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“It’s important to shatter boundaries

Lebanese-American photographer Rania Matar captures women emerging from their cocoons

Rania Matar’s fascination with the mother-daughter relationship has led to an international career photographing young women, connecting with her background to break cultural stereotypes

“I lost my mother very young,” says Rania Matar. “I was three, so I grew up without a mother, and I’m fascinated by the whole mother-daughter relationship. I see myself in every young woman I photograph.”

Young women and girls are at the heart of Matar’s work. The documentary, portrait and fine art photographer was born in Lebanon in the 1960s and lived in the country until, aged 20, she left to study in the United States. Now a mother, she is based in Boston but still spends around a quarter of her time in Lebanon, her work focusing on the lives of women in the USA and Middle East.

Despite also having two sons, it was observing her two daughters that drew the former architect into photography. An early project A Girl And Her Room (2012) began with her older daughter, then 15, and looked at teenage women in their bedrooms. “It was about that space they live in, all the stuff that surrounds them, and their search for identity,” says Matar. “The bedroom is the one space they could control.

Later, she photographed her younger daughter at the age of 12. “She was a late bloomer,” recalls Matar. “I was fascinated with her, how her body was changing, how her attitude was changing, that fleeting pre-pubescent woman. I found it so beautiful. That became a project called L’Enfant-Femme (2016).“ Subsequent projects have also centred around young women and on mothers and daughters.

Matar’s fourth book, SHE (November 2021), stems from the work that landed her a 2018 Guggenheim Fellowship and contains portraits of young women in the United States and the Middle East, including Lebanon, Egypt and Palestinian refugee camps. The women, all in their late teens and early twenties, are “leaving the cocoon of home, entering adulthood and facing a new reality.” As someone who left Lebanon as a young woman, this was a moment in life Matar could relate to. “I realised this work was again very personal to me: girls who left home. A lot of my photography’s autobiographical in some way. My work was always, from the beginning, showing the unseen and personal.”

Matar works in medium format film, travelling light, usually using just one camera. Taking these latest portraits was a collaboration between the photographer and her subjects. 

Christilla, Rabieh, Lebanon, 2010

“The process is very organic. We’d get out of our comfort zone and push the limits a bit as we climb on rocks, jump or walk in the water,” says Matar. “I don’t go with any staging in my mind. We create it together to go beyond the regular portrait. There’s a sense of discovering things and stars aligning, so we have this “Wow” moment that happens. These women are not being passive in the landscape or in the space, but they’re presiding over it. There’s a sense of risk-taking, of adventure. I wanted to focus on that notion of being present and about them feeling powerful.”

The idea of empowerment was central. Young women are perhaps the world’s most photographed group, but they’re often presented in a sexualised way, photographed by male photographers for male viewers. Matar didn’t want to avoid showing a sexual side to young women, but it’s on their terms. “I’m photographing these women very much like a mother,” Matar explains. “For me, it’s very much a womanly look at them. I’m inviting them to be who they are in these images. If there’s something sexual in there, they have the right to express themselves. We’re all sexual beings, right? But a lot of that is in the eye of the beholder. I hope there’s more in my work about the power of these women than about the sexualising of the woman. That being said, a lot of people do sexualise girls, and that’s very wrong.”

Jana (Behind the Window), La Maison Rose, Beirut, Lebanon, 2019

Another key strand to Matar’s work is representing women from the Middle East in diverse and multidimensional ways that go beyond limited perceptions many people have, especially in the West. “I became a photographer after September 11. That was my big moment that changed my whole career. There was that whole ‘Them vs Us’ rhetoric that was so prevalent in the United States. Before that point, I wasn’t thinking about who I was. I was just working, having kids, buying a house. I was American by then. But then it hit me in the face that “No, this is who I am.” Since then, I started photographing in my two cultures.”

“I live in a place where the Middle East is viewed in a very negative manner, and women are often viewed in that typical oppressed, veiled trope,” Matar continues. “People just have one idea of what Middle Eastern or Arab women are. For me, it was important to photograph in both of these cultures, the US and the Middle East, and to focus on our shared humanity. Some women I photograph in the Middle East are veiled, some are not. Some are Muslim, some are Christian.”

Working to expand understanding and resist stereotypes felt like another personal mission, motivated by Matar’s own heritage. “My parents are Palestinian, so ‘Palestinian’ is part of my identity,” says Matar. “I care about that side of my identity and daughters’ identity. But home is in the United States and Lebanon. I have those two sides to my identity. I live in the US. I’m American. My kids are born here. But the Lebanese identity is very much part of who I am. I feel I’m equally connected to both cultures.

“For me, it’s very personal to include all aspects of Lebanon,” she continues. “I’m not a religious person but Lebanon has 18 religions, so when you talk about beliefs and people look at the Middle East with one lens, it’s very wrong. Artists representing the Middle East often want to focus on the exotic side and they’re fascinated by the veil. I have some veiled women in the book, but it’s a non-issue. People don’t know there’s a Christian population in the Middle East, or that many Muslim woman aren’t covered, in Lebanon, at least. It’s important for me to just shatter those stereotypes, on a personal level. That’s why I became a photographer.”

Wherever she’s working, Matar wants to present her subjects as individuals, not types or tropes. “We’re all individuals going through emotional and physical changes,” she says. “Putting a label on somebody  – she’s Arab, she’s American, she’s Jewish or Muslim or whatever it is – is limiting. We’re all a package of many identities.”

Kefa, Gambier, Ohio, 2018 | “I met Kefa in Gambier Ohio where I was doing an artist residency. She is from Nigeria originally, The SHE project started in rural Ohio, where I fell in love with the landscape and started photographing young women in relation to the transitional landscape that they found themselves in, once they left the cocoon of home.”

People look at the Middle East with one lens.

To draw out each woman’s individuality, Matar has carried with her the lessons she learnt from her early projects. “What drove me to photography and why I fell in love with the medium was photographing my children,” she explains. “That defined all my work moving forward: falling in love with the mundane, with the beautiful moment where not much is happening. That taught me a lot about the importance of intimacy in photography. I work very close to the people I photograph and I strive to have that intimacy in all my work. That opens up a space for women to feel comfortable. It’s a matter of taking the time, giving people space to express themselves.”

Nour, Beirut, Lebanon, 2017

The world’s been through a difficult few years and not just with the Covid-19 pandemic. American politics has been in turmoil, characterised by division, misinformation and a swing to the Right, as has happened in the UK, Brazil and elsewhere. In Lebanon, an explosion at the Port of Beirut on August 4, 2020 killed around 217 people and injured 7,000, a catastrophe for a country already struggling from corruption. 

Matar hopes her work can show the resilience of people in the face of such disasters and challenges. “The one thing I’d like to see more of is kindness,” she says. “I come from a country, Lebanon, that’s completely falling apart. After the August 4 explosion in Lebanon, I thought I wanted to document the explosion. The government is letting them down. But I realised I’m sick and tired of that. People don’t know how much beauty there is and how much kindness there is. The young generation in Lebanon is incredible. They’re the ones who were cleaning the debris. I went back to Lebanon to photograph all the beauty and kindness of the youth. These are the ones who are the future of the country.”

“Up until recently, we also had a pretty unkind government in the US,” she adds. “But even during the Trump period, there was so much beauty then too. Even during Covid, I was able to reach people and have that sense of connection and connectivity. It’s vital to show the power of young people. There’s so much kindness and beauty. It’s easy to forget. But I don’t want to forget that it’s there.”

Rania Matar: “I see myself in every young woman I photograph.”

What’s so good about this?

Photography can be extremely powerful in showing unseen worlds and giving people a picture of the planet that doesn’t conform to lazy stereotypes. That’s what Rania Matar does with her work.

She uses photography to present women, especially women of the Middle East, who are multidimensional and individual – to break down divisions of Them vs Us.

SHE is out now on Radius Books, with photography by Rania Matar and texts by Mark Alice Durant and Orin Zahra.

Meet the writer

Graeme Green is a photographer and journalist who’s been travelling the world for 20 years reporting stories and photographing wildlife, people and places for international publications including The Guardian, BBC, The Sunday Times, New Internationalist, Wanderlust, British Journal of Photography and Digital Camera. He covers subjects ranging from wildlife and conservation to human trafficking. Graeme is also the founder of the award-winning international wildlife conservation initiative, newbig5.com. You can follow his work at graeme-green.com and on Instagram @graeme.green.

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