“I am always skinny in my dreams, then I wake up and I’m fat,” says Alexander Mahmoud, who says he sees his obesity as the consequences of a psychological disorder.
“I work all the time, so I use the stress as justification to eat more, yet I also eat more when I’m happy,” he says.
One day his mother called him and said she had dreamed of him wearing a beautiful suit. He was thin. She said “I’m afraid I’ll die before you lose weight”.
He decided it was time to fight. Originally his idea to chronicle that battle was to photograph empty plates. Instead he began following a woman who signed up to the weight loss company Xtravaganza, with ready-made meals and shakes all part of the deal.
A few days in, Mahmoud decided it was time to turn the camera around – on himself.
His flirt with the extreme low-calorie diet company didn’t last long. He said it had all the hallmarks of a cult. In the first part of the project, entitled 73 Percent Fat, Mahmoud shoots the instructors in an almost heavenly light. They are always backlit, angelic, with fervour burning in their eyes. They are thin.
The pictures of himself, however, never have eye contact. They are always dark. Until something snapped and Mahmoud decided to look straight into the lens, part of a process of facing up to himself, he says.
Mahmoud says being fat has become a prism through which he sees everything. He is self-conscious about it when working. Especially as the Nobel Foundation’s official photographer, worried about how tight the space was between the first row and the stage at Stockholm’s Philharmonic Concert Hall during the awards ceremony. It was fine, of course.
And it has always been fine, more than fine. He interned in high school for the regional Smålandsposten newspaper, and soon picked up his first assignment for Dagens Nyheter (DN), Sweden’s biggest daily. What was meant to be a 10-page spread became 12 pages and the front cover of the culture section. Later on, the photo editor phoned him to offer him a summer substitute position – the dailies receive hundreds of applications for their annual holiday replacement schemes, but Mahmoud was hand-selected.
There is a purity about Mahmoud’s journalism that puts him apart from many photographers. A question if he has any idols is met with pregnant silence, as he racks his brains.
“I’m just learning from the other photographers at DN,” he says.
He also hates press scrums, and says he was ashamed of the Swedish press for their behaviour in Husby when unrest unfolded in late May. Huddled together in groups, the reporters were anxious, self-aware, and cynical.
“I get it, we need distance, we need to crack jokes to survive, but I was out there every night,” Mahmoud says, adding that the kind of media racket surrounding top conflict spots in the world means he sees little difference between covering breaking news and covering a press conference.
Unless you decide to break the mold, which he wants to, because he has several long-term projects underway or hibernating in the idea stage. He’s a story teller, and making himself the object of that story in 73 Percent Fat has made him understand what responsibility that entails.
That realization is, perhaps, a natural extension of years of self-consciousness, and therefore awareness of his surroundings. His sense of vulnerability made him see more. Mahmoud feels that he himself has been regarded all his life, not only because he was overweight when he was young, but he grew up as a half-Slovenian, half-Egyptian kid in Grimslöv, in the southern Småland region.
“We’re talking about a place where half of the people voted for the Sweden Democrats,” he recalls about his childhood home, adding that he never realized that he was darker skinned or heavier until he was about seven.
Bullied, he decided to adopt a clown role in junior high, as a shield, but quickly abandoned it.
“It wasn’t for me,” he says, before admitting, however, that he now realizes he is too kind because it affords him friends. Like the time he offered a colleague a ride across the country.
“So he won’t remember me as the fatso, he’ll remember me as the guy who did him a favour,” Mahmoud says, clearly aware of how self-effacing that kind of generosity can be in the wrong situation.
“I keep thinking about life when I am thin. I worry I won’t be kind anymore, so maybe it’s better to be overweight for the rest of my life… Then I realized that being kind is who I am.”
Yet he has never shaken off his self-consciousness, his conviction that others are looking at him.
“I’m very aware of my surroundings, maybe that is why I’m a photographer,” he says.
Having turned the camera on himself, Mahmoud says he has a greater understanding of what he asks of the people who let him close – he even photographed in the operating theatre when a man, born in a female body, had his breasts removed as part of gender reassignment surgery.
“I want to tell stories,” he says. “This project was a chance to be open with myself, which I want other people to be.”
He says the project changed the way he sees himself. He realized that he has taken after the workaholic tendencies of his father, who at age 65 is about to open a fourth restaurant. When The Local asks how many hours Mahmoud works a week, the answer is a high-pitched peal of nervous laughter.
“Working full-time in the summer as a sub is a holiday for me, compared to the rest of the year,” he finally responds.
The 73 Percent Fat project also made him examine his relationship to his mother, who is also overweight. He has even blamed her for his weight, but appears to idolize the woman who raised him.
She was there in person when he first gave a public presentation about his project in person. Speaking at the Kontrast Galleri in Stockholm, packed wall-to-wall with guests, his nervousness made speak in a sort of stream of semi-consciousness. He says, a week later, that he remembers nothing of what he said. It was clear at the time that he wanted to be open, but was editing as he spoke, interrupting himself at times and not finishing sentences, yet still tenderly laying himself bare.
At the end, after he had received a warm but polite round of applause, his older sister took to the floor.
“Alex, I just have to add something.”
“Ok…” said Alex, fear erasing the smile on his face. Yet the look of trepidation did not in any way deter his sister from speaking to the crowd.
“I’m so proud of my brother, this project made him grew up and become an adult.”
The subsequent applause lasted a good five minutes.
Editor’s Note: The Local’s Swede of the week is someone in the news who – for good or ill – has revealed something interesting about the country. Being selected as Swede of the Week is not necessarily an endorsement.
A longer version of the first part of 73 Percent Fat can be seen in the reportage magazine Re:public, available to buy online or in well-stocked news agents.