On WE ARE SAATH's Instagram page is a photo of a woman dressed in black standing with her hands around her neck, as if holding herself back from speaking. The caption below her reads: “Stop being dramatic."
The post, published Thursday afternoon, is the first in a 12-part series that aims to start a conversation on stigmas surrounding mental health in the South Asian community.
The photo series was created by student-run group WE ARE SAATH at UNC and features teams of models, photographers and makeup artists who came together to show different ways young people experience mental health issues — as they are often misunderstood by older generations.
“They seem to think that mental health is this Western idea,” Creative Chair Pareen Bhagat said. "We thought to give them a different perspective would be to maybe try and show it through a lens that has not been used before, which is fashion."
How the show began
The idea for the project came to be in a MEJO 121: Intro to Digital Storytelling class, when Bhagat featured President Hrishika Muthukrishnan in an assignment that focused on mental health in South Asian communities.
“Hrishika had put it, in one of the videos I’d done, really well,” Bhagat said. "You go to a doctor for a broken leg or something, so why wouldn’t you go to the doctor if you’re having mental issues?"
After the class project, Bhagat joined WE ARE SAATH and the two decided to collaborate on a fashion show centered on stigmas surrounding mental health.
But, almost immediately, they encountered obstacles.
The COVID-19 pandemic eliminated the possibility of any attendees at the show, they had limited venue options for shooting, and they still needed a crew of photographers, makeup artists and models.
Financing the shoot was also tricky at first. Muthukrishnan struggled to get funding from UNC’s Student Government, despite multiple pitches, while Bhagat got back higher than anticipated quotes from fashion designers. They were worried the show wouldn’t happen.
But soon, things started to click. The money from Student Government and Arts Everywhere flowed in, and Bhagat realized she could source the clothes at a cheaper price from her home country of Zimbabwe.
As vaccinations became more widely available, the group was able to secure a field for a full day of shooting and recruited South Asian models from WE ARE SAATH. The shoot was finally coming together.
'We are here for you'
In every aspect of the shoot, Muthukrishnan and Bhagat said they wanted to highlight how mental health is a misunderstood topic in South Asian cultures.
One of the models, Shivam Bhargava, appears in a group of people dressed in all black in one photo. He has the word “HELP” written on his back and a sheer black veil over his head, which Bhagat said represents being shrouded in stigma. The photo caption reads: “This isn’t how we raised you.”
As the show goes on, their costumes change. The outfits become more colorful and bright, the models’ characters become more joyful and the designs reflect a modern version of traditional South Asian garb. It symbolizes transformation, shedding the stigma around mental health and unity, Bhagat said.
These central themes determined everything from how they staged the photos and did the makeup.
“We depict this togetherness in all the poses, the way we orient all the people,” Muthukrishnan said. "We believed that we needed to plan out each look very distinctly to effectively show our message.”
The photos from the show are being posted on WE ARE SAATH’s Instagram, and they also plan on posting videos from the shoot on YouTube.
Through this project, the group hopes to show young people from South Asian communities dealing with stigmas surrounding mental health that they are not alone.
“If you are in the transition stage, we’re here for you,” Bhagat said. "And even if you’re still in the black outfit stage, we are here for you if you ever need to reach out to places; there are people that are in the same position as you."
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