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‘Feeding the evil wolf’

How photography saved Amani AlShaali’s life.

Typical picture captions on 24-year-old Dubai-based fine art photographer Amani AlShaali’s work include:

‘Darkness beckons; hymns of the broken; in the mourning; bring the broken back to life; gardens of insanity; bury my heart next to yours; the end is nigh; across the abyss; the embodiment of desperation and despair; something wicked this way comes; when faith crumbles.’


At just 19 Amani was diagnosed with chronic depression. She admits she ‘almost gave up completely’. But a ‘special’ photographer – and photography itself, saved her life.

Now she’s building a compelling portfolio of work and has been asked to exhibit at a major Dubai photography exhibition

In this exclusive ‘Question and Answer’ interview Amani talks about her demons and her photographic epiphany.

Q: The day you attended American fine art photographer Brooke Shadens’ workshop changed your life forever. Explain why.
A: My mind is a crazy place. Depression is real and it’s awful and no one should go through it alone. Brooke definitely saved my life. She enabled me to channel my feelings through my work. I finally had a purpose. Before that, I was lost. I didn’t have any goals in life, I wasn’t working hard towards anything. I just existed.

Brooke showed me beauty where I thought there was none; in my struggles, my pain, and myself. She made me see that I’m worthy – of love, of happiness, of passion, and all the joys in life.  Brooke treated me as though I were capable of reaching stars. And because of her, I have. She believed in me when all I saw was failure. Now I want to work harder and let hope grow.

I read a story recently: An old Cherokee Indian was telling his grandson of the battle of two wolves that goes on inside us all. One wolf is evil. It is full of anger; envy; jealousy; sorrow; regret; greed; arrogance and self-pity. The other is good. It is full of joy; peace; love; hope; serenity; humility; kindness; truth; faith and compassion. The grandson thought about this and then asked: ‘Which wolf wins?’ His grandfather replied: ‘The one you feed.’

Q: So have you finally stopped feeding the evil wolf?
A: I’d be lying if I said I have completely. Let’s just say the evil wolf is on a diet right now. I have to fight my demons and not give in to the darkness. I believe you have to take what haunts you and turn it into something beautiful.

Q: Let’s talk about your work.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is predominantly sad and dark in its nature. But what is the overarching message to date?
A: I think it would be that even in the darkest times, hope can be found. There is beauty in our struggles and our sadness – both make us who we are. And instead of trying to hide those feelings or repress them, we should embrace them and know that there’s nothing wrong with not being okay. That sadness is a universal feeling, and that gives us a sense of unity.

Q: So is it a message to yourself?
It started out as a message to myself, without me even realizing it. I created images that told personal stories, but it wasn’t until I’d been doing it for a while that I realized that despite the sadness in my images, there was (almost) always an element of hope. And when I started sharing my work online, I realized that I really am not alone in this. I wanted to share that with people. I put my vulnerability on display for everyone to see, and it’s scary, but it helped me spread my message of hope.

Q: You first developed a love for photography at 13. What sort of pictures were you taking at that time?
A:  I was photographing anything and everything. I shot my little brother and sister a lot, and I documented our family trips and vacations. Then I started getting into and was fascinated by conceptual photography, so I experimented with that by doing self-portraits. I think that’s when I started telling stories through the pictures I take, without even realizing it.


Q: Many of your images today comprise just one female…often not showing a face. Why is this?
When I started, my images were either self-portraits, or I got my sister to model for me. It was out of convenience, fear, and vulnerability. Convenience because I didn’t have to go look for models and I could shoot any time I wanted, fear because I was afraid of working with other people (what if they hate the idea? What if they hate the picture? What if I’m actually a horrible photographer?), and vulnerability because the stories I wanted to tell were so personal, I knew the feelings I wanted to portray in my images because I felt them all, and I wasn’t sure how to explain it to people.  And that’s why I don’t show faces, I didn’t want people to know it’s me. It went on for a while and I started doing it even when I’m working with models.

Q: Are your subjects really trying to break free?
A: Sometimes they are, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they want to escape, see the world. Live and not just exist. But sometimes the darkness gets addictive, and they want to stay there because it’s comfortable, because when you’ve already hit rock bottom, you can’t get any lower.

Q: Are you trying to create new worlds through dreamlike photographs?
A: In a way, I am. Living in the UAE means we only get around 3 months of “winter” – meaning we actually get clouds! And rain, if we’re lucky. I love clouds, I love cold weather. But because it doesn’t happen often here, I create it.

Q: Describe your shooting style.
A: Fast. I don’t rush through anything, but most of the time I know exactly what I want so it doesn’t really take that long to get what I need. I experiment with posing, especially if I’m doing self-portraits because I can’t see what the pose looks like on camera so that’s probably the one thing I spend the most time on. I’m very clear and concise when I work with models – I tell them the story behind the image and show them inspiration images or sketches that I’ve drawn.

Q: Tell us about your experience with Hasselblad
A: One of the things I was most impressed by was the sharpness and clarity. After every shot I took, I zoomed in to 100% and squealed. I could see every single detail where I had my focus, and I love shooting with a shallow depth of field so even the areas that were starting to blur looked absolutely stunning.
For ‘The Storms That Rage Inside Us’, I only had one day to shoot because I was working with a model and rented equipment. Everything worked out perfectly and everything about the camera was super easy. The H5D-50c enabled me to shoot with clarity and perfect colours – especially skin tones -in any light. It was very accurate indeed.

Q: Do you find it at all ironic that perhaps even in a small way this camera, renowned for its capability in very low light, has been instrumental (or at least helpful) in both enabling you to create your ‘dark’ images but also enable you to emerge from your own ‘black dog’ darkness?
A: I do. But it wasn’t just the camera itself. Being contacted by Hasselblad in a way helped me emerge from the darkness a little. Because if this incredible company is willing to send me a camera that costs quadruple (if not more) than the one I own, then I must be doing something right, and they believe in me. That helped me build up confidence in myself.


Q: Pick one favourite image that you shot with the Hasselblad) and explain why it is a favourite.
A: From ‘The Storms’ shoot, it would be ‘Surrender and Despair’. I love that one because I often find myself in that exact same state of mind: it feels like although the storm has passed, and the worst is over, it would just be so much easier to give in to despair and surrender. Because with surrender comes acceptance, and it takes so much strength and courage to get back up. And you wonder why you should get back up when you know you’ll face more storms, so wouldn’t it be better to just stay down? It’s a never-ending cycle, and I do get back up eventually, but it takes everything in me not to give in to it.  Another reason it’s a favourite is that when you zoom in to 100% you can see the girl’s tears.

Q: How important is Photoshop to you?
A: My pictures only come together on Photoshop, and that’s what enables me to create my own worlds. All my conceptual pieces go through a similar process – compositing and frame expansion, skin retouching (sometimes it’s only about desaturating skin – just to make people look pale), colouring, and adding texture.

Q: Has photography made you happier than you ever have been to date?
A: Yes, for sure. For the longest time I’ve struggled to find a way to express my feelings and I experimented with writing, painting, drawing and music. but nothing ever stuck. Photography was it for me and knowing that I can channel the negativity into something beautiful makes me feel happy.

Q: How challenging is it to be working as a young female photographer in the UAE in 2016?
A: It’s challenging for quite a few reasons, some of which mainly have to do with the kind of work I create. I’ve been stopped by the police a few times because I was on my own in a deserted location in a dress. It’s quite unusual for people to see a girl wandering alone on beaches and deserts in fancy dresses with a bunch of weird props (shovels, swords..) And even when I’m not alone, people are just not used to seeing stuff like that. I also think that photo-manipulation is still not 100% accepted here, in the sense that people adore ‘classic’ photography, getting everything in camera without any manipulation. And that’s not something I’m interested in, I’m not interested in documenting reality.

Q: And what about the next five years?
A: I want to write a novel. I want to create something that combines two things I’m passionate about: beautiful words and beautiful pictures. The novel would include pictures, but it wouldn’t be a graphic novel. You’ll just have to wait and see.
Right now I still work for my father’s company. He designs and builds yachts and I help with the design interiors – but I also want to make photography a full time job and have my own studio.

Q: What is your message to other photographers who may be similarly challenged with depression?
A: You are not alone. Vulnerability isn’t a weakness, it’s a strength. Channel it into your work and you’ll see how it changes dramatically. Use your pain as inspiration.

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