Lebanese American Photographer Captures the Universal Experience of Womanhood [Interview]

Woman at an Abandoned House in Beirut

Lea, La Maison Rose, Beirut, Lebanon, 2019

Lebanese American photographer Rania Matar is known for her intimate portraits of women. Specifically, she spends time focusing on young women in the United States and her native country, Lebanon, and creates new narratives that show their strength, beauty, and independence. With her new book titled She, published by Radius Books, Matar follows women in their 20s, showing them as they grow into adulthood and make the world their own.

Matar's skill at forging deep relationships with her subjects, some of whom she's photographed for years and others that she's just met, is impressive. And even more so is her ability to capture these women of all shapes, sizes, and ethnicities in environments that leap off the page. In fact, the environment becomes the second protagonist of these portraits, at times blending with the model and at others, helping shape a narrative.

The book, Matar's fourth, is the culmination of years of work gathering portraits during this pivotal moment in these women's lives. None are professional models; but through Matar's lens, they somehow transform into the most confident and radiant versions of themselves.

We were fortunate enough to chat with the photographer about her work, how being a mother inspires her, and to learn some of the stories behind our favorite images from She. Read on for My Modern Met's exclusive interview and pre-order your copy of She, which will be released in fall 2021. And if you are in Santa Fe, Baltimore, or Boston, Matar has exhibitions and book signings lined up.

Blond Albino Woman on the Beach

Rayven, Miami Beach, Florida, 2019

This is your fourth book. Your last one, L'Enfant-Femme, was released in 2016. It shows girls on the cusp of adolescence, both in the United States and Lebanon. She sort of feels like a sequel to it, like we're seeing those same girls grown up. Was that the concept?

Absolutely. Actually, I'm going to put it even further in context. All of my work is based on my daughters as they grow up. And I, for some reason, did—even though it's a little out of sequence—A Girl and Her Room before L'Enfant-Femme because I was inspired by my older daughter. And then, when that was ending, I was fascinated by my younger daughter who was just prepubescent and her limbs were growing. That's a kind of really precious, fleeting moment of life right before puberty.

Then I got invited to do a residency at Kenyon College in Ohio and I fell in love with the landscape. And I was supposed to be making work there. I started photographing the students and I realized it was perfect because my daughters had both left home by then. And you know, I am photographing these young women after they leave home, how they are now. They're not in the familial space anymore, or in the domestic space, but they're out in the world and making the world their space.

Portrait of a Woman by Rania Matar

Monai, West Roxbury, Massachusetts, 2020

You mention that your daughters inspire your work. How did becoming a mother change your art and the way you looked at things?

I have to tell you, I wasn't a photographer before. I was trained as an architect. I literally became a photographer to photograph my children. And that's work that is so important to me because it still forms the basis of everything I do. That early work taught me, made me fall in love with photography, made me fall in love with intimacy and photography. It made me fall in love with telling a story, with watching the beauty in the very simple, mundane moments and in the domestic space, really. So, I became an artist and a photographer because of my kids. And it seems like, all along, it's been inspired by that. Then my fascination with womanhood, I wasn't aware of this on a conscious level, but somebody told me this and it makes sense—I lost my mother at the age of three. I was a tomboy, who grew up with a father. My role model in life was a masculine role model. I'm learning my relationship with my daughters firsthand. I am realizing what I didn't have. So this fascination with womanhood probably is all about motherhood on some level.

Girl in a Field of Cornflowers

Ciearra (in the Cornflowers), Winston-Salem, 2018

The imagery in the book is incredible and you are so skilled at working with the model in the landscape. One photo that is particularly striking is of a girl named Ciearra. You photographed her in a field of cornflowers that perfectly match her hair. How did that end up happening? It's such a beautiful example of the environment working with you.

I hate to say it, but it's luck and seeing it when it's happening. I stopped Ciearra on the street. I was in North Carolina visiting my daughter in college, and I saw this pink hair and I'm like, Oh, my God, I need to photograph you. And that was back in February of 2018. And she never showed up the next morning. We made an appointment and she stood me up—I was so mad. This was the only time I got stood up. So, I let it go. The next time I was visiting, I texted her again. She said, I'm so sorry for what happened last time, I'd like to do it. So I went there thinking it's going to be hit or miss and I'm not going to get mad. She actually showed up and our meeting point was very close to these flowers. And I'm so glad she never showed up in February because this picture would not have happened. There was something about it. I kept looking at her hair and then I asked if she would mind going in there. And as she was walking in it, I didn't expect to take it from behind. And I'm like, okay, please don't move, hold that, hold that. And I moved back and took a couple of photos of that. So there was something beautiful about it happening. I think there's a lot of serendipity in the shoots. And a lot of them have a distinct story like that.

Photo of a Young Woman Wading into Water

Maddie, Dedham, Massachusetts, 2019

Girl Floating in Water by Rania Matar

Aya, Batroun, Lebanon, 2019

Most of your photos are either captured in the United States or Lebanon and so many seem to really juxtapose women in these two places. In several, it's almost like we're seeing the same woman, but through the lens of a different culture. Why is it important for you to draw out the similarities of these women across cultures?

I am American and I am Lebanese and I'm originally Palestinian from my parents. I was born and raised in Lebanon and identify as Lebanese, but I'm Palestinian, too. For me, living in the U.S., and listening to how the Middle East is described nonstop, it's personally exhausting. I am tired of the objectification of women in a very different way. It's all about the veil. And it's all about questions about the woman being backward. So for me, before September 11, I wasn't even thinking whether I'm Lebanese or what I am. I was an American, I'm having kids, and I'm working, and we bought a house. And then after that, it became something where, no, this is my identity, too. And so that shared humanity through womanhood has been important in all my work. And all these girls and women are going through physical, emotional changes. Their lives might be different, but there's something that's so biological. I mean, it's universal, right?

Woman in a Burqa Floating in Water

Alae (In the Golden Water), Khiyam, Lebanon, 2019

Yes, there are so many horrible stereotypes around the Middle East, and specifically women in the Middle East. Obviously, there is horrible oppression in some places, but that's not everyone's experience.

Some women who wear the veil are doing it because they want to. The woman in my book that keeps appearing, she's unbelievable. Her name is Alae. She reached out to me on Instagram to photograph her and I thought it was an oxymoron at the beginning. And she turned out to be so incredibly creative. I have so much fun with her. And she brings an extra layer to the covering, because she wants it to float in the water and all this so…

She Photo Book by Rania Matar

Farah, Aabey, Lebanon, 2020

One image that I found particularly powerful that I was curious about is of a girl named Farah in Lebanon. She's sitting in the burnt-out remains of a car with all sorts of flowers around her. I was wondering about the story behind that photo.

This is great. I had photographed her before. Farah was one of the protesters in the October 19, 2019 protests. At some point, they burnt her car. So we created a GoFundMe for her because she lost her mom, she supports her dad, and she needs that car to go to work. And this was sad because, for me, it's like this young generation doing all this stuff. And it was like a slap in the face. I was in the U.S. when this happened and I literally begged her to save the car until I came back so we could take pictures in it. And because I had photographed her previously with flowers, and I felt like we were mourning the car, I bought flowers on my way up to her.

She by Rania Matar

The book is beautiful and there are so many incredible images in it. Can you tell us a bit about the cover, because it's actually quite special?

So it opens into a poster because we couldn't agree about who should be on the cover. With the main image, it's a tiny detail but it means a lot to me because I see myself in this woman. She looks like she's looking one way and her body is another way and this is the Mediterranean behind her. I was that age when I left Lebanon so for me this is kind of personal and she looks like she's in that in-between. And when we did this, the book aligns and it turns to the Atlantic. It's the same horizon line. Tiny detail, but…

She by Rania Matar will be released in fall 2021.

Young African American Woman Posing in a Doorway

Andrea, Dorchester, Massachusetts, 2018

She Photo Book by Rania Matar

Mariam, Khiyam Detention Center, Khiyam, Lebanon, 2019

Two Young Women by Rania Matar

Sara and Samira, Bourj El-Barajneh Refugee Camp, Beirut, Lebanon, 2018.

Young Woman Sitting in Shallow Water

Nathalie, Sudbury, Massachusetts, 2019

Woman with Red Headscarf Laying on the Ground

Mariam, Khiyam, Lebanon, 2019

Young Woman Immersed in Trees

Yara, Cairo, Egypt, 2019

Rania Matar: Website | Facebook | Instagram

My Modern Met granted permission to feature photos by Rania Matar.

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Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Contributing Writer and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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