Waleed Shah on breaking stereotypes

It is supported by the Rebecca Vassie Trust, a UK-based charity which promotes the art of narrative photography through granting bursary awards to up-and-coming photographers, and funding public education projects. This podcast has full editorial independence, and the views expressed in this series are not necessarily those of the Trust. 

In this episode, we talk with Waleed Shah on how he uses photography to break stereotypes and challenge societal norms, in both his personal and commercial work. In creating work with and about people of other cultures, he acknowledges the importance of cultural sensitivity, and the importance of learning from people who truly understand the culture. Waleed discusses how, in commercial photography, it’s possible to set up a scene specifically to alter perceptions of a particular group of people. He also describes his upfront approach to ethics, and how commercial brands may respond to this.


Highlights of the talk

  • In a masculine dominated society, you’ll have the man driving and the woman in the passenger seat so, you know, when I saw that visual, I hadn’t seen the visual before shooting, but when I was shooting and I saw them sitting there I was like guys, this is so stereotypical, let’s switch this up. So we switched up the lady having her in the driver’s seat, and it’s like a muscle car and they’re having a light interaction, not a flirty interaction. So it’s those societal norms or those stereotypes that you kind of try to break so it’s not just another lame ad.” (6:49)

  • “From an ethical standpoint, what I understand with documentary photography, it’s like you want to keep the scene as is, you don’t want to touch it, you know because you’re documenting what is happening in reality, you don’t want to pose people, you don’t want to crop in a way that changes the story. Whereas in commercial photography you can set up the scene in a way to change perceptions.” (8:40)

  • “It’s generally resistant, to be very honest, it’s generally resistant. But the people themselves, the people working for the brands, understand it. But there’s always this expectation that my boss won’t approve it, my boss won’t like it and if only that person was in the room with us I could take them into it.” (9:47)

  • On cultural sensitivity for The Father’s Day Project: “I took a buddy with me who is from Kerala, his family’s there, he grew up there, and he really helped me navigate that culture, and also translate, and be respectful.’ (11:27)

  • It’s a strange way to put it but you actually get famous, you get well known for putting your foot down on certain issues. So once you put your foot down on one topic, the industry will know about it. And it can go both ways… One way it can go is the bad way which is, oh this is a difficult person. Let’s not work with them.” (17:44)


What does photo ethics mean to Waleed?


“I think it changes with every conversation. And that’s one of the reasons I actually don’t like having the questions in advance so I can’t really prepare the answers, and I just have to think off the top of my head. But I think today it’s about representing every culture and breaking every stereotype that you possibly can – when we’re talking about the commercial side of things. … representing the right cultures in an image and breaking the stereotypes of that culture because I think, at least in our generation, we’re kind of done with our parents’ generation of thinking. You know, we want to get rid of that. It’s all about the male, female roles, it’s all about cultural minority roles – breaking those stereotypes and levelling the marketing to include everybody.” (25:58)

Waleed Shah is a photographer, creative thinker, and entrepreneur from the United Arab Emirates. Coming from a background in chemical engineering, he started his career working in the oil industry and slowly discovered his love for photography. His personal projects include Rock Your Ugly which explores the intersection between physical and mental health and magazine cover which challenges societal norms. He has had the opportunity to work with industry leaders, talented local and international artists, and a wide range of brands. His photography was recognised by Fujifilm Middle East and he’s an official Fuji X photographer.

You can see some of his work at www.waleedshah.ae

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