rania matar captures the universal awkwardness of coming of age
Rania Matar photographed over 300 girls in their bedrooms and backyards -- in wealthy suburbs and refugee camps -- to explore how femininity is performed pre-puberty.
Joelle 9, Beirut Lebanon 2012
If it's possible to be fluent in preteen girl, Rania Matar has to be close. For four years, Matar photographed over 300 girls between the ages of 8 and 13, often times in their bedrooms. Many of these portraits appear in her recently released photo book L'Enfant-Femme, a poignant documentation of -- as The Giver author Lois Lowry writes in her deeply personal introduction to the work -- "becoming." "Rania Matar has captured their self-consciousness, their insecurity, their defiance and their giddy joy. And she hasn't overlooked the landscapes of their young lives: messy bedrooms, cluttered street scenes, graffiti-sprinkled walls; and the couches, doorways, and windows that frame and shelter them as they present themselves for her camera," Lowry writes.
These messy bedrooms and cluttered street scenes are found among wealthy homes neighboring Boston and Beirut, but also in Lebanese refugee camps. And as the work progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to draw geographic or class-based distinctions between Matar's subjects. In front of her lens, each girl presents herself with both self-assuredness and the first inclinations of insecurity, placing one hand confidently on a non-existent hip while her legs contort at awkward angles. Posed between pop star posters and armies of stuffed animals, Matar captures her subjects during a crucial time of transformation.
What first motivated you to explore the subject matter?
I had done an earlier body of work about teenage girls and their bedrooms. It was inspired by my daughter who was 15 and completely transforming; I noticed how much she and her friends were performing for each other. I started photographing the series in the US and I realized something so interesting: that I was exactly like those girls 25, 30 years ago, but living in Lebanon. So I decided to start including girls in the Middle East in the series as well, and this is how the work became personal to me.
Any time you put on the news now, the news coming from the Middle East is so terrible, and a lot of the work coming from the Middle East is of a certain capacity -- it's all about the veil and the war. So when I started including work in both cultures, it was very much about focusing on our universality and our sameness versus our differences. Eventually, this work kind of paved the way for the next project, which is the new book, L'Enfant-Femme. The earlier work was very much me observing the girl in her space. It was organic, it was environmental, and then eventually, towards the end, I was more focused on the details of the body language of the young women.
Did you notice any distinct differences in terms of the way the younger and older girls presented themselves?
I'm photographing a lot of these girls now three years later, and this is where I'm seeing the big difference. It didn't really matter if the girl was eight or ten, but for me, what mattered was the pre-puberty and the after puberty, to see those differences. In some instances, the girl was more self-assured when she was younger and I think she became more self-conscious when she got older. One I love is Dania, the young girl in the refugee camp. She was so self-assured. You could see afterwards that she still dressed in a similar manner, but her legs are crossed as if she's hiding herself in some way.
What direction did you give the girls? Was the staging and styling collaborative?
I'm shooting medium format film, I'm not shooting digitally. They were trying to see the back of the camera after I'd taken a photo and they couldn't see anything. They were a little bit out of their comfort zone because all they know is the selfie culture, the iPhone, the immediacy. They had to think a little more about how to present themselves. We shot a lot, so some of them got more comfortable in part of their bodies. I didn't want to be heavy-handed in directions because I wanted it to be about them, not about me. I would think about light and texture and what works, but I did let them kind of lead the way in how they wanted to express themselves. As to what they wore, it was really up to them. It's interesting how many of them wear that pink tank top with the jean shorts. Whether it's in Lebanon or in the U.S., it doesn't matter.
You shot a lot in Brookline, which is a notably wealthy Boston neighborhood, but also in refugee camps. Looking through the book, it becomes more difficult to tell who is where.
Thank you for saying that. I'm really part of those two cultures, equally I would say. I was born and raised in Lebanon from Palestinian parents but I live in the U.S. and my kids are being raised here. To always hear this kind of news about the differences and about the oppression -- really, when you look at the actual people, people are just the same. I kind of showed that through girls and through transitional moments. Each location is only listed in the back, so it wasn't as much about where she is as about who she is.
I have two images facing each other at one point in the book. One is a girl named Samira; she's wearing the pink headscarf and she's in a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut. The other one, her name is Molly, and she's from Brookline and her bracelet says "I love Israel." They're almost identical in the way they're posing, their body language, and their age. For me, it says it all. I did not guide them, I could not have told them to pose this way. Event the tilting of the head is similar.
What role does social media play in how the girls choose to present themselves?
I remember going through that transformation; there was no social media, but even then, you were still aware -- you would still look at magazines and what people are wearing. Now it's amplified because it's constantly in your face. I don't know how much it influences them; I think it shapes people, in a sense, in that they are used to being photographed. But I kind of tried hard to step away from the way they would have presented themselves to their friends on an iPhone in a selfie. The fact that it was a photoshoot -- it's more serious, they couldn't see the film, it's slower -- gave them time to be more awkward, to reveal their own identities.
What do you hope people take from this book?
I hope they really take the time to look at it with respect to the work and to the girls; it's hard growing up. I hope people see the details of the posture and the psychological aspects of it, but also, I'd like to show that a girl in the refugee camp or a Syrian girl could be your daughter, basically. We hear on the news all the time an "us versus them" mentality. I mean, these are all girls at the same point in their lives, just forming, and I think there's something so universal about that.
L'Enfant-Femme is available here.
Text Emily Manning
Images courtesy Rania Matar/INSTITUTE