And then there is “Saskia”, covered in pen marks denoting the areas of her face she wants to alter through plastic surgery.

These photographs remind us that Rock Your Ugly is not simply about merrily celebrating our bodies, but about recognising the darker battle with your own mind. This is often at the root of the problem. “The body thing is often artifice,” says Shah. “There are much deeper issues that have led to people being unhappy about their bodies. Almost every single person in Rock Your Ugly had issues because of something from childhood or a toxic relationship or friendship, where comments were made.”

Almost every single person in Rock Your Ugly had issues because of something from childhood or a toxic relationship or friendship, where comments were made.

Waleed Shah

Is there a risk, though, that Rock Your Ugly promotes an unhealthy lifestyle? “Tac”, his large belly hanging over the waistband of his shorts, fixes you with a defiant gaze from his armchair. Hassan “Tiny” Shams lies back on the bed, celebrating the fact he’s a big guy. Shah explains that this series is not simply about saying people should be happy with whatever their body is right now, and that they should do nothing. There needs to be a balance. “If you go to the doctor and they say, ‘You need to lose some weight or you’ll get diabetes,’ you can’t tell me, ‘It’s body positive, that’s the way I am.’”

But as Shah points out, someone like “Tac” has regular check-ups and is deemed healthy. “I stopped caring about the amount of food I was eating as long as what I was putting in my body was healthy,” explains “Tac” in his story. “With that came a natural realisation of how beautiful I actually was.” It’s hard to argue with that.

Shah, for his part, has lost a lot of the excess weight he was carrying when he posted that image on Instagram. More importantly, the process of shooting Rock Your Ugly, and talking to people about his mental health and body issues, has helped to bring Shah some peace. “I’m pretty happy now,” he says. “I’m pretty good.”

There could hardly be a more powerful message.

More information about Waleed Shah’s Rock Your Ugly series is at www.waleedshah.ae

Updated: July 22, 2019 12:19 PM

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