Written by Steve Carter
Photographer Rania Matar was born and raised in Lebanon, but moved to the United States in 1984. A Cornell-trained architect, she shifted to photography in 2000. In Her Image: Photographs by Rania Matar is her first monographic exhibition at a museum, and it’s a stunning, poignant collection of her work, which focuses on women—girls, adolescents, mothers, and grandmothers, in the Middle East and the U.S. Patron spoke with Matar on her recent visit to the Amon Carter.
PATRON: Congratulations, Rania, on the first exhibition of your work at a museum here in the States—
RANIA MATAR: Anywhere. I’ve had many solo shows, and I’ve had museum shows, but this is my first solo museum show, so that’s a huge deal for me.
P: And the 50 images that comprise In Her Image are culled from four different series?
RM: Yes, one of them is kind of a continuation of another one, but there are four.
P: The series are L’Enfant Femme, A Girl and Her Room, Unspoken Conversations, and—
RM: And Becoming—it emerged from L’Enfant Femme as I started photographing the girls two, three, four years apart. So the first image was part of L’Enfant Femme and then it developed into another series, so it’s about the passing of time, with the girls growing up and the moms getting older.
P: I know with Unspoken Conversations you’re exploring the “private bond” of the mother/daughter relationship—it’s somewhat disarming to encounter all these mother/daughter portraits, the obvious physical similarities, yet separated by the years.
RM: On some level I see myself in every one single one of the photographs in this Unspoken Conversations series, of the mothers and the relationship in every one of them. For me it’s very layered. I think for all these women the daughter is the younger version of themselves; there’s always that duality. There’s such a bond but there’s also the sense that you see yourself getting older…
I lost my mom when I was three years old and I grew up with my father—it was just me and my dad. So I’m really learning and experiencing that mother/daughter bond firsthand with my own daughters. And it’s as an adult with daughters that I’ve missed not having a mother.
A lot of the other work was inspired by my daughters as they were growing up—A Girl and Her Room was inspired by my older daughter when she was 15, and L’Enfant Femme by my younger daughter when she was 12 and her body was changing, and I wanted to capture that fleeting moment. Eventually, as my older daughter was about to leave for college, I became aware that my whole role as a mother was about to change.
P: How much input do you have in staging the photos and your subjects’ posing?
RM: It’s interesting because I was trained as an architect and I have a very good sense of space—it’s just there. For any project I typically photograph people where they live. I want to get something that’s intimate and personal, so it’s not about me or a studio, it’s about where they live. Once I get there, in most instances I pick the spot, but it often happens organically; we might start somewhere and then move somewhere else.
L’Enfant Femme is more about the girl than the space, and about where I have good lighting. But it’s really about the girl, her body language, her attitude, and what she does with her hands. And I do play a lot with mirrors. I love the extra layer—what you’re seeing in life versus what you’re seeing in the mirror is really very different.
With L’Enfant Femme I was shooting medium format film, not digital. These girls are doctored to know how to pose for a digital camera—they have the smile that they know, they know how to do it, and all of a sudden I’m throwing all that down the drain. I’m telling them, “I’m shooting film”—they have no idea what I’m talking about.
I want them to stay away from that “selfie” smile, so I’m asking them not to smile. Then they really have to think about what do they do with their bodies, their hands, and their heads. The details tell a lot about the identity of the girl. There’s often a duality, or more than a duality, where some part of the body is trying to pose like a woman, but then there’s something about it that’s so awkward, that I call ‘beautifully awkward.”
I’m trying to read people. When I shoot I’m often putting the camera down, and as soon as the camera goes down people will just kind of fall into whatever—they can breathe and let go, they might start playing with their hair or something. “Okay, can you hold that?” and I start again. It’s like pressing the restart button and it becomes collaborative… I find that with the mothers there are more layers. They know how to hide it more, and I have to get beyond that. I’m looking for the unguarded moment.
P: I think an undercurrent of the exhibition is bridges: you as a Lebanese woman who’s been here for 30+ years; the work bridging the cultural disparities between girls and women in the Middle East and the U.S.; the developmental bridges of girls becoming teenagers, and then women; and also the mother/daughter relationships, and the bridge between your younger self, becoming a woman, a mother, an artist—it’s like a series of through-lines—
RM: If that’s happening I’m very honored that you’re seeing it. Because I’m really photographing things that are personal to me, it’s autobiographical on so many levels. A Girl and Her Room was inspired by my daughter, and as I was photographing those girls I realized, “Oh my God, I was exactly that same girl 25 years ago”—in a different country, a different time, a different culture, but there’s something that’s so similar. And that’s why I took the project and started photographing in Lebanon as well, and it became important, especially with the political climate we’re in, to focus on that shared humanity. Girls are girls and women are women on some level.
I am bridging two cultures myself and I’m bridging the two generations by watching my daughters and where my life is now. There’s that bridge, seeing myself where my daughters were, but now being an adult woman; I think there’s something universal about that, right?
P: And whether you’re photographing in the U.S. or the Middle East there’s something strikingly similar in the coming of age, whatever the culture. That’s so valuable—
RM: Absolutely, it is valuable. Biology is doing its thing—some of these girls are growing up in the Palestinian refugee camps, some in a nice suburb of Beirut, some in Brookline, Massachusetts, but they’re going through that phase where the same thing is happening to them, and they’re all turning into women and there’s something that’s just happening. In my work I’m trying to combine, bridge if you want, in portraying the individuality of each girl I’m photographing, but at the same time within the whole context of it show that there’s a universality without trying to lump each young woman or girl into the other. They’re all going through their transformation at the same time, and I think it’s important to remember that.
P: Yes, I agree. In this country right now we’re seeing more and more of a desire to demonize the “other”—
RM: Well, to back up a little bit, I literally became a photographer after September 11, 2001. I became interested in telling a different narrative from the Middle East, because at that time there was this whole “them versus us” narrative. Up to that point I wasn’t thinking about it—I’m living like my neighbor, I’m American, we bought a house, I’m having kids, but then when you have to be lumped into one or the other, but I’m both—I think this became the basis for a lot of this work. And I never went back to architecture (laughs).
The fact that I’m photographing women now is becoming a big deal; people keep asking me about that. And I tell them that this was done for personal reasons, not for feminist reasons, but if it’s now resonating for different reasons, let it be, right?
P: There’s such a range here, from Middle Eastern homes and refugee camps all the way to the upper middle-class comforts of Boston—
RM: When I started photographing the early work, all I could focus on was the conditions—“Oh my God this is terrible,” and I was going to feel sorry for everybody. But as I started meeting people I bonded with them, and I thought, “Who am I to feel sorry for anybody? Who am I to say I’m better off than they are?” And then when you start to see people as people you kind of see that, there’s a dignity there.
And once you stop looking at the fact that you expect their lives to be miserable then you start seeing the humanity in every one of them, and the beauty in every one of them. It became that shared sense of being women, and having daughters… It was a learning experience for me to realize that.