This article is part of the Khaleeji Art Series, which spotlights artists and art from the Gulf region.
Can photography change the world? Enas Sistani certainly believes so. The 33-year-old is becoming Bahrain’s most well-known, promising young photographers, and for good reason. Her recent conceptual photographs, which revolve around the theme of mental illness awareness, have captured the attention of a wide spectrum of individuals across the Gulf region, and has even been covered by international media outlets, and are already making a difference, she tells us.
We speak to the self-taught photographer about her artistic beginnings, her recent transition from street photography to conceptual photography, uncover why she has been interested in raising mental illness to begin with and discuss whether or not photographers and artists have an obligation to shed light on issues of social importance. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When did your photography journey begin and how?
Enas Sistani: I have always had an eye for art. I grew up drawing, and used to draw almost every day, but then gradually stopped. I think for the most part my love for art has always been extant and I simply, unknowingly, replaced my passion for drawing and sketching with photography instead. I would take pictures, but never really took them seriously, so I never cultivated that hobby. It was only after a solo trip to Europe in 2016 that I decided to pick it up again. I did not own a camera then, so I relied entirely on my mobile phone to document my trips, and the positive reaction that I received from people after posting the photos on my social media made me consider pursuing it professionally. That is when I decided to purchase a camera and begin teaching myself photography.
Where did your Instagram handle @solovagabond come from and what does it mean?
Enas Sistani: The name came to me after the trip that I took to Europe in 2016 that kickstarted my journey in the field of professional photography. Given that I embarked on the journey alone which was also when I first started taking photos, I decided to look for a name that would be different and unique for my Instagram account and so I chose ” Solo Vagabond,” meaning a wanderer who travels alone.
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What inspires you to take photographs?
Enas Sistani: For the most part, my own experiences do and the emotions and feelings that I encounter while going through them. At times, I also tend to translate whatever hot and current topics that we are experiencing as a community and society into photos. An example of that would be a series I created on living in a patriarchal society as a woman and how many incorrectly believe that a woman’s worth is only ever restricted to her cooking and looking after her household. While I might never have experienced that personally, but reading about it and knowing people who have, drove me to try and portray that into photos.
What themes do you enjoy exploring in your work and why?
Enas Sistani: I started out venturing into street photography because I enjoyed – and still do enjoy- capturing raw moments of people, unfiltered and as is. I find beauty in the ability to capture a person’s life and finding meaning in what I am seeing. That one image could hold a thousand stories within, and leaves so much room for interpretation, just as a piece of poetry would. I then decided to try other forms of photography and right now, I am investing in conceptual photography because it gives me the opportunity to highlight many critical and important topics, as well as build a platform to start conversations around them. Conceptual photography to me, is more than just clicking to capture a photo. I find it to be performative in a sense; it requires conceptualizing the shot, framing it and paying attention to details to make it appear in the same manner that you envision it in your head. It is a whole intricate process.
Why have you recently decided to explore mental illness themes in your photography?
Enas Sistani: My first project on mental illness was designed to tell my own personal story as someone who suffers from borderline personality disorder (BPD). I wanted to be able to not only talk about what it was like living with a mental illness, but also how people, society and the community perceive it.
In my photos, I depicted the impact that people’s words could have on a person with mental illness. I wrote the words and statements that I received from people as a reaction to my mental illness such as “must be due to your lack of faith” or “your BPD is rubbing off on me” on my skin. In those photos, I wanted to show how such words could have a lasting effect akin to a scar on a skin. My work talks about the lack of awareness and education in this region of the world, and how important it is for people to get to understand mental illnesses better as a stepping stone to seeking treatment and overcoming the implications.
“I hope to be able to implement positive change in the world and be able, through my photography, to shed the light on topics that people are too wary to talk about due to societal restraints, misconceptions, or the like.”
After posting those photos on my social media they went viral and were showcased on BBC Arabia, VICE Arabia as well as the Al Hurra Channel. I was also approached by so many people who started telling me about their experiences with mental illness, and how difficult it was for them to talk about it to their friends and family as many would just shrug them off rather than support them to seek treatment. I am, however, happy to see a major shift in people’s perception of mental illness nowadays as many are beginning to talk about it openly, creating a community of support as a result.
Ever since, I have also produced a series of photography on balancing medication and a healthy lifestyle as a person with a mental illness. This idea was inspired by my personal experience with taking medication for my BPD and realizing that meds alone are not a savior to all of my problems. It is important to acknowledge that while medication can be helpful, other factors can also play a vital role. To me, those were exercising and investing in things that I like, such as photography. There is no one fixed solution when it comes to mental illness. It is important to seek professional help and see what works best for you.
Do you think that photographers and artists have a duty to shed a light on issues of social importance through their work? Why?
Enas Sistani: I wouldn’t say they have duty, but I did find in photography a platform to be able to convey to people how I feel about important topics. I found it to be easier because people are much more receptive to visuals. When you present them with a photo, you can say so much through it without taking up much space, and that is the beauty of photography. That being said, I think that utilizing art in spreading awareness is an excellent way to do so and that also prompted a school of art called “art for social change,” after the realization that art alone can contribute to positive change in the world.
What do you hope people get out of your work?
Enas Sistani: I hope to be able to implement positive change in the world and be able, through my photography, to shed the light on topics that people are too wary to talk about due to societal restraints, misconceptions, or the like. I want to be able to be the voice of the unheard and that is exactly what I have been doing by addressing controversial topics such as mental illness, gender stereotyping, living in a patriarchal society, women empowerment and many more. My dream is to be able to touch people’s lives in a positive way.
To find out more about Enas Sistani, visit her page on Instagram.
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