DUBAI: Mohammed Jubran, 33, spent almost his entire youth afflicted with stomach pains and depression, which damaged his grades and drained him of all motivation.
It took quitting his career and even leaving the country to see the world through a camera lens to help turn his life around.
Today, Jubran is well-known among the locals of his native Al-Ahsa in eastern Saudi Arabia for snapping their portraits on black and white film and using the stark contrasts of light and darkness to capture their angular features and subtle emotions. In the process, he has exposed his own inner darkness to the light.
“What I like about taking portraits is that these are people I live with. They shared this earth with me, and I want to immortalize them,” Jubran told Arab News.
It was during middle school when he first laid his hands on a camera, but it was only years later, during a trip to Turkey in 2017, that his journey into photography really began.
“I started walking around with my camera, taking pictures, and I really fell in love with it. When I came back (to Saudi Arabia), I started to explore more tricks in photography and started to shoot around me in my neighborhood, taking a lot of portraits.”
Born in Al-Ahsa but raised in Al-Khafji, a town bordering Kuwait, Jubran said his university days were among the darkest of his life, weighed down by a heavy cloak of depression. “It was a real obstacle for me. I got dismissed twice for low grades even though it was not about my intellect.”
Mental illness remains something of a taboo subject in conservative Arab societies. With limited outlets to discuss such conditions openly, particularly for young men, those grappling with inner demons often keep them bottled up inside.
Dr. Haifa Al-Gahtani, a pioneering Saudi psychiatrist, told Arab News in June that while there was an abundance of medical doctors in the Kingdom, the number of qualified therapists and mental-health professionals remains comparatively low.
Uncertain what to do with his life when he graduated in 2011, Jubran felt his way into the corporate world. Eight years on, he wanted out.
“I was diagnosed with depression in 2010, but I can trace the symptoms back to 2003. So, during that whole period I had no idea until I was diagnosed. It’s not a very easy thing at all. The culture we live in doesn’t shed light on this, so you’re oblivious,” he added.
The traditional sources of guidance provided little solace. “I visited so many sheikhs and religious people for help,” he said, but to no avail.
A SAUDI MENTAL HEALTH CAMPAIGN
A major nationwide campaign entitled “Your Mental Health Comes First” was launched in Saudi Arabia in November. It is a joint initiative by the Saudi Sustainable Development Association (Talga) and the Ministry of Health’s National Center for Mental Health Promotion (NCMH). The goal is to raise awareness about anxiety, depression, and work burnout and ways to prevent and treat the conditions. By 2030 officials hope to train at least one-third of people living in the Kingdom as mental-health first-aid practitioners.
Talga and the NCMH recently hosted the first of their collaborative mental-health first-aid practitioner training courses. Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training programs have been Arabized and adapted culturally by Saudi experts. Mental-health training is expected to help achieve socioeconomic targets of the Vision 2030 reform plan and Quality of Life Program’s goals.
Many people experiencing a mental-health disorder find it hard to pin down the exact cause. Often it is a combination of factors. Jubran thinks his conservative upbringing placed a particular strain on his psyche.
He said: “I was raised in a very conservative family and I’m not that conservative, so I had a clash there. I also had stomach issues, which, it can be argued, started the depression. Usually, they work in a vicious circle — one triggers the other right away.”
Jubran has Crohn’s disease — an inflammatory bowel condition which can cause frequent bouts of pain and discomfort. But he believes there is more to his mental state than the illness alone.
“I’m not really sure why but I believe it’s genetic and I was inclined to feel depressed. I can’t pinpoint it exactly because depression is vague. I was just depressed and not motivated at all.”
Something had to change. Burned out by his unfulfilling job, Jubran resigned to instead embrace his true passion for photography and retrain as a therapist to help others overcome mental-health disorders.
“I had a long journey with depression, and I feel I’ve accomplished my way out of it. I feel it could help people, which is why I wanted to get certified as a therapist. I’m done with corporate life. I can’t live as a capitalist anymore,” he added.
The light finally dispelled the shadows for the young Saudi when his relationship with photography flourished — and when he began to travel. It was during an adventure to the Indian subcontinent when he plucked up the courage to quit his job.
“My therapist suggested I do a yoga course in India for a month, and I fell in love with the country,” Jubran said. “I absolutely loved it. I came back home, quit my job and went back right away for three months until the pandemic hit, and the Saudi embassy provided us with a way out.”
He described his time in India as blissful, between backpacking and discovering himself, to meeting new people and taking as many pictures as possible.
“Because of depression, I wasn’t very social, so I struggled a lot when communicating with other people.
“To overcome this, I traveled alone so I had to interact with other people and get out of my comfort zone, which helped me a lot. I say photography is what got me out of depression, but it took me to India. Yoga helped a lot with depression, and it gave me the motivation to go back to India,” he added.
Along India’s popular tourism trails he was exposed to all walks of life, which helped him better understand himself, grow in confidence, and feel more comfortable in his own skin.
“Depression was keeping me in the same spot for a very long period. When I went to India, photography opened that for me and showed me the spiritual and philosophical parts of yoga. Photography really guided my way out of depression,” he said.
As the eldest son, and having lost his father at an early age, Jubran was worried his family would not accept his choice of work and lifestyle. He was pleasantly surprised by his mother’s support.
“A lot of things about my family were deluded because of depression but I’m now being myself with my mother, who’s very religious” he said. “When she saw the changes, she loved it. A mother will always love her children.”
Jubran has recently relocated to Riyadh to pursue his career in professional photography, having worked for a time in a studio to build up his portfolio. “There isn’t a bigger business opportunity than in the capital,” he said.
But his interest in black-and-white portrait photography continues to be a source of catharsis.
“Taking portraits is something I do for myself. I go out to souks and markets, and take photos based on the light available,” Jubran said.
“The essence of photography was just lights. Even as a child in art class at school, I never colored my pictures. It expresses what I need to express in the photo. Colors can be distracting.”
He hopes to one day publish his work in a coffee table book. After all, the mental health benefits of a creative outlet can scarcely be overstated.
“It’s part of identifying yourself through expression,” Jubran said. “It’s crucial for each individual’s personal experience, and as a community, to reflect their ideas.”