Q&A: Rania Matar

By Rafael Soldi   |   September 13, 2018

Rania Matar was born and raised in Lebanon and moved to the U.S. in 1984. Originally trained as an architect at the American University of Beirut and at Cornell University, she studied photography at the New England School of Photography and the Maine Photographic Workshops. Matar started teaching photography in 2009 and offered summer photography workshops to teenage girls in Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps with the assistance of non-governmental organizations. She now teaches Personal Documentary Photography, and Portrait and Identity at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and regularly offers talks, class visits and lectures at museums, galleries, schools and colleges in the US and abroad. Matar is a 2018 Guggenheim fellow.

Matar's work focuses on girls and women. As a Lebanese-born American woman and mother, her cultural background, cross-cultural experience, and personal narrative informs her photography. She has dedicated her work to exploring both sides of this identity: addressing issues of personal and collective identity, through photographs mining female adolescence and womanhood – both in the United States where she lives and the Middle East where she is from. Her work has won several awards, has been featured in numerous publications, and exhibited widely in the U.S. and internationally. Her images are in the permanent collections of several museums worldwide.

A solo exhibition of her work titled "In Her Image" will be on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art this fall. 

Rafael Soldi: Let’s start at the beginning just to get a little bit of context. You were born in Lebanon...

Rania Matar: I was born and raised in Lebanon but it also matters in my work that I have Palestinian parents—they moved to Lebanon as children. I came to the US in 1984—I had started my architectural studies at the American University of Beirut, and transferred to Cornell, when things got pretty bad in Lebanon though with the civil war. I thought I was coming to the U.S. for a couple of years. And here I am 30 some years later. Incredible. My father is still in Lebanon, so I go back and forth, but I live here in the US. 

© Rania Matar, from  Ordinary Lives

© Rania Matar, from Ordinary Lives

RS: I was reading your bio, where it notes that  you make work “in the United States where she lives and the Middle East where she is from.” How do you manage making work about a place you’re from but that you no longer occupy?

RM: I started taking photography workshops to make better pictures of my kids. After September 11th the rhetoric in the media about the Middle East was about “them” and “us”. I was “them” and “us”, and I wanted to tell a different story of the Middle East. This is where I’m from (Lebanon more specifically), I grew up there—the people I know are kind people and it’s too easy and unfortunate to put a label on a whole society because of a few crazy people. Up to that point I was living the “American Dream”: raising my kids, working; I wasn’t thinking about being Lebanese, or Palestinian, or American. But after 9/11 my identity became something I was extremely aware of. Like, when you say “them vs. us,” what does that make me? So this became consistent concern in my work, moving forward: the issue of "them" and "us". 

After completing “Ordinary Lives”, I started a new project “A Girl and her Room", about adolescent girls in their bedrooms. I originally thought I was only going to focus on young women in the United States for this work because I (and my own girls) live here after all. Before I knew it I was back photographing young women from the Middle East because I realized that I was exactly like those young women I was photographing, 25 years earlier, and that there's something utterly and beautifully universal about being a young woman, regardless of culture, place and time. I think regardless of where we live, or what our connection is, there is beauty in our shared humanity. 

RS: You turn your camera to young people really early on in your career. That’s stayed true although you’ve focused further on young women. How did that come about? What attracts you to young people, specifically young women?

RM: My early work was titled “Ordinary Lives.” That was my first body of work that became a book. Up to that moment, my photography had focused on my family, and my children in a series I titled "Family Moments". In 2002, I went with a cousin of mine to a Palestinian refugee camp and I was shocked by the terrible conditions people were living in  —so close to the Cosmopolitan Beirut I had known. I became interested in telling that story. However, when I showed this early work at a portfolio review, Peter Howe gave me the best advice: I needed to achieve the same intimacy in the refugee camps, as I did in my kids’ photographs. It forced me to get closer and really see and interact with people intimately. 

I then realized that I was especially interested in photographing women. Despite the conditions, we were bound by our womanhood and out motherhood. 

Above: © Rania Matar, from A Girl and Her Room

RS: I find that with children in general you’re looking in the face of an honesty that’s quite rare. They are pure and wear their expression very much on their skin. Do you find a sort of clarity or poignancy in terms of identity on young women that you don't find elsewhere?

RM: It's interesting because I've been thinking about that a lot. My work started with teenage girls, then moved to younger girls, then to mothers and daughters, and now I am photographing young women in their 20s. As I jumped between the different ages I realized that in “L’Enfant-Femme,” which depicts girls pre-puberty, all the emotions are right there on their faces and in their expressions and body language. A beautiful honesty and transparency. They express it all for the camera and you can see the duality of being a child and starting to be a woman. I call this duality “beautifully awkwardness”. However, when I was photographing mothers and daughters I realized that the mothers were more cautious on how much to reveal, more self-aware and cautiously aware of the camera. There were more layers.

RS: How do you find your subjects?

RM: I find them everywhere. I've stopped girls on the street, at the supermarket, at the gym, everywhere. Recently I was running and I saw—I'm working on a project with girls in their 20s and I'm obsessed with texture and hair—these two young women in front of me, one had pink hair and the other one blue. I stopped in the middle of my run and asked them if I could photograph them. Most people I approach agree to be photographed—people like to be paid attention to, if you treat them with respect. Usually I don't expect an answer right away. I take their contact info and I email them as soon as I get home. 

With Syrian refugees it’s a little bit different. I usually see them in the street and start talking to them. Most people ignore them, and they also like being paid attention to—they are human. Some didn’t want to be photographed because they’re scared, others wanted it, so I followed their lead. If they agree, I photographed them there and then. 

© Rania Matar, from  Invisible Children

© Rania Matar, from Invisible Children

RS: Once you’ve connected with your subject, what goes into your shooting process? Is it different every time, or are there rituals / collaborations / conversations that you like to bring with you to each shoot?

RM: It is different each time, I never know what to expect. I don't scout the place beforehand and I don't know how I'm going to relate to the person. If I asked someone to photograph them, I typically trust that things will work out, and I like to let the session unfold. There is something beautiful that organically happens when you let it. Usually we go somewhere that has a connection to the young woman. I like to start shooting before making conversation, to break the ice. I like to discover the person throughout the process. I’m photographing medium format film, so after 10 pictures I have to change the roll of film, and as I put the camera down  and we start to chat, the young woman always tends to relax a bit and I observe the details of her body language. So at this point I might say: OK, now can you hold that? etc. It is like pressing a reset button, and it happens on and on during the shoot. Eventually we begin to read each other and it becomes a complete collaboration.

RS: I find that oftentimes when I’m shooting a portrait, once I look at the film my best frames are often the very first ones and/or the very last ones.

RM: Me too!

RS: There’s an uninhibited sort of awareness that happens at the beginning before the subject becomes acutely aware of the camera. And then an interesting acquaintance with it towards the end.

RM: I’m completely with you on this. With the younger girls I’ve worked with, I was looking for that awareness and the slight discomfort. With the older girls such as the teens in A Girl and Her Room, or the young women their twenties in “SHE,” I am now aiming to reach that acquaintance that becomes the basis for an intimate collaboration. 

RS: One thing that’s interesting about your work is that you  have young women as a cornerstone or consistent thread but then you set parameters for yourself in each project: a girl and her mother, a girl in her room, a girl in her 20s. Talk to me about these parameters...

RM: Maybe it’s my training as an architect that makes me need some kind of structure when I work, so I work on projects and I do set parameters. But every individual project all started with my own daughters. When my older was fifteen, all I could see was teenage girls, when my youngest was about to reach puberty, I kept noticing the "tweens" her age. This helped me define my projects, defining parameters inspired by what I had observed close to home and knew intimately. When I had my exhibition at the Amon Carter Museum, the curator, Joy Kim,  titled it “In Her Image,” and the work ended up being all about the path from girlhood to womanhood, from puberty to menopause and she presented it all as one big project. This was a revelation to me that all my work is interconnected and that it is one big project that was divided in my head into little segments.

RS: Having spent time on both sides of the world, have you observed anything in particular about girlhood that is a completely shared experience regardless of place?

RM: Every single girl is an individual with her own personal identity. So the differences are between every single one of them. I mean, yes, a girl in a refugee camp is going to have a very different life from a girl in an upscale suburb of Beirut or Boston. But with younger girls in “L’Enfant-Femme,” when they’re twelve and they are going through puberty, they don't know it yet, and there's something so touchingly universal about them. As they get older they become more aware of their own identity and that’s expressed in their rooms, they attitudes and their clothing. Each individual is different, but they all have goals and aspirations—even if the goals and aspirations are different.

RS: Going back to the curator presenting your work as one unit. I think especially in photography, we are trained to work in this project format and we’re so hesitant to undo that structure. Sometimes it’s good to take a step back and consider our body of work as a sum of all parts remove some of the structure that separates them.

RM: I mean I completely get it. I'm with you on that. It's interesting because I always saw my work in the terms of the sequence of time in which I completed each project. For example I worked on “A Girl and Her Room” before I worked on “L’Enfant-Femme,” but when she laid out the exhibition she started with the youngest women and continued with “Becoming” and “A Girl in her Room,” and it made total sense! So it was important for me to loosen up, to let the curating process unfold and see the work through the curator's eyes, and as you say, and realize that it's really one big project

RS: You just won a Guggenheim Foundation grant, congratulations! What do you want to do with it?

RM: I submitted work that I had just begun, that was untested. The fact that I was awarded a Guggenheim was hugely validating. I am now working passionately on this project: SHE, which depicts girls in their 20s, their texture, their physicality, their vulnerability, all in relationship to their physical environment. I don't think I've ever worked as hard as I have been since since being awarded the Guggenheim. I'm hoping to photograph in different areas outside my "comfort zones" so I’ll be traveling more widely within the U.S. and the Middle East.

Above: Installation of In Her Image: Photographs by Rania Matar, at the Amon Carter Museum of Art

RS: You’ve had a prolific career over the last decade—books, museum shows, awards, etc. What do you think has helped you get there? What advice would you share?

RM: First of all, do work that matters to you on a very personal level, work that you are excited about, and hope that it's going to resonate with others. Eventually people feel that passion; like Diane Arbus said: “the more specific you are, the more universal it will be”. I strongly believe that.

It is also important to step back, edit the work, and reach out to people for feedback. I also found it extremely helpful to attend portfolio reviews. I was grateful to meet many people over the years—reviewers and photographers alike—who made a difference in my career. I met John Rohrbach of the Amon Carter Museum in 2012 at Fotofest in Houston and 6 years later I had my first solo museum exhibition at the Amon Carter. I also met Barbara Tannenbaum at Fotofest and now she is taking that same exhibition to the Cleveland Museum of Art. I met Anne Tucker, who purchased my work for the MFA/Houston and also wrote a beautiful essay in my book “A Girl and Her Room", and I have many more examples. I cannot emphasize how important those connections have become to me personally. Those people have become my friends and I am forever grateful for their friendship and their support. But just as importantly, I also met wonderful talented photographers who have become dear friends at those events, and that was priceless. They are the ones I turn to for advice almost on a daily or weekly basis. It takes a village. 

That being said, I also suggest one waits to attend portfolio reviews until a project is at the right stage of development and also to invest the time and energy into making beautiful prints.

And lastly, make sure you have fun and enjoy every step of the process, despite all the setbacks along the way! 

RS: Where do you look for inspiration?

RM: My family. My life. Life in general. Whenever I start a talk, I always start with the work of my kids. As I'm watching my my kids growing up, I have been inspired by them every step of the way. I read about photography and art, look at lots of photography books and try to go to as many art exhibitions and lectures as I can. 

Above: © Rania Matar, from  Family Moments

Above: © Rania Matar, from Family Moments

RS: Can you share maybe a recent struggle that challenged you, as well as a recent success?

RM: Well, I applied for the Guggenheim a couple of times before, and I did not get it. Rejection is a necessary struggle all artists go through at one point or another. So that was one recent setback that turned into a recent success.

I am also really very proud of the Amon Carter Museum show—I’ve had a lot of shows, but that was special and when I first walked into that exhibition I became very emotional and started crying. To see 50 pieces of my work in the museum so beautifully exhibited was just overwhelming.

RS: What's next for you. What are you up to, what are you working on?

RM: Well I'm going to work on this project, and I have shoots lined up all around the country. The wonderful thing is my show at the Amon Carter is now traveling and will open at the Cleveland Museum of Art in the fall. These are big things for me right now and I want to focus on making work and enjoying these exhibitions.

RS: Well deserved, Rania—do enjoy this moment! Thanks for your time, I look forward to following your success.

RM: Thank you Rafael.


Above: © Rania Matar, from L’Enfant - Femme

Above: © Rania Matar, from Unspoken Conversations

Above: © Rania Matar, from SHE