Rania Matar: The project came to mind as I was observing my daughter with her friends. She was almost 15 at that time and I realized that when she was with her friends she was a very different person. All the girls seemed like they were on some level performing to each other and conforming to the expectations they had set up for themselves. They seemed to want to look the same and talk the same. At that point, I decided to find a way to photograph each girl by herself. I originally asked the girls to chose where they wanted to be photographed. After a couple of them chose their bedrooms, I realized that I had a project. I found that the room became an extension of the girl but also the girl just seemed to fit in there just like everything else in the room. It was the cocoon, the womb and the one place where I could see signs of the little girl she had barely outgrown and the young woman she was about to become.
PAS: What did you learn from this project?
R. M. : I built beautiful collaborative relationship with those girls. I learned to understand what a girl goes through at that age. It reminded me that I had been there. I learned that girls who rebel in one way or another all have a story to tell, that they are all doing their best to navigate this transitional time in their lives the best way they know how to. I learned the girls love the attention and to be heard and seen. As I said above I learned to see the little girl who was still very present and the adult that was starting to form. Those young ladies all understood my project and we built an intimate, fun and collaborative relationship.
I also learned a different way of approaching my photography. Whereas my previous work was often quicker paced about catching decisive fleeting beautiful moments of daily life, this work took a quieter and slower pace and approach. It was about building a relationship and a comfort level. It was about learning to discover someone from behind my lens. It was about waiting for the girl’s guard to subside so I could start getting to the real unguarded person. It was about observing expressions and body language. It was overall a much slower and deliberate pace of photography that I enjoyed very much.
PAS: Do these girls have something in common?
R. M. : The girls are very unique and each has her own distinct personality. I think this shows through each individual room how different each girl and her room are. What is similar is that they seem to all be trying to find their individual voice and personality while still trying to conform in some ways to what is expected from them by society in general. I have quotes from the girls and they all seem to enjoy the teenage years and their new-found independence while still admitting those are tough transitional years. Some might get a tattoo, paint their hair or get a piercing; some might turn to religion; some might get veiled; some aim for perfection and worry about grades, college and where life is going to take them. But they are all really only trying to establish their personality, their independence and their individuality. It was interesting to see in all of those rooms posters of contemporary culture on the walls, be it in the images of rock stars, political leaders or top models, and then the other side of the coin with stuffed animals, blankeys and other signs of childhood on the bed, which seems to always be the real safe area of the room.
The mirror is always present. It reflects the girls’ preoccupations and concerns with the self image. It is the element of the room that reflects the girls’ connection to the outside world and what each would like to consciously portray. While she can be herself in her room, the mirror is always there as a constant reminder of the image that will be projected once she steps out of the room.
PAS: Who are the photographers you admire the most and why?
R. M.: I admire and was influenced by many photographers. It is hard to list them all. I learned so much from photography books. My first real body of work was photographing my kids (I have 4 of them!) and I looked quite a bit at the work of Sally Mann who taught to see the beauty in every day simple moments that were just around me all the time. When I became interested in photographing the Palestinian refugee camps and the aftermath of war in Lebanon and I looked at the work of Josef Koudelka, Eugene Richards, Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Frank, Constantine Manos but also Helen Levitt — as I always seem to be drawn to women and children in my work.
Now that I am photographing in color and inside, and focusing on teenagers, I looked at the work of Alessandra Sanguinetti, Rineke Dijkstra, Tina Barney.
I am sure I am going to remember so many more as the day goes by as I really owe so much in my work to so many photographers and I just love spending time with photo books.
PAS: What do you think of the American way of teaching art?
R. M. : I am not sure how to answer this. I went to architecture school in the US and this is really where I was introduced to art, and encouraged to take many art classes and use art in architecture. I did not really grow up in an artistic environment in Lebanon, so my training is really all I learned in the US and I have no base of comparing it to anything else. I don’t think of it as being « American » as far as I can label it, as I feel that my art training came from so many different places inside me but the « American way » is what offered me the possibility to discover art and make it part of my life. I was encouraged to find art and blossom with it while in the US but my background as a Lebanese influenced very much the direction the work took. It eventually became a very personal experience and learning process and my work is very much integral to my being both Lebanese and American.
PAS: What do you miss the most about Lebanon?
R. M. : My family, the friends I grew up with who are now scattered around the world, the beautiful weather, the Mediterranean and people’s warmth and hospitality!
Credits Rania Matar
Itw by Sa-de and Le ChienPoney