Mental Illness From Shadows To Light Through Asheville Photographer By Way Of London

Jan 13, 2021

Farhad Kanuga's exhibition is on view in the lobby of UCC Asheville through january.
Credit Matt Peiken | BPR News

While coming of age in London, Farhad Kanuga felt pulled in two directions: Taking part in the political and social protests pervading the city and documenting those protests with his camera.

“I felt I was a photographer as well as being part of the demonstration, which as I grew older, I learned it goes one or the other—don’t go as both,” he said. “Just missing moments when you’re cheering or what have you, doing something other than keeping your eye on what’s going on, being ready for that click.”

While he has pursued documentary photography for more than three decades, Kanuga is just now, in his early 50s, having the first exhibition of his work. A series on the residential environments of people suffering mental illnesses is in the lobby gallery of Asheville’s United Church of Christ through January. Kanuga hopes viewers see mental illness as more prevalent than they might have realized.

“That’s one of the big things I took away from the whole experience, just the level of chaos in these people’s lives,” he said. “At the same time, (it’s) being swept under the carpet.”

Kanuga is of Iranian descent and, while he’s attuned to the issues of his family’s homeland, he said he hasn’t been to Iran since he was age 9. He worked for a number of years for a couple different London press agencies, largely shooting concert photography and occasionally, against his editors’ desires, breaking away to document protests. 

“I was so disillusioned with what I saw as the world of documentary photography that I thought, ‘I’m talking some time out, gonna drift off and do my own thing,’ and I have been,” he said. “There’s so much more freedom in not doing it on a commercial level. Money can’t replace that feeling of being your own editor.”

Kanuga has largely earned his living in construction. He moved to Asheville three years ago to marry a woman he met online here. He arrived for this conversation wearing a Trader Joe’s nametag and said he hasn’t had the easiest transition to local life.

“I started off by working in a petrol garage on Merrimon Avenue and I’d get people walking in with guns on stuff on their hips. It was a huge cultural change for me. I mean, most people in London don’t carry guns,” he said. “So, yeah, it was a bit nerve-wracking for some time and occasionally still is, to be honest.”

Kanuga shot his series on mental illness in London over a five-year span, just before arriving in the U.S. While he did photograph some people, he sidestepped privacy concerns by only including photos of the residential squalor and neglect in his exhibition. The show wouldn’t have happened at all without a chance encounter with a member of the UCC church while he was photographing Black Lives Matter murals painted last June.

“Some of it’s confidence, to be honest, and some of it’s been my previous inability over the years, I found myself getting quite stressed trying to do a really good exhibition-quality print, and either not being able to do it or having the patience to do and giving up on it,” he said. “I suppose it comes down to a bit of focus and a bit of confidence.”