We all feel down sometimes. Or jittery. Or worried.
But for some, these emotions can be all-consuming. They can prevent us from doing everyday tasks. They can form a barrier between ourselves and others. And they can be incredibly isolating.
Mental health is still swept under the carpet in the Middle East. People see going to a psychiatrist as something that is foreign to our culture. People think mental health issues reflect a person’s weak personality when in reality they are complex medical processes. People suffering from mental health problems are sometimes seen as dangerous. Many women are told that what they are feeling is just the result of icky, woman-related hormonal imbalances (she must be PMS-ing). And they are sometimes seen as people who have strayed from the right path. These ideas make life even more of an uphill battle for sufferers of mental health issues.
Fortunately, little by little, people are talking about mental health. Relating to someone else’s experience, even if just through a screen, can make a real difference for someone suffering in isolation.
Amani AlShaali is a talented Emirati photographer who has made mental health awareness a priority. Amani talks to us about her ongoing experience with depression and about the role of photography in coping with depression. We’re happy to be sharing an important conversation led by Amani AlShaali. Hopefully, with each conversation like this, we can slowly empower others to speak out about their experiences.
You studied and now practice interior design. At the same time, you’re a dedicated professional photographer. How does it feel to balance two fields?
Honestly it’s a little tricky sometimes. On one hand, I would like to take up photography full-time, but on the other hand, working as an interior designer is what’s currently financing my photography. I have to admit though, that being an interior designer has helped me notice a lot of things as a photographer that I wouldn’t have without the interior design background. Things such as composition, perspective, and colors. It’s definitely impacted my photography.
You’ve mentioned that photography is a method of self-care for you. How did you come to see it that way?
I was diagnosed with double depression (dysthymia and major chronic depression) when I was about nineteen years old. I was still in university at the time, and I couldn’t get professional help. I was seeing the university counselor regularly, but she insisted that I seek the help of professionals. Mental illnesses were seen as a taboo and weren’t spoken of. I remember telling a good friend of mine how I felt, and she told me to “pray and everything will be better,” or read Quran, or exercise. And while in the back of my mind, I knew that maybe doing these things could help, I just didn’t have the strength or motivation to actually do them. Getting out of bed alone was a challenge. I remember driving to university every day and crying nonstop, and wishing I would get into a car accident and die.
When I graduated from university, I took a year off. I didn’t work. I stayed home most of the time. That was when things really went downhill for me. I was in my head, constantly. And I just wanted to die. I tried to kill myself.
By the end of that year, I was doing a lot of research on photography. It was something that I knew I loved, but had set aside for quite a few years. I saw that Brooke Shaden was teaching a workshop in Dubai. I didn’t know who she was, but I looked her up and fell in love with her work. After that workshop, everything changed for me. I realized that I didn’t need to suffer quietly, that I can express how I feel in those images that I would spend hours creating and feel a sense of peace. It was therapeutic for me, the process itself calmed my mind. I realized that in putting my feelings into my work, I could in a way release them.
That’s not to say that photography “cured” me. My depression is chronic, that I know. And I realized that photography wasn’t enough. I convinced my parents to let me see a psychiatrist and a psychologist, and I’m doing so much better now. Medication, therapy, and photography go hand in hand for me.
Your photos bring to mind the idea of parallel universes. They feel familiar yet uncomfortably different. Is photography a way for you to document a specific state of mind or is it an escape from that state of mind?
It’s definitely a way for me to document a specific state of mind, but at the same time, I like creating worlds that don’t exist. There’s something about storms and grey clouds that I just find appealing. It’s almost romantic but in a dark way. I’ve always been drawn towards things that are somewhat melancholy yet still romantic. So even though I document a specific, usually dark, state of mind, I still try to make it beautiful. Haunting, but still beautiful.
To people struggling with mental health, creativity is therapeutic, whether as a distraction or as an expression of how they feel. What steps can someone take towards regular creative practice?
Write. If there’s one thing I strongly urge people to do – it would be to write. You don’t have to write beautiful poetry or prose, you don’t have to write things that make sense. You just have to write. It doesn’t take much effort, it doesn’t feel like it’s a chore, and it’s something you can do without even getting out of bed. Writing is what helped me visualize images. I started by writing down how I felt and trying to translate that into an image.
When you find a way to express yourself creatively, whether it’s writing or drawing or photography, whatever it is – make it a habit. Make it all you daydream about, find joy in doing it. I used to write and conceptualize an image, then spend days just imagining how I can create it, from the props that I would need to the location that would work with the image. Charles Bukowski once said “find what you love and let it kill you”. In our case, don’t let it kill you. Just let it consume you. I live and breathe photography.
And please, please… seek help. Talk to someone. You don’t have to go through it alone. I always urge people to reach out to their friends or loved ones, and if they feel like they can’t talk to them about these things – then reach out to me. I am more than happy to talk to people about this and help them through it. Even if they want to remain anonymous. Just please, don’t suffer in silence.
We noticed that most of the subjects in your photos are women. Can you tell us more about why you make a choice to photograph women?
When I first started using photography as a form of therapy, I was telling very personal stories through my images. Some of them, I even did as self-portraits (shhh…). It felt like the only way to really express how I felt in that picture would be if it was portrayed by a woman. I also always felt like there’s a certain level of vulnerability in women that you can’t get out of men. Or more like, that I – as a photographer – couldn’t get out of men.
Mental health awareness is slowly rising in our society, whether in the UAE or in the Arab world, but it is still taboo. What can our community do to better support people struggling with their mental health?
I think one of the most important things to do is to stop making people feel guilty for how they feel. People think that others are being “ungrateful” when they’re depressed, like they’re not thankful for having a roof over their heads or a decent meal. It has nothing to do with gratitude. We need to raise awareness so that more people know that it’s beyond our control. We can’t just “take a shower” and expect everything to be okay. We need more people who are dealing with mental illnesses to speak up. It can be a terrifying thing to do, but it has to be done. There are so many people suffering quietly, because they’re too scared to seek help. Another thing would be to make psychiatrists and psychologists more accessible. It’s hard to find good doctors here and when you do, it’s just so expensive and there are a lot of people who can’t afford it.
We were very happy to share this frank conversation with Amani AlShaali. We hope that this feature will help someone suffering in silence to speak out about their experience. You are not alone. There are other people out there who get you, even if your environment might not.