Embody, disembody, co-embody, somebody, nobody: today, we are continually confronted with the complexities that result from attempts to prescribe and describe "the body." Race, age, politics, economy, sexuality, and gender all affect our physical form so individually that “there is no generic body, no such thing as 'the body'; bodies are raced, gendered, and assisted differently in the world”—as artist and writer Hannah Black says.
How do we find a balance between expressing difference and individuality and finding something to relate to in others? This issue has been a key problematic to resolve in the way we make images of ourselves in the past five years: the public visual world is much richer and more diverse than ever before; yet we often search for things to share with others. Sameness more than difference is the comfort we seek online.
As a woman born in Lebanon and raised in America, photographer Rania Matar was exposed to the contradictory notion of a single body or a single identity early on. Her work focuses on girls on the cusp of adolescence, and she shoots their portraits in their home environments (she trained as an architect, which lends a sensitivity to the feeling of inhabited space in her photographs). Matar is best known for her 2012 work, A Girl and Her Room, also featuring pre-teen and teenage girls in the US and in the Middle East, whom Matar photographed in their bedrooms. Her latest project L'Enfant-Femme returns to this preoccupying theme, portraying young girls and their personal worlds in search of something that connects them. Matar described the work in an email:
This work is also about identity both of the girls I photograph, but also my own identity as a Lebanese-born-and-raised American woman with Palestinian origins. While the news from the Middle East tends to focus on our differences and on 'them vs. us,' it was important to me to focus on our sameness, by focusing on girls in both cultures.
L'Enfant Femme launches officially at Paris Photo this week, in a book published by Damiani Editore. The photographs will also be exhibited at Dubai's East Wing Gallery from December 3. Matar's reference point was her personal experience as a mother whose daughter was 11 at the time she shot the project:
I found that age fascinating as the girls are coming to terms with their developing identity, their changing bodies, their femininity, their beauty, and their womanhood, but also of the world around them and the standards of beauty and attitudes they think they need to emulate. However, these are also still young girls who fluctuate between being the children they still are and the young women they are beginning to turn into. Are they (and we) meant to see themselves as little girls, as teenagers, or as young women? Maybe there is something of all the above in each of those girls.
HM Queen Noor writes in her introduction to Matar’s photobook, that Matar’s girls “are not simply American; they are not simply Arab; neither are they simply Muslim, Christian, nor Jewish. These girls are simply girls—but much more besides. These are images of girls at the point where they are beginning to become women—a powerful combination of youth, womanhood and beauty.”
I asked Matar how she draws out all of this in her portraits—the feeling that they are so much more than part of a documentation. There is also a sense in Matar's portraits of seeing through an adult's eyes: a wistfulness, or nostalgia. Does she direct the girls?
By asking the girls not to smile, I was observing their attitude and their body language, and in those images I tried to capture simultaneously the angst, the self-confidence or lack thereof, the body language, the sense of selfhood and the developing sense of identity—the little girl they still are and glimpses of the young women they are becoming.
The conditions surrounding Matar's subjects are very different on almost every social and political plane, but especially in the way women are seen in Arab and American cultures. Were there differences in behavior between girls who live in places where there might be more social restrictions and fewer freedoms for women in society?
I actually found that the girls at that age—in the context of this project—were not quite affected by economy, freedom and restrictions, again I am only referring to the context in which I was photographing them. I photographed girls in high-end homes in Boston and Beirut and also girls in Palestinian refugee camps, and Syrian refugee girls on the streets of Beirut. They were all going through the similar transformations at that same age—there is a universality to being a girl that age. Whereas their lives and experiences might be very different, at the core they are just girls growing up, and this is what this work is about. I like to pair two girls: one is from a nice home in a Boston suburb and the other, Samira spent her whole life in a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut. They are both 11 and there is something touching about the similarity in their attitudes.
Despite the restricted time Matar was able to spend with each of her subjects, I wondered too whether over time the artist had noticed if being exposed to today's image economy affects them, as they are, on the cusp of their womanhood. While portrayals of women are very diverse now, with role models inhabiting many different "bodies," studies—including a recent investiagtion by the University of Missouri—show how accelerated visual consumption, coupled with heightened self-awareness, competition, and jealousy online contributes, unsurprisingly, to various mental and physical issues—depression among them. One illustrative case being discussed in the press at present, is 19-year-old model and Instagram "star" Essena O'Neill's emotional video post. Whether her posts are genuine or a publicity stunt, the issues they raise, for many people, suggest it is impossible to know how new online habits among children and teenagers now will affect them as individuals, and as a society, in the long run. Matar spoke on the subject:
I am not qualified to judge what impact this has on young girls—but I can share a very interesting fact that refers to those images and to "selfies." I had to fight the "selfie" face and attitude at first and then I also asked the girls not to even smile. And then to add to the "mystery," the girls realized that they couldn't see their images at the back of the camera, as I am still using negative medium format film. There was no immediate gratification. They didn't understand at first and I realized they did not know what film even was. This took them slightly out of their comfort zone, but also made them more focused and take the photo session a little more seriously.
Did they enjoy having their picture taken?
They are still dealing with growing up, finding who they are, who they are becoming, how they look, how they fit in, learning to find their way with their friends. It is all very hard at that age. As I am photographing them, we are both very focused on the moment, me on observing them for glimpses of all the above, and them on being aware of all the above at once but also of being looked at and photographed.
Matar's ongoing work presents, but does not resolve, the dichotomy of difference and sameness that speaks not only of her own personal mixed background, but alludes to an intrinsic element in photographic potraiture now: as adults we look for threads that tie us together, but in the process of finding our identity, we must acknowledge and accept the things that make us different. The way we experience the world starts and ends with the bodies we have, and that experience is unique—perhaps the only experience we can still call our own.
(All images from L'Enfant-Femme, Courtesy and Copyright, Rania Matar & INSTITUTE)