Sarah Bahbah's cinematic photos thrive on the internet. Each saturated shot of a moody protagonist paired with a nihilistic caption seems optimized for channelling millennial angst. But Bahbah isn't chasing a "mood;" she doesn't prioritize aesthetic over substance. Her photography is deeply personal and radically intimate. And maybe the reason her work resonates so deeply online is because, for young people, the internet has always been a place we can be wholly ourselves.
For the last month, Bahbah has been posting photos from a new series called I Could Not Protect Her on her Instagram. The tone is more somber than her previous work. It's about the relationship between intense emotions and insecure attachments—it's also a raw departure from the romantic ambivalence (used as emotional armor) that runs through earlier photos.
The protagonist of the newer photos projects her fear of being in a one-sided relationship, spiraling into insecurity and vulnerability. "As she spirals deeper, her insecurity becomes louder, until she is forced to understand her dependency on others for safety. An insecurity resulting from a childhood of neglect," Bahbah writes in an artist's statement.
The emotion of the photos mirrors Bahbah's own personal struggle. "For so long I feel like I was just existing, moving through life without valuing my identity, purpose, or the work I was doing," she told VICE. "In repressing my trauma, I was repressing my being, and what it meant to live and feel. My identity attached me to the pain and suffering I experienced from childhood sexual abuse. In being transparent with my emotions, and open to my experiences, I am healing. When I am healing, I am creating."
It's the rawest Bahbah has ever been in her art. It's also an incredibly brave public confrontation of lived trauma. The point of I Could Not Protect Her, aside from being an exorcism-of-sorts of personal demons, is to help break taboos around childhood sexual abuse, which Bahbah says are "very much real, and not enough people are talking about it."
Until recently, aided by therapy and mindfulness, Bahbah had repressed the lingering trauma from her abuse. In a powerful interview with TeenVogue, she detailed the way she was silenced when she was younger: “As a child I remember everything was 'a secret.' I was constantly silenced by the manipulative notion of ‘you’re my favorite. Don’t tell anyone.’” She continued, “more often than not, I was lured by material things in order to be alone with the predators. If any abuse was happening and witnessed, I was blamed for being inappropriate, because there’s no way ‘the man’ could be.”
To coincide with the release of the final scene from I Could Not Protect Her on her Instagram, Bahbah read a corresponding poem and broadcasted it live. She says the poem came to her in one night, during a bout of intense personal reflection. She was in Paris, during a stretch of travel she dubbed "The Great Depression," and Bahbah says she felt like she lost her balance, unable to feel present or practice mindfulness. One night, the power in her hotel went out, and she was marooned in her room with nothing to distract her from her thoughts and emotions.
"I cried, for hours," Bahbah says. "This release of suffering also took form by way of this poem. The lines poured out of me, uncontrollable, like my tears. These words had been within me, but it took the universe to pull it out of me. The experience was so strong that I felt compelled to share what it had produced. It felt deserving and necessary, as an attempt to reconcile with my own history and to reach out to others with similar experience."
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Sarah Bahbah opens her first international solo show in London on June 8. Click here to RSVP.