Posted by on April 21, 2015 in Blog

By Maha Elsamahi
Winter Intern, 2015

Originally trained as an architect, Rania Matar’s first foray into photography was purely personal. She simply wanted to take better photos of her children. It was events of September 11th that propelled her towards photography as a career. Born in Lebanon and having lived in the U.S. since the age of 20, that tragic day was the first time she had found herself at a crossroads in terms of her identity. “The narrative following 9/11 was ‘Them versus Us,” she said “and all of a sudden I was them and us.” Since then, she has used photography as a medium through which to tell different, more nuanced stories from the Middle East.

While any project takes time to develop, Matar found herself driven by her instincts when deciding who and what her subjects are. Known for her intimate and revealing photos of women and girls in both the U.S. and the Middle East, Matar said her decision to focus on them was entirely accidental. It was when a colleague noticed that almost none of her photos of Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon focused on men that she realized that her instincts were to tell the stories of women and girls.

Having a foot in both the Middle East and the U.S. profoundly influenced Matar’s photography, “Although I belong in many ways to the Middle East, I am still seeing it with fresh eyes and perspectives.” Through a visit to Palestinian refugee camps in and around Beirut, Matar said she became more aware of human rights issues within Lebanon and exposed her to a part of the country that she had never seen despite being born and raised there. Those experiences helped her to realize that she had become fascinated with girls and their security. “I was one of those women,” she said “it was me remembering what it meant to be a girl at that age.” Her ability to see her country of birth through fresh eyes has put her in the unique position of being able to capture the universality and the similarities that are present in all those she photographs.

Returning to Lebanon immediately after the end of the 2006 war, she described the aftermath and destruction she witnessed as being “extremely powerful on a purely human level.” “The war hits you, but in the West it can become abstract. Photographing people’s homes was powerful because it could be anybody’s home.” Despite having grown up during the civil war in Lebanon, she described her childhood as normal, carrying on with her life despite the war that raged on around her. As Lebanon marked earlier this month the 40th anniversary of the start its civil war, the need for work that defies existing narratives and reveals new stories is becoming increasingly necessary.  With over 150,000 lives lost during 15 years of strife, the sometimes tenuous peace in Lebanon has endured and a plurality of religions and ethnicities live and thrive with one another. The resilience of these communities, particularly women and children, is illustrated in her series and book, Ordinary Lives.

Matar’s work challenges the dominant perception of women in the Middle East as helpless victims of the continuous chaos of their environment. This was, in part, the reason she decided to participate in She Who Tells a Story, a traveling exhibition showcasing the work of 12 women photographers from the Middle East.

“Sometimes an American audience only wants to see women with the hijab, affected by war. But the exhibit challenged that.” In her various projects, her subjects challenge the camera and ultimately the viewer. This is especially apparent in her two projects where she photographs adolescent girls in the U.S. and Lebanon as they attempt to navigate the transition between childhood and adulthood. Giving them no direction except to not smile, she found that they would sometimes take a defiant stance, challenging both the camera and the viewer.  

In one of Matar’s most well-known projects, A Girl and her Room, the instinctual nature of her work is what helped her to photograph young women in their most personal and intimate environments—their bedrooms. Noticing how her daughters and their friends would “almost perform for one another”, she chose to photograph them as they embarked on this period of transition between childhood and adulthood. It was while photographing them in their rooms, she said, that she realized she became more interested in their body language and how they chose to pose and posture themselves in the space that was their own. While each has her own unique aesthetic and sense of style, the vulnerability and anxiety that comes with being on the cusp of adulthood runs through all of them.  She continues to document this transitional period in her recent series and upcoming book, L’Enfant Femme, where she highlights that “regardless of place, background and religion, girls that age everywhere seem united by similar feelings, aspirations and attitudes.”