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Rania Matar: Tracing a Universal Womanhood

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Rania Matar did not anticipate a career in photography when she first started making pictures of her kids in the late 1990s. Schooled as an architect and living in the suburbs of Boston, she started taking photography workshops while pregnant with her fourth child. Her record of simple, mundane moments of beauty developed into an unspoken familial bond.

Photographs © Rania Matar // INSTITUTE

A Day in the Life (Hop on Pop), Brookline, 2006

“It became this kind of relationship we had,” she says. “Instead of doing something else, I was so present with their life, and with the child play that was going on.”

As Matar immersed herself in her children’s world, she discovered the photographic connection varied as a function of age. Her two oldest, twins, were around five or six and, “They were starting to be more self-conscious.” Yet, the process of photographing her younger children was, “so organic,” she explains. “My younger daughter was just kind of my perfect model. She was always wearing these princess clothes and playing, and she was so unaware of me being there with the camera.”

Morning Before School, Brookline, 2004

From Household to Homeland

In tandem with making pictures of her children, Matar also began to photograph during visits to her homeland of Lebanon. In the wake of 9/11, she sought to tell a different story about the Middle East. In 2002, a cousin brought her to visit a Palestinian refugee camp. “I grew up in the [Lebanese] civil war, so my circle of where I could, and couldn’t go was very small,” she explains. “I was shocked that people lived in those conditions, so close by.” This led her to produce a series of candid portraits documenting the lives of the camp’s inhabitants.

Open Window, Bourj El Shamali Camp, Tyre, Lebanon, 2005

While she kept much of this early work to herself, Matar received some indelible advice when showing both series to former LIFE magazine Photo Editor Peter Howe, at Review Santa Fe, in 2005. “He told me, ‘you need to achieve the same level of intimacy with everybody you photograph, as you do in the pictures of your kids,’” she recalls. “After that, I feel like it became something that I took to the next level.”

Over time, she discovered how to find the right channels for contact with the families in the camps. “It was really a matter of developing relationships,” she says. “Eventually I learned how to make people comfortable, and to feel comfortable with them, and then the rest became more natural and organic.”

A Girl in Her Room

As her children grew and became more self-conscious in front of the camera, Matar found that the magic in their candid moments of play was not as present. “They were at school, so it was not this nonstop play at home anymore,” she explains. “My kids were getting older and my work was transforming.”

Andrea, Beirut, Lebanon, 2010

In contrast to the immediacy of her early work, where she was simply an observer of her subjects’ lives, Matar’s next series became a more deliberate exploration of identity, inspired by her eldest daughter’s teenage years.

“I knew I wanted to do something about teenage girls, so I would photograph my daughter when her friends would come over,” she notes. “I suddenly realized how much I didn’t know about her when she was with her friends, because she was completely performing for the other girls, they were all performing for each other. At that point I decided I wanted to photograph each girl by herself. I started photographing friends of my daughter, and then daughters of my friends.”

Matar selected the privacy of each girl’s bedroom as a framework for the pictures. “What was interesting was that I could see the way a lot of these girls were talking to their moms, or the attitude they were projecting on the outside, but when I was in their room, I could see their vulnerability, and they kind of exposed that to me,” she points out.

Mimi, Winchester, Massachusetts, 2011

While her early work was pre-digital, shot on black-and-white film using a medium format Mamiya 7 II and a 35mm Leica M7, Matar turned to a Nikon D700 for the series A Girl in Her Room, after first trying some pictures in medium format. “I was in a very intimate setting with the girls, so I didn’t want to bring lighting and a tripod,” she explains. “Digital gave me a lot of flexibility with the ISO, and I could shoot in pretty dark settings when needed.”

While these images are highly structured, Matar does not view them as posed portraits. “It was more of a dialog that was going on, and this organic intimacy that developed throughout the photo shoot.”

Typically, a session would start with a girl sitting on her bed, smiling for the camera. “They were so aware, they didn’t know what they were doing,” says Matar. “I’d make a couple of photographs, then put my camera down and start talking to them. As soon as the camera would go down, the girl’s back would relax, and she’d start playing with her hair, so I’d pick up the camera again. I was guiding them by watching the things they were doing when I wasn’t holding my camera,” she adds. “It was like pressing the reset button every once in a while.”

Alia, Beirut, Lebanon, 2010

This subtle, unspoken dialog also gave the girls room to become part of the shoot. Often, as the session was winding down, a subject would realize she wanted something more from the experience. “We would suddenly get to another level of intimacy and collaboration,” notes Matar. “The girls understood that it’s about them, it’s not about me.”

As this series developed, Matar found that she loved discovering the people she was photographing with fresh eyes. “I realized how liberating it was when I started photographing girls I didn’t know, because I was no longer associated with being the mother, I was their photographer,” she says.

A Universal Womanhood

Just as with her early work, Matar continued photographing for A Girl in Her Room during trips to visit family in Lebanon. “For me, this isn’t a documentary project, it’s very much about identity,” she explains. “I am from the Middle East, and I am American and it was very important for me to photograph girls and women in both places. This became consistent through my work moving forward.”

Mariam, Bourj al Shamali Palestinian Refugee Camp, Tyre, Lebanon, 2009

Exploring the two facets of her cultural background also had import as a response to the “us and them” rhetoric of a post-9/11 world. As Matar notes, “I am them and I am us. I was dealing with my own identity, with my daughter’s identity, and with the whole political climate we live in.”

Most important, the pictures became a way for her to explore the concept of universality. “Of course, each girl is different, because every person is an individual with their own kind of very personal identity. But there’s something very universal about being a teenage girl, whether it’s in Lebanon, in a Palestinian refugee camp, or in Boston, in the sense that they are all going through that same transition and turning into adults,” she explains. “They might be dealing with it different ways, but they’re all dealing with it.”

One takeaway from the scope of Matar’s photography is how the similarities outweigh the differences. “The lines are much blurrier than we think they are,” she says. “In some of the pictures, you have no idea if the girls are in Lebanon or the United States. And they are all connected to the world now, through Facebook, and through all sorts of social media.”

Amal, Shatila Palestinian Refugee Camp, Beirut, Lebanon, 2009

As an example, Matar recalls a photo session with a girl from in a refugee camp, who did not have a bedroom of her own. “She was expressing herself in pictures of Hannah Montana that she had hung all over the inside of her closet,” says Matar. “And, even though she had her head covered, she was dressed and posing exactly like Hannah Montana. There was something very endearing about that.”

L’Enfant Femme

In the same way that her older daughter inspired A Girl in Her Room, Matar’s younger daughter soon became the inspiration for another portrait series, focused on pre-teens.

Tynia 12, Norwood, Massachusetts, 2012

Where she previously stressed the intimate relationship of a girl with her bedroom and what she surrounds herself with, this series became more about a relationship to the camera, regardless of setting. “The only thing I asked these girls is to look at me and not to smile, so the gaze is important,” she explains. “It became very much about how the girl is projecting herself to me and to my camera.”

Another fundamental difference in these pictures is Matar’s switch from digital back to her medium format analog camera, this time using color film. “These are girls who are trained to be photographed, because they are growing up in a selfie culture,” she says. “They’re so used to the immediacy of seeing their picture on the phone. They practice being photographed—with the selfie mask, I call it—and I’m telling them I don’t want any of that. When I showed them my camera, they didn’t even know what film was,” she adds.

The girls’ inexperience with this picture-making method made them take the shoot much more seriously. “It became a very different relationship to the camera, where they had to think about how they wanted to project themselves,” Matar points out. “These pictures are more about the specifics of the poses and the attitudes. They’re more self-aware about how they want to project themselves but, at the same time, there’s such a beautiful awkwardness that they cannot control, because they don’t know. Its part of being 10 or 12, where in some ways they are still very much little girls, yet also starting to be aware of their womanhood.”

Lavinia at 11, 13, and 15, Brookline, Massachusetts (click to view full frame)

Since beginning L’Enfant Femme, in 2011, Matar has delved deeper into the lives of her subjects by returning to photograph many of them after two or three years. Often posed in the same location, this extended portrait series traces the subtle transformations that occur during adolescence. Titled Becoming, this offshoot of Mater’s earlier project, “became about the passage of time, about the girls growing up,” she says.

Women Coming of Age

As Matar is the first to admit, all her work is autobiographical. To this end, her oldest daughter’s departure for college offered a natural progression to her next series, focused on older women. “I realized this was a big transition for me as a woman,” says Matar. “While I still think of myself as a kid, now that I had a daughter in college, I really wasn’t a kid anymore.”

Karen, Brookline, Massachusetts, 2014

As she would discover, making these portraits became much more complicated. “These women are much more vulnerable in front of the camera,” she says. “With the girls, they don’t know how to hide it yet—the emotions, the awkwardness, the self-assurance when it’s there—whatever is, it’s on the surface, everything is in your face. With the older women, I felt that they know how to hide it, and I had to get through many more layers to get to the same point where I’m observing them with their guard down, where they’re not performing for the camera.”

Connecting with Her Subjects

From her initial dependence on finding models through her children and other personal networks, Matar moved away from photographing women and girls just within her immediate circle. “I work so much better with subjects I don’t know, especially with older women,” Matar admits, “because, if they know me, I have to say, they are more self-aware.”

Nisreen, Bourj El Barajneh Refugee Camp, Beirut, Lebanon, 2015

Nowadays, she often finds her subjects by approaching strangers whom she finds interesting. While she used to simply hand out a copy of her card, over time she realized this put too much of the process in another’s hands. She now asks prospective subjects if she can send them a blank e-mail from her phone, and then follows up with a detailed query, including a project statement and link to her website. “This way they can see that I’m legitimate, and I’m not putting them on the spot to give me an answer right away,” she says.

This refined approach to street casting has proved very successful, and has a potential to spread. “Once you photograph someone and they get the project and enjoy the session, the whole circle expands through referrals that are even further from your immediate circle,” she says.

Mothers & Daughters

During one of her photo sessions for Women Coming of Age, a subject’s daughter was present, and Matar asked her to join in. “I knew I was onto something, and then it kind of grew organically from the combination of all my other projects,” she says.

Benedicte, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2014

Like much of her earlier work, Matar’s latest series, Unspoken Conversations: Mothers & Daughters, is made with her medium format Mamiya 7 II and color film. Yet, including a second subject in the pictures adds a new layer to the process. “I’m a little more involved,” she says. “I’m observing two people, with their whole set of body language and attitude, but I’m also observing the relationship between them.”

This series also requires Matar to manage expectations about what the resulting photographs will look like. Not only does she prefer to pose her subjects in unexpected settings, “which are less manicured and more personal,” the portrait itself is an impartial study of generational resemblance. “I explain very early on that I’m not going to try and make a mother look younger than she is,” says Matar. “I’m focusing on what it is to become a middle-aged woman with an adult daughter, because this is who I am as well, so it’s somewhat autobiographical on all levels.”

Wafa’a and Hasna, Bourj El Barajneh Refugee Camp, Beirut, Lebanon, 2016

What started as a simple means of capturing the fleeting beauty of child’s world has turned into an interpersonal exploration with a much greater scope. And, beyond the obvious connection to her current role in life, Matar’s Mothers & Daughters series sheds light on a very personal layer of her past, which in turn speaks to the depth of her inspiration in the work. “I lost my mom when I was three years old, so I don’t have a mom,” she explains. “I’m really learning those relationships with my daughters firsthand.”

Susan and Nelle, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2016

In late 2017, Matar’s work will be featured at the Amon-Carter Museum of Art, in Fort Worth, Texas, in the solo exhibition, In Her Image, on view from December 23, 2017 to June 17, 2018. To learn more about her photographs and gallery representation, visit her website’s contact page.

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I Love those Titles for her own Work, indeed! I took up Photography for the first time in my own life, when I was back in High School because I Love Photography! I am blessed with the Title called "Mothers and Daughters" because I took that picture in Film Photography at Riverside Park for Dale Strattman's Introduction to Photography (now Black & White Photography Studio 1) as a class back in the Summer of 2005, in where I passed that class, in which I got an A+ because I really do endure and to enjoy with the passion of Photography. Finally, remember this to Stay Blessed because they are in Good Hands, and from now on indeed!!!

Great piece Jill. I gave a copy of Rania's book  A Girl and Her Room to my daughter.  

Thanks for the compliment on this story Chelsea, and what a great mother/daughter gift to give! Thanks so much for reading Explora!

I have been following her work for many years. Great work.  I teach photography and show her work in my classes all of the time.  

Many thanks for adding this comment. It's great to hear that you introduce your students to Rania's work. I hope you'll share a link to this article in your future classes as well! Thanks very much for reading Explora.

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