Rock your ugly - A book review from the perspective of a top-notch photographer.
Updated: Apr 2
In a modern world where almost everyone thinks that taking a selfie is the most important task of the day, there is someone for whom the image is truly everything.
Waleed Shah is a UAE based professional photographer who takes his craft and his subjects extremely seriously. His first book Rock Your Ugly has just released this morning and it uncovers stories of redemption and courage through the flash and purity of black and white images. Men and women from around the world have embraced their scars and their souls in the 221-page hardback book.
Published by The Dreamwork Collective in the UAE, meeting Waleed made my whole purpose as a fellow photographer and writer gain impetus. In his own words, Waleed believes he does not belong to any particular country or region. "I am your brother," he tells me with a half-smile. I have to admit, it was the first time in a long time that I've actually felt comfortable interviewing someone who was so willing to bare their soul. This was no time for masks, be it disposable or even designer variety.
As he told me about the journey that he undertook way back when he was not comfortable with his own body, I began to realise that this book is a project that is so close to the author's own heart. "I've always believed in exercise and being fit but when my back gave me a few issues back in 2009, I stopped exercising altogether and developed a pot belly." It is when a very close friend passed away that Waleed took out his notebook and decided to dedicate his own time to documenting how he was feeling. "I whipped out my notes, decided to not get depressed and figured, ok photography is something that I've always loved. I am back in this region after living in Toronto for a while. Why not?" He laughs about the fact that his work in a music studio was well-received and people started asking for freebies. "I've always loved to talk to people and when they opened up to me and shared their very vulnerable stories, the exchanges we shared was remarkable," says Waleed.
Through a number of successful commercial projects, he purchased a host of modern equipment and pushed his craft. Today he can work from anywhere in the world, be it Abu Dhabi or Ajman. Of course, his unique eye has helped. It's no wonder that he has been featured on the covers of various Arab and English publications. His love for languages and for story-telling has engaged topics that are otherwise considered taboo and overtly controversial.
"When my photography assignments grew I soon realised that people would pay for my work so I switched from a job in chemical engineering to photography and never looked back." He believes his calling was to tell the untold story. As he shares the stories of women from Beirut and New York, he describes how each of them is not just a canvas but a survivor.
He has been already featured on Sky News and on Arabic TV channels but is unfazed by all the attention. When I ask him, when he decided to stop documenting material that was too personal, he smiles and says, "That's a good question."
"While this whole experience was so liberating I didn't want it to bring me down either. I decided to stop when the stories had done themselves proud and I too was in a better place mentally and physically."
Waleed was just waiting to share the stories of triumph, no matter the circumstance. It is both empowering and engaging and I hope more people think like him.
Waleed Shah, UAE - based photographer - Image and text: Abigail Mathias