Since time immemorial, woman as muse has been an endlessly recurrent theme that has threaded itself through the fabric of almost every society in history – societies, which incidentally, concurrently, were often positively soaking in patriarchy. And yet women emerge as the victors when it comes to fuelling inspiration in art. Men asked to be painted; women were asked.
Lebanese-American photographer Rania Matar has found their inspiration to be so profound, so infinite, that her work for the past 18 years has focused almost exclusively on women – almost in fact, to the exclusion of nearly all other subjects. “For me, the focus on women was almost intuitive,” she recalls, “I remember when I first started photographing and I showed my work to somebody, he said ‘Where are the men in your photos?’ And I was like, oh my god, where ARE the men in my photos?!”
Reem, Doha Lebanon 2010 from the series 'A Girl & Her Room'
The renowned photographer’s work revolves around interrogating images of femininity and identity. It has been exhibited the world around, featured everywhere from the Carnegie Museum of Art to the National Portrait Gallery in London; she has a slew of awards and grants to her name; three published books under her belt; she teaches photography at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design; and was recently named a Guggenheim Fellow for 2018. She is, to say the least, accomplished.
My work is about womanhood; about growing up and growing old. About a woman’s physicality, vulnerability, and presence.
Hiba, Shatila Palestinian Refugee Camp, Beirut Lebanon, 2010 from the series 'A Girl & Her Room'
Her photographic work however, was not always so sharply focused on the feminine; in fact at one point she was not even involved in the industry. Born and raised in Lebanon, Matar moved to the US in 1984. She originally trained as an architect at the American University of Beirut and at Cornell University. Her foray into photography began with wanting to capture the often overlooked, the mundane, in our daily lives; it then evolved to capturing the often overlooked, the mundane, when it comes to the merging of female experiences across divergent cultures.
Roni, Brookline Massachusetts, 2013, from the series 'Women Coming of Age'
“I came to photography late. I started it first when I was pregnant with my fourth kid - I really wanted to take better pictures of my children,” she recounts. “Once I started, I realised that I wasn’t taking the pictures I thought I’d be taking. Instead, I got to appreciate the very intimate, mundane moments at home that are just very beautiful. Photography made me appreciate life in a way, by making me observe moments that I didn’t notice before.”
Thalia 8, Brookline Massachusetts, 2015 from the series 'L'Enfant Femme'
That was in 2001, and then of course, September 11th happened, and like for any Arab living in America when it occurred, its impact was intense and indelible, pushing to the forefront more so than ever, the question of identity. “I was born to Palestinian parents, raised in Lebanon, and lived in the US for most of my adult life. And after September 11th, it was all very divisive; everyone was considered The Other. But I am Them and I am Us and I am The Other and so it became important for me to start getting that story.”
...in all of my work, the women and the girls are mixed between the US and Lebanon, to focus on our sameness in a way.
Dania 9, Bourj El Barajneh Refugee Camp, Beirut Lebanon, 2011 from the series L'Enfant Femme
At first she delved into photographing the everyday experience in refugee camps in the Middle East; her series Ordinary Lives was a haunting black and white documentation of the existence of the displaced among walls gaping with rocket holes and scarred with bullet marks. But as she shot this, she soon realised: the subjects she was capturing were women.
Hanging Laundry, Aita El Chaab Lebanon 2006, from the series 'Ordinary Lives'
Her work soon began to take more concrete shape; girlhood, womanhood, but more so than that, the blurred lines between women Here and There; the commonality of the experiences of women in the West and women in the East.
For arguably her most famous series, and the one which kickstarted her core focus on women, A Girl and Her Room, she captured young women within the context of what, at that age, is often the sphere that contains them the most, and likewise contains the most expressions of themselves; their bedrooms. L’Enfant Femme focused on pre-teens; Becoming captured teenage girls; Women Coming of Age revolved around middle aged women; Unspoken Conversations paired teenage girls with their mothers; and her current work in progress She is about “young women in their early 20s in relationship with the landscape and the physical space that they occupy.” “My work is about womanhood; about growing up and growing old,” Matar mulls, “About a woman’s physicality, vulnerability, and presence.”
Chase at 16, Brownfield Maine 2016, from the series 'Becoming'
In all of her series, aside from women as the constant, the other thread of consistency is that they all feature an amalgam of women from the US and women halfway across the world in Lebanon. “There’s a fascination in the west with like, viewing women [from the MENA region] in a one dimensional way, almost like they’re oppressed. There’s a fascination for instance with the veil (the hijab) and we are so much more than that,” she says, “It’s important for me to portray that; in all of my work, the women and the girls are mixed between the US and Lebanon, to focus on our sameness in a way.”
Nour #4, Beirut Lebanon, 2017, from the series 'She' (a work in progress)
Matar derives what it is to be a girl, a woman. Not what it is to be a Lebanese girl or an American girl or a Palestinian girl. There is a sameness that courses through the veins of our collective experience as women; it’s intrinsic and unintentional, it’s just there. And by virtue of her hyphenated cultural background, Matar sees beyond the things that separate, and finds a universal commonality in the female existence.
Even though every girl is very individual, and I don’t want to take that from her, in general we’re all going through that same transformation.
Wherever you are in the world, that transmogrification from pre-teen to teenager is universally awkward phase; getting your period, and having your hormones change, and your worldview shift – it happens to everyone. Whatever your geographic coordinates, coming to terms with being a ‘middle-aged’ woman is an inescapable phase of your life, however you deal with it, whatever your surroundings. And every mother-daughter relationship the world over is fraught with beauty, weight, reflections, and complexity.
Elizabeth and Austin, Boston Massachusetts, 2016, from the series 'Unspoken Conversations'
Matar looks at the experiences that bleed into each other, no matter where in the world you are. She photographs women in wholly dichotomous surroundings; privileged neighbourhoods in Boston, and refugee camps in Lebanon and the West Bank, and everything in between. And yes, some photos can be instantly placed – walls in refugee camps scarred with the marks of conflict, a veil that betrays a girl’s Arab background – but many are indistinguishable; is this room in the Middle East or Midwest America? In this woman from Boston or Beirut? And that is exactly what Matar wants.
Christilla, Rabieh Lebanon, 2010, from the series A Girl & Her Room
“There’s this kind of orientalist lens through which people want to view women from the Middle East and challenging that is actually very important to me. The goal is not to draw a comparison between them [women of different cultures] but to focus on the universality and essence of being a girl or a woman. Maybe their goals are different, and their lives are going to be different, but they are dealing with that same set of issues. They’re all connected; even in the refugee camps,” Matar shares. “Even though every girl is very individual, and I don’t want to take that from her, in general we’re all going through that same transformation.”
Sophia #1, Arlington Massachusetts, 2017, from the series 'She' (a work in progress)
In a post 9/11 world – and now again in a post Trump world – where tensions highlighting differences are more inflamed than ever, Matar’s work in some small way, carries cultural and political weight, to try and blur the barriers between East and West. “It’s important for me to portray that – it kind of came from somewhere personal. This is how the work on some level might have become, not overtly political, but maybe a little bit political.”
I look at the in-between moments. I’m looking for more than what people consciously want to offer me in front of the camera
Matar herself lost her own mother at age three, and that loss inadvertently informs much of her work. “I’m learning it all first-hand you know?” she says. In her work, she considers what it’s like to have a mother, to be a mother, and having missed out on that relationship in her own childhood, part of it is that she now seeks it out in others.
I don’t know if it was a guy photographing the women, if they’d get to that same level of intimacy.
Her portraits are intimate and arresting; they capture the quotidian and the transient – the sort of regular day to day moments that fill a girl’s life as she moves from one stage to another. It is the ordinary. “That’s who we are, right?” There is no fancy gloss; no one is dressed up or made up; no elaborate sets are constructed behind them. Their backdrops are by and large the narratives and landscapes that their own lives are set against. And in a way, it is even harder for someone to not put on a sort of mask and pose in front of a camera; it’s more difficult to have somebody in your intimate personal space and show them your vulnerability. It is raw, and it is almost invasive.
Hellen, Snowmass Colorado, 2016, from the series 'She' (a work in progress)
“I wanted to kind of get a sense of reality. So I look at the in-between moments. I’m looking for more than what people consciously want to offer me in front of the camera,” Matar explains. And in her own capacity as a woman, she believes she is able to be allowed in some sense to reach a degree of personal vulnerability that a man may not have been afforded. “I don’t know if it was a guy photographing the women, if they’d get to that same level of intimacy. There’s something about me being one of them and getting to that personal level, so they’re pretty intimate relationships.”
Nisreen, Bourj El Barajneh Refugee Camp, Beirut Lebanon, 2015, from the series 'Women Coming of Age'
The process of being allowed into a venerable personal space however, is layered and slow. Matar’s series are often shot over many years. “It takes a little bit of time to get there,” she admits readily, “They don’t know what to expect so I spend a long time with them. I take some photos, I put the camera down, and in the meantime, I’m observing. I start talking to them and at the same time, I’m getting a feel as to who they are.”
Rania Matar. Photo courtesy of Helena Goessens.
We are, not only in this day and age of selfies and Instagram, but throughout history when a camera is pointed at us, conditioned to pose. Smile and pose. But Matar wants to look beyond that. “As soon as the camera goes down, you see kind of like…they just let go a little bit. I play off that mood like, ‘Can you hold that?’” she shares. “I want them to look at the camera and I ask them not to smile, because they are so trained to do that and I want to stay away from that. Once they’re not smiling, then they have to think about what to do with themselves. So here, I’m looking a little bit for that….beautiful awkwardness?”
And that succinct little phrase perhaps encapsulates best what it is to be a female and isn’t that what Matar captures in her pictures? Art imitates life, and life, as it unfolds – girlhood, womanhood, and the in between – all of it, it is beautifully awkward.
Matar's work will be featured in a solo exhibition opening next month at the Cleveland Museum of Art. For more information click here.
You can check out her website here or follow her on Instagram @raniamatar.
All images (c) Rania Matar. Courtesy of the artist, Galerie Tanit, Beirut and Robert Klein Gallery, Boston.