“The more specific you are, the more general it will be.” – Diane Arbus
The Lebanese-born, Massachusetts-based artist Rania Matar photographs girls, young women, older women, and mothers and daughters to tell insightful and touching tales about the transitions all women go through in life. Her work combines my favorite subject (women’s stories) with my favorite medium (photography), so asking her for an interview was a no brainer. Her images jump at you from the page (or screen). The subjects look square in the camera, and so the resulting photographs are at once understated and strangely confronting. They spoke to me in a major way.
Your work focuses on girls and women. Why did you choose this as your subject?
I started taking photos in Lebanon after September 2001 and without even realizing it, I was photographing just women. When people started asking me why this was the case, it hit me then that I was missing half the population! So I went back to Lebanon to photograph men and realized that I wasn’t that interested. As I was not commissioned to do this work, I had the luxury of creating very personal work and could photograph whatever I was most drawn to, whatever was most natural to me, and whatever I had the most access to. I’m a woman and a mother; I wanted to tell that story. Another aspect is that often in the Middle East, women bear the brunt of political situations they have nothing to do with but they are the ones who bring peace to the home and bring the family together. It was important for me to show that side. I was in awe of them, really.
All my work is about identity: identity as a girl, a woman, a mother, and also about my own identity as a woman from the Middle East living in the States. I want to focus on our sameness, our universality. All women and girls experience the same transitions in life. Maybe on the outside, we express these differently—depending on our geographic location or culture—but we all go through transitions that are universal no matter where we are from. This is really important for me. I’m choosing to focus on women’s universality and not on whether she decides to wear a veil or not. There’s such a fascination with the veil in the West, but it’s just a piece of cloth. You can focus all you want on the political aspect, but at the end of the day, there are things that are pure human.
What have you learned from photographing girls and women?
When my first project Ordinary Lives was completed and published into a book, I became fascinated with my then teenage daughter so I decided to do a project on teenage girls. This work, which eventually became A Girl in Her Room, really made me understand and appreciate my own teenage children. It made me more tolerant as I saw the vulnerability and fragility of girls that age, even when they’re trying to hide it. These young women let me into their lives with trust and grace. I chose to photograph teenagers I didn’t know previously as it was important for them to be able to let their guards down and be themselves. If I was a friend of their mother’s, for instance, this might have not happened!
Yes, you told me over our emails that you have four children. Tell me more about how having daughters influences your work.
I have two daughters. The older one is a twin, with a twin brother. She’s 21. The younger one is 17. She’s the one I took to spinning class this morning. (laughs). Towards the end of A Girl in Her Room, which was inspired by my older daughter, I became more interested in the younger girl’s body language, posture, and how she chooses to present herself to the camera. My younger daughter, who was 12 at the time, then inspired my next project, L’Enfant-Femme. One day, she was sitting like a little woman—without even knowing it—and my father-in-law saw her and said, “Look at her. L’enfant-femme.” And I was like, that’s my title.
I’m interested in your Unspoken Conversations – Mothers & Daughters series. Can you talk a bit about that?
We talked before about how being a mother influences a lot of my work. When my daughter went off to college, I started photographing women in so-called middle age. My role as a mother shifted into another phase and this was another transition, just like A Girl in Her Room shows the transition to older teenager and L’Enfant-Femme is about a girl entering puberty.
And then I found myself photographing moms and daughters together without thinking about it being a project about mothers and daughters. It was an organic and natural development. L’Enfant-Femme and Women Coming of Age were very much about the relationship of the woman or girl I was photographing to me and to the camera. Here there was a layer added which showed the relationship of the mother to the daughter and vice versa—and not only to me. And this negative space or lack of space between them became important.
This series particularly spoke to me as there a few unspoken conversations between my mom and I. I couldn’t help but imagine what a photograph of us would look like. What’s the process of you taking these photographs? Do the mothers and daughters tell you about their unspoken conversations?
The process is quite organic. I approach people I find interesting on the street and ask them to be in my photos. I know instinctively what I’m looking for. Also the people that I photograph refer me to others. I shoot in the women’s homes and I always choose the specific location. The mothers often want me to shoot in the nicest room or in the one they’re most proud of, but I walk around the house and think visually, like where is the best light, background, etc. Often it is far from the space anyone expects. Another thing I found is that it’s easier making the daughters relax as they are used to having their photograph taken (selfie culture and all that) but it’s harder work with the mothers. Older women are more self-conscious and there are more layers for me to penetrate. I know I would be self-conscious if I was paired with my 17 or 21-year-old with perfect skin!
I usually let my instincts guide me in how the shoot progresses. First, I just start shooting to get the women at ease and see how they choose to act in front of the camera. As for personal stories, we talk about them a little in between shooting. When I change rolls of film, I also observe what the mothers and daughters are doing when the camera isn’t pointing. I then often ask them to hold a pose they’re not even aware of. I don’t like talking while I work—it’s distracting. I also like not knowing too much about the person beforehand and let the visual and instinctive process take over. Eventually, it becomes more collaborative.
Is there a photograph from this series that is particularly memorable for you?
There are a few. The one of Joanne and Brenna (main image) is memorable because there’s this clear physical and visual line between them—like a symbolic divide. They were standing on either side of it. At one point they linked fingers. I didn’t ask them to do this!
The one with Brigitte and Huguette was really emotional for me. It’s the only one that doesn’t show a young girl or woman with her mother; it shows an older woman who’s herself a mother with her mother. I don’t know if you know but the older woman is the famous Lebanese painter Huguette Caland. And in the photograph she’s wearing her painting smock but she’s no longer working. And when I was shooting them, I felt so much emotion between them that I started crying and this made them cry. You can see the redness in the daughter’s eyes. As I put the camera down, Huguette said: “You’re an artist. Keep photographing. Emotions are important.” It was a very powerful moment.
Another important photo is the one of Soraya and Tala. This one helped me define my project. It was captured after I stopped shooting and put my camera away and they both just stood there, each of them with very distinct posture. It was this moment. And they look so similar, but also together and alone, there’s almost a time lapse in there.
They really do!
And I love the body language. The mother looks like she’s closing herself off and the daughter has such an assurance in her pose. And this is the one that influenced me to show this line between the mother and daughter. Not necessarily to use it, but to get it.
Has your own relationship with your mother and/or your daughters influenced the series?
I lost my mother at three years of age so I guess I’m really fascinated with the whole mother-daughter relationship. And when I started having children and daughters, this only got stronger. There’s also a difference between a girl who’s becoming a teenager and one who’s becoming a young adult. And my daughters have had one or both of these transitions. So when my older daughter left for college, the relationship between us evolved into something else—more of a close friendship than just a mother and a daughter.
I also love your Women Coming of Age series. A woman reaching a certain age and what this means (menopause, losing your sexual currency) is not explored sufficiently in the media, I feel. Do you agree?
Definitely. Someone like Meryl Streep will always be around, but lots of women that age become kind of invisible.
Are there differences between the way women perceive aging in the States and Lebanon?
Without generalizing and just as an impression, I found that women in the States have more of an opportunity to reinvent themselves in older years. In the US, you still see women starting careers or getting married at 60. This happens in parts of the Middle East too, but to a lesser extent. But overall, to be willing to participate in this project and expose themselves as women of a certain age already shows that these women are open-minded and special. I don’t know if I could have done it myself and I give them all a lot of credit. I developed many close friendships because of this project.
Another series I really like is L’Enfant-Femme, which is getting published in a book. What’s the series about?
This series is about the younger girls, preteens, and how they first become aware of their changing bodies, their sexuality, their femininity. I worked with the younger girls in a very different way to the way I worked with the older teenagers. The fact that I shoot on film puts the girls out of their comfort zones because they don’t even know what film is! They don’t understand why they can’t see the picture on the back of the camera. So it’s serious for them, which is important to me. And I ask them not to smile, which makes them think about what to do with their hands, other parts of their body. It’s very much about the identity of the girl expressed through her posture: One part of her body could look like she’s trying to strike a glamorous pose while another could show that she’s still a kid. It’s subtle.
To me, it looked like you were commenting on the hypersexualization of young girls in the media.
Some people might unfortunately view it this way, but it is important to remember that the girls are very innocent and that I am photographing through the eyes of a mother. I think it’s very easy for adults to project more on those images than what’s in them, and this sadly reflects on us as a society and not on the photographs or on the girls. The girls are starting to be aware of their womanhood and they naturally want to project it—some are more at ease with their changing bodies and others are more self-conscious. I don’t know how much of the poses come naturally and how much come from what they see in magazines. If you start looking more at the details, you can see there’s also an awkwardness there that I find very endearing and beautiful, a mix of fragility and strength.
I guess this says something about the culture we live in. That when we see images of really young girls like this, we immediately think of hypersexualition.
I don’t know if I would have posed like that and whether my older daughter would have because she was more of a tomboy at that age, but my younger daughter did. I have another series (in-progress) called Sweet Transformations, for which I photographed preteen girls and then re-photographed them three years later. It’s very interesting to observe the differences in the body language and posture when they’re pre-pubescent and then when they hit puberty. The one of Dania is pretty powerful. It was taken at a refugee camp. Before puberty she was confident in her pose, but after puberty, she’s hiding herself.
The last series I’ll ask you about is A Girl and Her Room. I loved it! My bedroom was such an important place for me when I was growing up and I’ll never forget my closet, see-through phone, cassette player, and posters of Leonard di Caprio. It was my place of solace. What do you think a girl’s room reveal about her?
A girl’s room says a lot about her. This is a place where she’s on her own, where she can surround herself with what she wants, where she can explore, and be herself. She can listen to what she wants, put what she wants on the wall. It reveals a lot about culture as well. I was putting similar stuff in my room when I was that age; it’s just that the posters were of different bands! It’s not only showing a girl’s private space, but it’s also a portrait of an era. And I think it talks a lot about globalization because you see that even in refugee camps, a girl has pictures of Hannah Montana in her room. There’s something very touching about that.
So when did your interest in photography begin?
I was working as an architect and I was pregnant with my fourth child and we had this photographer who came to take our family photos. And it was always a complete circus. I had taken a lot of art in college, so I thought, “I could do this.” I started taking workshops, got into photography seriously, and then started photographing my kids. And I realized that I was photographing my kids in a very different way than what I thought. Photographing my kids made me appreciate the simple moments of daily life and showed how important intimacy is in photography.
So after September 2001, I was still working as an architect, and the news at the time was very negative. It was ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and everyone in the Middle East was almost portrayed as a terrorist. I wanted to tell a different story. So I started going back and forth and discovering new areas of Lebanon that I didn’t know before. Eventually I found myself doing photography full-time and never went back to architecture.
When I first showed my work, someone noted that the images I was taking of my family were more intimate. It was a ‘wow’ moment for me, and I strived for that intimacy in all my work ever since.
And finally, describe your photographic style in three words.
Personal, intimate, and I hope, universal.
L’Enfant-Femme, published by Damiani Editore, comes out in spring 2016. It will be pre-released at the Paris Photo Fair in November. For more books, visit Rania’s website. If you live in the US, Rania’s work can be seen at four exhibitions in various states this summer/early fall. Check this page for more.
All images courtesy of Rania Matar/INSTITUTE.