UAE photographer’s series on body insecurities goes viral
'Everybody has something to hide', says Waleed Shah.
UAE photographer Waleed Shah talks about his photo series spotlighting body image insecurities - and the enduring impact of words on our self-worth
There's only one word to describe the people in Waleed Shah's latest photo series called Rock Your Ugly - brave. What else do you call men and women who've spent their entire lives covering up what they believe to be their greatest 'flaw' - but are now baring them for all to see: scars, flab, disfigurations et al?
Waleed embarked on his project about body insecurities and its impact on mental health with only three rules: it would be a black-and-white series, there'd be no makeup, and no Photoshop. He was also the first subject of his series, putting up a self-portrait of his 'Pablo Escobar' belly to talk about why it was a touchy point for him.
He started off by asking for volunteers from his circle of acquaintances and friends. Did anyone have any part of them they were very insecure about that they'd be willing to shoot for a very personal, intimate project? "I got some strong 'No's, but also people who said yes," recalls the 32-year-old. His MO was to not ask many questions beforehand (so as to keep it "authentic" when he did interview them), and show up with nothing more than a voice recorder, camera, lights and his iPhone. The way he realised the potential of the series to go big? "When people started hailing me about it even before it went online!"
And the stories are something else. The 40-year-old woman who went bald in her bid to take her life back from the autoimmune disorder called alopecia. The guy who couldn't bear to go out due to a skin condition that causes dandruff-like spots to appear on his body, for fear of others thinking he had a weird disease. The woman who learned to perfect the art of throwing up after meals because 'friends' told her she could lose some weight. The sufferer of scoliosis who wears backless dresses, after years of trying to hide her crooked spine.
Such is the attention the project has garnered that Waleed is still receiving calls from others who want to be part of it too. When we spoke to him, he was on a roll, having lined up back-to-back shoots for each day. "I don't think it's going to stop anytime soon," he observes.
Excerpts from the interview:
What about the project do you think is so relatable for readers?
The majority of the people on social media portray themselves with perfect lives and bodies, but the majority of people viewing them feel the complete opposite. I think the latter is the segment I connected with - which is probably the larger segment of the two anyway. They're under-represented, because very few people look like what people like to portray online.
Some of these stories you've documented are so hard to read. Was the experience emotionally challenging for you in any way?
There were tears on both sides, not just at times, but most of the time. It's hard - not just to open up to someone, but also to be on the receiving end of someone opening up that much. And it's on me to put their stories out responsibly, in a way that won't hurt them or their loved ones, if they were to read the stories.
Given the sensitive nature of the project, did you ever feel out of your depth as a photographer?
This series was very simple from a technical perspective. The hard part was getting people comfortable enough to shoot their insecurities. You're trained to hide these flaws. You often tell people: don't worry, I'll cover up the flaws. The tough part is to switch and say: don't worry, I'm going to show these flaws - but still make it look incredible.
Did it take a lot to convince your subjects to come onboard for a project that would spotlight their greatest insecurities?
Actually, no. The way I do it is to tell them I'm only going to ask them once, never again. If they want to do it, they need to get back to me. Multiple people said no, flat out; some did the shoot and then backed out; others said yes of their own accord. The point I made clear throughout was: I would respect everyone's decision at any point during the process. So, even if you sign the release form but want to take the picture down 10 years from now, I'd do it.
There's no toning down of the subject in any way in your photos - the scars, disfigurations, flab, it's all in your face. Were you intentionally going for shock value?
Yes, for sure. I'm shooting the flaw. The person's face is just to show the viewer that this is a real person. The face in all the pictures depicts confidence and security - whether they've reached that level or are hoping to be there soon is a different story. But the focus on the image is always the insecurity itself.
What have you taken away from this series?
For me, it was like group therapy. My best friend passed away recently and I wasn't in a good place, mentally. So, having people open up to me about their pain and opening up to them about mine, in turn, helped me a lot with my grief.
The other thing I took away was that everybody has something they're hiding. Not judging a book by its cover is so clichéd, but very real.
How has this series changed or impacted the way you deal with people?
I'm aware that there's more to somebody than 'Hi, hello, how was work today?' So, I'm trying now to skip the small talk, and get into deeper conversations, opening up myself so that they feel comfortable doing the same with me.
Has it taught you anything about human nature?
I think human nature is to hide and cover up first. I don't hope to change human nature, but I hope to show people that it's okay not to. There are a lot of mean people and bullies on the Internet, but you can choose your circle of friends.
Throughout your interactions, were you able to see any common thread running through every single story?
The common thread through most stories was almost always something to do with their upbringing, and almost always to do with the parents. So, dear parents, whatever you are saying to your kids, remember that they carry it with them throughout adulthood. It can be uplifting, but it can also be damaging. So, watch what you say to them. Don't put society looking at you a different way above your child's mental and physical needs.
As with all things, there will come a time when the impact of these photos will fade, and they won't be front and centre in society's consciousness in a few months from now. How do you feel about that?
That's just regular life. There's nothing anyone can do about it. But there are two things I'm hoping people will take away from this series: one, there are a lot of people out there that are hurting. Everybody has something in their past that they're trying to hide that affects their self-worth.
But also, two: I hope to reach the people we don't see in the photos, the ones who are causing such damage as well... I hope they will understand that words and actions can have serious consequences on people's lives, even after they're adults. Be careful how you treat someone, even when you joke. Your words can hurt people, even though they laugh.