Sarah Bahbah is a Palestinian-Australian conquering the art world with her autobiographical, cinematic take on photography. She first burst onto the scene in 2014 with her photo series entitled Sex and Takeout, which explored the shared intimacy and indulgence of sex and food. Since then, she’s built a huge online following; her emotionally transparent artwork has gone viral several times. Her recent exhibition, Fuck Me, Fuck You, captures the ambivalence towards love and heartbreak. Bahbah’s work overall may prove especially resonant for anyone experiencing the angst of love in the Instagram era. In April 2018, she released I Could Not Protect Her, a deeply personal photo series reflecting on love, intimacy, trauma, and healing. She has said that she hopes her honesty and vulnerability brings comfort to her audience.
We talked with Bahbah about facing professional challenges, being inspired by alternate realities, and where she finds her strength.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
My art is heavily inspired from within. The voices are born from my own internal dialogue. The dialogue to my work is inspired by my projections of how a scene would have played out had I expressed what was really going on inside my head and my heart. I think my art gives off a film-inspired vibe because it’s uncommon for photography to be explicitly narrative-based.
On the selflessness and sacrifice of making personal work
I love being able to tell my story. I really appreciate having a medium and a platform that helps me express myself and reach out to other like-minded souls. Growing up, I learned to survive by isolating myself from the world. But through my work, I have been able to extend my hand out, and people from all over the world have responded by doing the same. This has helped me build connection and community. It’s strange, because my favorite part of what I do is dependent on my least favorite part of what I do. I don't really enjoy how much of myself I sacrifice for the sake of good storytelling. My work comes from such a personal space, so I always want to treat it with respect and truth. To do this I really have to strip myself bare, which really affects my heart and my mental health. After I have finished a project, my excitement and feeling of accomplishment is generally overshadowed by how exhausted I am.
On navigating the accessibility of social media
The merging of the art world with the world of social media is quite new, so it’s a dynamic that we are all still trying to figure out. The accessibility of social media is what makes it great. People are able to view, appreciate, and share art in a manner that has never happened before. I think the problem occurs when credit is not given where it is deserved. I totally understand how people become attached to my art. My art is an expression of things suppressed. Be it for family, societal, or personal reasons, we have all had to censor ourselves. But the audience’s excitement of feeling represented and understood sometimes excludes the intention and soul of the artists who created the original piece. I am pretty vocal about my opinions on copyright because, to me, it feels like theft on a personal level.
On becoming her own boss
Being taken advantage of is definitely the hardest challenge that I face in my career. When I first entered the art and media industry, I was naive and got swept into unfair exchanges–like my work circulating without my knowledge or art representatives withholding my worth. I’m glad that I was able to learn from these lessons, because it has led me towards becoming my own boss. The only way to survive in this industry is to have complete control over yourself and your work, and not allow others to control any aspect of you.
On surviving abuse and raising awareness
Without a doubt, the work that I am the most proud of is my I Could Not Protect Her series. Beyond the style of the work, it is the theme that I have a deeply personal relationship with. I Could Not Protect Her was a part of my healing from childhood sexual abuse. It was really important for me to express and let go of this trauma, and this series helped me do that. In doing so, I was able to raise awareness, bring comfort to those who have experienced the same trauma, and break the silencing of childhood sexual abuse survivors. This whole process gave me strength and purpose.
"Strength is learning, strength is honesty and transparency, strength is having faith that you will come out of all the uncertainty."
On defining strength
To me, strength is surviving. Strength is being able to continue past all the unwarranted trouble that has happened to you, and to be able to continue on while holding positivity. Strength is learning, strength is honesty and transparency, strength is having faith that you will come out of all the uncertainty. I do consider myself a strong person, and I actually pride myself on being able to identify as [such].
On the power of community
My natural instinct used to be to completely disconnect and disassociate. I used to only exist in this void, floating and observing but never really existing with feeling. Only up until recently has life been happening to me instead of with me. I still get to these points of non-feeling but I have a wonderful community that I rely on to regain strength. I have put a lot of energy in building strong and human connections, and it is these relationships that revive me. Within this puddle of love, I have a few connections with certain individuals who I know to be my soulmates—they will always keep me anchored.
25 Strong is a new series highlighting people who have broken barriers and changed culture in 2018. Created with Reebok.