Transcript of an interview with photographer Rania Matar conducted in conjunction with the exhibition Stories of Self-Reflection: Portraiture by Women Photographers conducted by Roberto Vásquez ’19, Cat Von Holt ’19, Phoebe Pohl ’18, and Jess Alperin ’18.
How do you view your perspective as a woman shaping your photography, and how do you think women photographers shape photography in general?
I can talk about me–women happen to be woman photographers, so every photographer has their own kind of vision. Whether it’s a woman or a guy, I don’t want to talk for anybody else. I became a photographer actually at about the same time that I became a mother, so I feel like my photography was always tied to my being a mom. And I think that shows in all my work, because it’s been inspired by my kids, then as my girls are growing up, then by my role as a mother. So for me it’s very personal, and I never went in intending it to be just about womanhood. It was kind of organic how it developed that way. When I went to photograph in Lebanon and I started photographing in refugee camps, I was drawn to photographing the women, and I realize it’s personal–that what was
tying us together is being mothers, and women, and I had that unique access. So without me going out and setting up to do that, I fell into it instinctively. And all my early work was work of my kids–that’s how I became a photographer–I was trained as an architect. So I feel like on all levels my being a mother was inspired either by creating a bond with other women and mothers or by being inspired by my own kids in some way. Especially my daughters, because as I’m seeing them grow up, I’m remembering myself at their age, so it became something kind of personal, autobiographical on some level.
Cat Von Holt:
The next question that we have is really related to that; as you know, the unifying factor of our exhibit is that all the pieces are by women photographers. As you said, photographers can just happen to be women, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be an integral part of their art. But, even considering that, do you feel particularly associated with other women photographers? Because you said you felt the connection based on motherhood and things like that, but with other women photographers?
You know, yeah–I think a lot of the women photographers, on some level, if you look through history, a lot of them have photographed their families at some point or another. I have photographer friends who are men, and I don’t think I draw the line like that very much. I was part of a show that was called She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World, and I’m now part of a show in Lebanon called Féminités Plurielles about women as well. I feel it’s important to portray that, because women photograph women in a different way than men might photograph women. But beyond that, I think everybody has their own vision of it. Like in the show we had about women photographers from Iran and the Arab world, I felt that it was important that it was women, because it’s from this part of the world that we tend to think–not often correctly–that all the women are oppressed and all that, it was nice to give it a voice to women in that sense. I’m in other shows with men photographers–I think it’s important to have both.
On that note, and along with the idea of the history of photography and you building off of it, who would you say are particularly strong inspirations of yours?
You know, I’m so often asked this question, and I have to say, I don’t have a straight answer. My work has evolved since I started photography, and my interest evolved at the same time. My early work was more black and white documentary, and now it’s more going slowly in a very different direction, from A Girl and Her Room, which was kind of in between, to L’Enfant Femme, which was more posed and seeing people react to the camera. And now I’m doing something that started in Ohio, at Kenyon College, with the whole relationship to the landscape and all that. So I look at so much photography and so many books, and I’m more drawn to subjects than to specific artists. When I started photography and I was photographing my kids, I loved the work of Sally Mann. When I was doing the documentary work, I looked at a lot of Magnum photographers–the two Eugenes, Eugene Smith and Eugene Richards. And I feel like it kept moving; I always loved August Sander, the master portraitist, if you want to say that. But I look at a lot of work, I have a book that I just showed in my class. [Rania shows us a book called Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort by Peter Galassi.] It has so many photographers in it–it was an exhibition at MoMA. I feel like it was a lot of photographers photographing what was personal to them. It’s important to be open-minded, not to be caught up in one thing.
You already answered this question in regards to your children, but we would like to ask you why you wanted to start focusing on photographing girls?
It’s interesting. I especially felt the change with my older daughter when she turned about 15. She had been such a tomboy before and she was transforming so radically, and she had a twin brother, so she was always one of the guys, and all of a sudden she was becoming a different person. I could see her transforming that much, and so I became interested in that whole dynamic, and when her friends came over and all of that. Eventually, it turned into a project about girls. My son was not even remotely interested! He would tell me stuff like, “If you ever ever ask any of my friends to photograph them, I would kill you, I would never talk to you again.” So it kind of was different–and the girls kind of wanted to do that, and then once I started, I realized how much it reminded me about me as a teenager–the fact that I am a woman, I was a girl, I could relate to them. I did start at some point photographing boys, and the dynamic was very different. There was a kind of distance and discomfort on some level… photograph them in their bedrooms–with the girls, I’m climbing on the beds, I’m all over, and I felt so comfortable, it was very intimate. And there was a certain discomfort that didn’t feel as natural, so I realized, you know what, maybe that’s what it is.
The next question that we have is on a slightly different note: You take care to record the locations of your photos, and we’d like to know, in what ways do you think the spaces your subjects inhabit affect questions about personality, identity, and their experience?
Well, I come from two different cultures, and especially now the way that the media–I mean, it started since September 11, and it kept going. To back up a little bit, I was just taking photo workshops and photographing my kids, but I was working as an architect. I wanted to start telling a different story from the Middle East and a different narrative after September 11 when all the division started–that this concept of the “other” started becoming so predominant, and “them versus us.” I’m thinking, “I am the other, I am them, and I am us, I am American, I am Lebanese.” So it became important to me to include the two cultures in my work. And not just focus–every person I’m photographing, every young woman or woman I’m photographing is very individual and I’m trying to portray her as truthful to her identity as I can. But at the same time there’s the universality of growing up, of becoming a woman, of going through puberty, and for me it was important to show that even though we are miles apart and maybe different cultures there’s a shared humanity and a universality here. So it’s important to me to put the locations–sometimes you can’t tell whether it’s Beirut or Massachusetts and I kind of like that. The cover of my book is a young woman from Lebanon, but she has fake blonde hair, in front of a Marilyn Monroe, and people don’t believe me when I say it’s Lebanon. So it’s a little bit about trying to shatter stereotypes. But again, like in my other book, L’Enfant Femme, I don’t put the location next to the name on every page, I only put it at the end of the book because I want people to focus on the fact that it doesn’t matter where she’s from, she’s the same. But at the end of the book, I do put the location.
Speaking of those intimate spaces–when you visited Kenyon, a few of us went to your talk, and you spoke about how your gender as a photographer made certain intimate spaces more accessible. What do you think has become more accessible being a woman photographer, and what has become less accessible to you?
Well, I have a very intimate access to women. When I’m photographing the mothers and daughters of the women–the mothers and daughters, I’m one of the mothers. I’m able to get into their head and to create that trust. I don’t think when you photograph so intimately women that you get that same thing with men, unless he’s somebody in your family, maybe. I’m photographing women as one of them, so I feel like I have that access. What was less accessible? I never felt any obstacle being a woman and working, not here and not in the Middle East. I mean, I’m often asked that question, but I really never did–on the contrary, I think it has helped me. I’m pretty small for those who see me, so I’m able to approach people on the street and say, “I’d love to photograph you,” and get a “yes” as an answer very often, right? Which a guy might not. Maybe because I work like that and this is how I am, it has worked to my advantage.
In what ways do you feel your subjects’ personalities emerge through your photos?
Well, I work collaboratively with people I photograph, and I do spend a long time with each of them when I can. So I’m hoping I’m able to let them express themselves. What I did with L’Enfant Femme, which is kind of interesting–the series about the prepubescent girls, I’m photographing them with film, not digital, and they don’t know what it is, so they can’t see the back of the camera. They’re so trained with the selfies, smiles, so I’m telling them not to smile, and they have to start thinking about how to express themselves and what they do with their hands and with their feet–so I’m observing them all the time and I’m trying to grasp that. I’m hoping I’m getting a more complex kind of expression or portrait in each, because they’re not very obvious, and I think none of us are very obvious. At the end though, I also photograph more than I’m showing, so it’s a matter of an edit, and I have to decide what do I include and what I don’t include, and maybe it’s the photo that I’m more drawn to for one way or another, or one that I feel is more expressive. So that’s kind of a little bit there. And I’m hoping I’m making people comfortable enough. What I often do is when I’m shooting, I put down the camera–especially now that I’m shooting film, I have to change the film regardless–and every time I change the film, I have to put the camera down, and when I put the camera down, you see people relaxing, and it’s like pressing the reset button. And I tell them, “Okay, can you hold that?” and we start again. And I do that every once in a while. So it’s important to keep doing that, because as I’m putting the camera down, all of a sudden, you’re seeing an unguarded person, right? And then I’m able to look for that when I’m photographing again.
Our last question is: this exhibit is called Stories of Self-Reflection, and a lot of our discussion about these photos relates to the ways that the artist comes through in the photos that they take. Some of the pieces can be fraught depictions of the subjects because of the way that they’re portrayed, or the way that the photographer might view them, or because they’re reflecting something about themselves in the photo. So, when you take a photo, who do you feel is most reflected in the image–is it you, is it your subjects, or is it a confluence of both?
I think it’s both. The photo is what I’m seeing in that person, right? But it’s also what this person is doing. I don’t make people do stuff that’s not them, I’m observing them and catching those moments. But at the end of the day, I’m the one choosing the photograph, I’m the one choosing next to which photo is going on the wall or in the book. So at the end, I want to say it is both, because my step is on it, right? Even if you and I might photograph the same person, we might come up with something very different. Even though we are photographing that same person, it’s about that person, but then we might each view it differently, so the photographer has somehow a presence. And there’s a very important quote, what Larry Sultan’s father told him: he took a photo of his father sitting on the bed, and his father said, “But whose truth is it? It’s your picture but my image.” And I think that’s pretty brilliant. He said, “Like the photograph of me sitting on the bed, maybe I’m a little bored but I’m not all melancholy…” So I thought that was brilliant–“it’s your picture, and my image.” So that’s kind of a nice way to say that.