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Arab Women 'Rock Their Ugly' In A Powerful Photo Series By UAE-based Photographer

Photographer Waleed Shah’s striking "Rock Your Ugly" series sheds light on body image, mental health and the importance of self-love.

Talented UAE-based photographer Waleed Shah has been fine-tuning his camera lens to highlight his subjects’ debilitating insecurities for a while now. His Rock Your Ugly series, a combination of photos and stories, is all about getting people in the UAE to eliminate negative thoughts and helping them to feel comfortable with their body-related insecurities. The aim is also to have them accept that it is a part of their journey and that it is OK to love themselves, imperfections and all. 

Waleed Shah

While some stories end on a successful note, others don’t. “It’s a snapshot of what’s really going on inside a lot of us; some issues are resolved and some are not, and that is OK,” Shah told Grazia Middle East.


Une publication partagée par ‎وليد شاه | Waleed Shah (@waleedshah) le

Usually, Shah, a commercial and portrait photographer, who has his own photography studio in Abu Dhabi, snaps colourful and lively images. However, he chose to shoot the emotive and raw portraits for this movement in black and white, with minimal and simple scenes. 

“Imagine for a moment — truly imagine — having a photographer want to capture your biggest insecurity in glorious HD; no filters, no retouching, and no flattering angles that ensure that 'flaw' of yours recedes into the background. That's difficult for anyone." Shah, who consults with the participants about the photos that are OK to use, told Fstoppers.


Une publication partagée par ‎وليد شاه | Waleed Shah (@waleedshah) le

As Shah began the project, he found it soon turned from sharing physical insecurities to deeper mental health issues, and it became an exploration of how body image and mental health are interlinked. While society’s fixation with perfection takes its heavy toll on self-esteem and intensifies insecurities, the photographer found that parenting also plays a role.

“Most of our parents don’t make it safe for us to talk to them when we feel misunderstood. They worry more about what society might think rather than the wellbeing of their own child,” Shah states on his website.


Une publication partagée par ‎وليد شاه | Waleed Shah (@waleedshah) le

The Inspiring Stories
Around 60 brave souls have shared their moving and rousing stories so far, and they are all incredibly different. There’s Anushka, a musician who started to self-harm herself when she was 12, “just for fun.” Problems with her mother escalated and the habit of cutting herself became a very serious issue.


Une publication partagée par ‎وليد شاه | Waleed Shah (@waleedshah) le

Yasmin, another participant, has struggled because of tinea versicolor. She was about 14 when she developed the skin condition, a common fungal infection that results in discoloured patches, and it affected her upbringing in various ways. One more contributor with a skin condition is Srijita, who was born with chronic eczema, which advanced into mascular amyloidosis, when lesions appear as flat dusky-brown or greyish coloured spots. Plus, Hamdan has an incurable skin condition called seborrheic dermatitis, which causes dandruff-like spots on the body, primarily on the scalp.


Une publication partagée par ‎وليد شاه | Waleed Shah (@waleedshah) le

Additionally, make-up artist Logina, chose to work in the beauty field because she was bullied in school for having vitiligo, a disease that causes the loss of skin colour in blotches. Another make-up artist, Kimberly, has had alopecia, which causes hair loss, since she was 19. Sara revealed how she developed an eating disorder because of peer pressure, while Myrna has battled with bulimia. Hanan had to have four ribs removed and two titanium rods positioned in her back to treat scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine, and Saskia appears covered in pen marks, where she wanted alterations through plastic surgery.


Une publication partagée par ‎وليد شاه | Waleed Shah (@waleedshah) le

Shah, who also works in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, has shared his own story through the project and has explained how it came about. Before losing weight via a book called “The Obesity Code,” the photographer posted a photo of him touching his belly, his own insecurity, on Instagram, and the idea of looking into other people’s insecurities was born. However, it wasn’t until he lost his best friend to cancer that he vowed to see it through. 


Une publication partagée par ‎وليد شاه | Waleed Shah (@waleedshah) le

 “The process was like group therapy. I would listen to someone else’s pain and share mine,” he says on his website.

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