Us and Them

by Celia Shaheen

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Rania Matar’s identity, cross-cultural experience, and personal history actively influence her photos, taken in the United States and the Middle East. As a Lebanese-American woman and mother, Matar often bridges the gap between documentary and portrait photography, resulting in images of girls and women that are simultaneously descriptive, powerful, and warm. Moreover, her photographs of female adolescence and womanhood are a compassionate collection of various personal and collective peripheries.

Matar and I spoke—she in Boston, I in Houston—about her 2014-2016 project, Unspoken Conversations. In these photographs of middle-aged mothers with their teenage daughters, Matar draws attention to the distances and differences between geography, bodies, and time. By illustrating the universalities and specificities of body language, Matar hopes to reveal the commonalities of “growing up and growing old” across cultures, and how these collective characteristics help us “find beauty in our shared humanity.”

I was fortunate to see Rania Matar’s solo exhibition, In Her Image, at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. In Her Image: Photographs by Rania Matar is currently on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art until January 13, 2019.

The following has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Celia Shaheen: Did the decision to make Unspoken Conversations its own series happen gradually, or can you recall a standalone moment that drove you to start creating this body of work?

Rania Mattar: All my work is autobiographical on some level. I have four kids: two boys and two girls, but the girls have inspired my work in profound ways. My work has been following them as they grow older, and I didn’t realize—actually until the Amon Carter show—that my work is one big project about girlhood and womanhood, from pre-puberty until middle age.

Unspoken Conversations started when my older daughter left for college. I realized that my role as a mother was about to change, but also that as my own daughter was leaving home, she was growing up and I was getting older myself—even though, I felt like I was 25!

This work is also very personal to me as I lost my mother when I was three years old; I’m learning the mother/daughter relationship firsthand, so it just turned into a project. I realized all my work had been about these transitions, the teenage years or going through puberty.

In these photographs, you draw attention to the edges and in-betweens of space, age, and intimacy. There’s also an important geographical and cultural aspect to the work as it portrays women from the United States and in Lebanon.

Yeah, that’s important; I literally became a photographer because of that. I was working as an architect, and I actually became a photographer after September 11.

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Because all that you heard on the news about the Middle East then—and somehow now again—is about terrorism, war, oppression of women, etc. It all made me question my whole sense of identity. Up to that point, I was living like any American; working, having kids, we bought a house. And all of the sudden, this whole rhetoric of “them versus us” made me question my own identity. Who am I? I’m them and us.  

I started wanting to tell that story, and eventually it it became a consistent in my work. For my early work I was only photographing in the Middle East, and the series eventually became a book: Ordinary Lives. When I was done with this work, I started a new project that I had envisioned to be in the United States: A Girl in Her Room.

I was fascinated by my daughter as she was entering the teenage years and I started a project about girls in their private spaces, where they explore their sense of identity and surround themselves with what matters to them. At some point during the project, I realized I was exactly like those girls a few years back, and that there’s such a universality of time and place, about being a teenager.

At that point it became important to me to photograph girls in both my cultures, making the work personal to me and relating it to my bi-cultural identity. It was important to focus on our sameness, our shared humanity and the universality of growing up. It wasn’t about whether a girl is veiled or not. Some women in the Middle East wear a headscarf and others don’t. In the West, there is a fascination with the veil, but it was not the focus of my work.

It’s a part of who they are.

Yeah, it’s a non-issue. I think there’s such a focus on it becoming such an issue that it’s important for me to demystify that, and to just stay away from Orientalism. You know, often you see people in the West fascinated with arts from the Middle East, [especially] if it has to do with the veil, or with war—and it’s not fair. It’s kind of getting old a little bit.

It is getting old—it’s frustrating to see dominant Western views of the Middle East be so flat and monolithic.  

Yeah, it seems exotic, but you know, it’s important to show different point of views, so it is a very inherent part of my work. I just came back from Lebanon a few days ago with many rolls of film (I shoot medium format film), and I’m excited to see what’s on it. I’m overwhelmed, because I did photograph a lot.

Regarding the setting of Unspoken Conversations: mirrors, windows, and paintings of women often break up the composition of these photos, creating portals between subjects and space. Do you look for these objects when photographing? How do you see them? 

Well, with the photographs that have paintings in them—there are two I can think of right now. One was very interesting, because it’s on top of an empty sofa, and this was a painting of the mother’s mother. Ironically, and sadly, the grandmother died a couple of weeks after we made the photograph; it made it even more poignant for me.

I think Unspoken Conversations is more complex than the other projects in the sense that there are a lot of emotions going on there. But it’s also dealing with two people, their relationship to each other, the relationship to me.

Elizabeth and Austin , Boston Massachusetts, 2016

Elizabeth and Austin, Boston Massachusetts, 2016

Then I found that the use of mirrors added another layer. Often in some of these photos, what you see in the mirror is different than what you’re seeing in real life. They’re both real, but I’m seeing two different angles at the same time. For the mothers, it’s sometimes harder to be photographed—the girls tend to be more comfortable in front of the camera. In addition I am photographing them next to a younger version of themselves—the mirror is also a reminder of that. 

The other photograph with a painting that’s important is the one where the mother made two paintings of her daughter; one of them is covered with the blue burqa, the other one is in a bathing suit. The family is from two religions, the mother is Muslim and the father is Christian, so the daughter is bi-religious. That being said, you don’t see women covered in that manner in Lebanon. The painting was more symbolic. It was representing the teenage years, where you want to hide but also want to expose yourself at the same time. You don’t see women dressed like that in Lebanon; it was more symbolic when she did that. When I found that she was the one who painted those, and that they were paintings of the daughter, it became important for me to include them in the photograph.

When I worked on A Girl in Her Room, I was trying to become invisible and quietly observe the girl in her space. It was a quiet collaboration. In Unspoken Conversations it was more complicated as I am observing two people, the relationship between them but also between me. It was a three-way collaboration. There’s a fine line where I don’t want to over-direct people. There’s me observing the body language and the relationship and the way they look at each other, but there’s a little bit of me still being in control of the placement.

What instructions, if any, do you give to mothers and daughters while you photograph them?

Benedicte and Laeticia , Cambridge Massachusetts, 2014

Benedicte and Laeticia, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2014

I come with zero preconceptions; I don’t work with a tripod or with any lighting. So even though I’m shooting medium format, I move around a little bit and I might realize—[Matar shows me Benedicte and Laeticia, a photograph from Unspoken Conversations]—like this one, for example, all the sudden I was walking and it was almost accidental; I saw what was happening in the mirror, and then I’m like “Ok, can you hold that?” I’m not going to tell them how to hold themselves, so I observe them and let the body language develop slightly. If I’m not seeing the mother, I might ask her to move slightly one way or another. It’s a little fluid. I might tell the woman, “Can you look at me?” or maybe, “Don’t look at me.” I would give that kind of direction. Then I make my selections when I look at images during the editing process. I then see everything with fresh eyes and sometime I just see things that all of the sudden make me think, Oh my god this is beautiful.

On the subject of your subjects, how are you meeting these mothers and daughters? You talk about having no expectations for a shoot when you come into it, but how important it is that you don’t know them well?

With every single one of my projects, I tend to work better with people I don’t know. I find that often if you know people, there’s a sense of self-consciousness on my part and especially on the women’s part, so I like to go in with a clean slate and photograph people I did not previously know. On some level I think they also feel freer and maybe less judged, because there are no preconception from either of us. That being said, I often become good friends and stay in touch with people I photograph—after the shoot, after sharing such an intimate and private moment with them.

That was especially true with A Girl in Her Room. Having this anonymity to start with was actually liberating for me and the young woman. And that’s still the case now with the work I’m doing. Sometimes I re-photograph somebody I had photographed before, so I do know her, this person—but we kind of just pick up where we left off.  

Soraya and Tala  (Yarze, Lebanon), 2014

Soraya and Tala (Yarze, Lebanon), 2014

And where do I meet people? Everywhere! I stop people on the street, I stop people in the supermarket; and it seems to work! I realize that, on some level, it’s empowering for them to be asked. I give them a lot of credit, especially the mothers in Unspoken Conversations. With the moms, I’m not trying to make them look younger than they are—it’s about growing up and growing older and aging. They’re being photographed next to the younger version of themselves; age is part of that.

That’s perfect. Some of your projects have taken the form of books; do you see Unspoken Conversations becoming a book, or taking some other form?

Yes. I was ready to do it this year, but now, I got the Guggenheim Fellowship, and I’m in the process of making new work, and this is where my energy is. It’s hard to juggle both. I think when I’m done with this work that I’m shooting now, it would be a good time for me to go back to Unspoken Conversations and edit it. I would have stepped away from it long enough to look at it with fresh eyes and do edits. So I probably will work on the book in about a year. It takes a lot out of you to put a book together, and getting the Guggenheim was so validating that I’m very excited about making new work now. The book will happen in due time.

I don’t blame you; it sounds like it’s been really invigorating for you to do this work.

It’s absolutely invigorating, it’s validating, I’ve worked so hard since I received the Fellowship, so I feel like I just want to keep doing the work. Ironically, I may be ready for two books at once afterwards!


Celia Shaheen is a mixed Lebanese artist, curator, and student who is currently based in Austin, Texas. Her studio practice sits at the intersection of archiving and making, utilizing materials across the spectrum to investigate and discuss feminist labor and craft, Lebanese culinary traditions, folklore, (an)archival impulses, and affectionate documents.