An Existential Encounter

First published as Foreword to a Photographic Exhibition by Marwah Almugait, from Saudi Arabia.


"​Existentialism is the philosophic notion of Self Awareness” according to Irvin Yalom and its form of therapy explores the facts of life and how they affect the individual without making prior judgment.

It enables one to approach issues common to all feeling and thinking human beings at different consciousness or awareness levels, that might otherwise seem or be labeled as ‘morbid. Here, we have to face head on our existential predicament of aloneness, mortality, suffering, frightening freedom and entailed responsibility.

The Mood Diary, through photography by Marwah Almugait, is an honest and voluntary attempt to observe or be witness to the inner subjective experience of the subject – Mona – as she battles the diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder.

One extra challenge here taken is the location of the project, in a conservative Saudi Arabian culture; that doesn’t necessarily value the openness or candid exposure of difficult psychological truths happening to the individual. Rather, it substitutes and shrouds these terms within a religious fatalism or criticism making the personal burden heavier to carry.

But through these moving and powerful images, we can see the subject grapple with the inner demons in her private home and in her day-to-day life. Her mind so afflicted, the pictures reflect the highs of mania and the lows of depression, the cyclical nature of the mood swings, the anguish, despair, sense of loss and grief for a life that could or couldn’t have been lived.

There are also images that describe the fragility and delicateness of the subject’s psychological identity within the disorder. The role of the past on influencing the present and some regrets are hinted at, as well as the sense of revolving realities where the manic energy and depression are played out.

Still, we must not take the subject as an object in this project or to lest confine her to the illness. She is a living, breathing and moving human being who has affected the photographer in ways only possible within an existential encounter.

We will make an analogy with the practice of therapy. Yes, it does usually occur between a qualified person and her client in a formal setting. But its objective is to help the client come to terms with her life situation, examine her choices and to learn to positively change them. The good therapist also validates the unique personal struggle and aids the client to move forwards with the insights gained.

Underlying ‘existential’ therapy in particular, is to alleviate the many identified and undeniable postmodern symptoms we all share to some extent or other: the sense of anxiety or panic and dread, nihilistic inclinations, carrying shame and guilt, apathy, alienation, rage, resentment, addiction, violent emotions and ultimately madness.

Through the process, one is to become silently but actively aware of death, finitude, fate, freedom, suffering and the entailed responsibility for our lives. As Jean-Paul Sartre wrote: “We are our choices.”

To take the metaphor further along into phenomenology, the technique used in existential therapy during a formal session, the therapist has to create a conscious setting in a safe place for the client and put aside any preconceptions or dogma regarding her ‘condition’.

The therapist interacts to discover and explore the client’s actual subjective experience of ‘being’ and reality. Whilst the usual method is to listen, reflect back to the client and gently provoke their mindset through verbal exchange and body language, it is also possible to utilize more creative ways to achieve similar insight. 

In this project, it is evident that Mona was open and receptive to the artistic experiment and happy to express herself freely in a way that perhaps she wasn't able to do so before. She took a proactive role in choosing some of the concepts here used; and the photographer followed, directing the shots whilst suspending her judgment and focusing on the unique personal story. 

Through the images and the clever use of camera, lens and lighting, we are invited to the subject’s inner reality. The content also exhibits and reflects an approach by the photographer that is without denial, without avoidance and without distortion.

It brings to mind Rollo May, a leader in the existential therapy movement, who wrote: “I do not believe in toning down the daimonic. This gives a sense of false comfort. The real comfort can come only in the relationship of the therapist and the client or patient.

Further on the existential encounter: “The encounter with the being of another person has the power to shake one profoundly and may potentially be very anxiety-provoking. It may also be joy-creating. In either case, it has the power to grasp and move one deeply.”

The therapeutic relationship thus requires the building of a sacred trust to let in a closeness, warmth and honesty moving both participants to human and psychological awareness. In this way, the Mood Diary has been, for the photographer and her muse, such a powerful existential exchange that will affect them both for quite some time.

As the woman behind the camera, Marwah said: “This project opened my mind into the darkness and I wanted to put the light to see what is really inside. It was like having the keys to a locked room and I’ve seen the unseen. Through the photographic process, I felt like I was x-raying what was in the mind of my subject. Truly, with photojournalism, you never know where you might end up.”

To quote Irvin Yalom again: “The realization and knowledge that we influence others in ways that are positive can provide a sense of meaning in our lives. That is also why loneliness is so deadly.”