Photographer Sarah Bahbah’s saturated, cinematic photos seem optimized for the Internet. Lithe young people lounge on beds and in swimming pools, eating pizza and swigging champagne from the bottle. A dark undercurrent runs through her work with moody captions in the style of foreign film subtitles evoking the heartbreak, pain, and malaise of adolescence. It’s a combination that’s been a hit, earning Bahbah a legion of followers on Instagram.
Bahbah is a storyteller at heart, and the pithy text that accompanies her photographs is as meticulously crafted as a screenplay. With recent IRL exhibitions in Miami and LA, and her first New York solo show currently at Castle Fitzjohns Gallery, Bahbah is challenging the art establishment to accept work that’s egalitarian and designed to be freely shared on social media. As her Instagram bio notes, “You’ve probably seen my art on someone else’s account.”
VICE recently chatted with the Palestinian artist, who was raised in Australia and now lives in LA about navigating the politics of the Internet, the nature of intimacy, and the importance of emotionally vulnerable men.
VICE: What inspired the title of your show, Fuck Me, Fuck You?
Bahbah: It’s the heart and core nature of modern love. If you look at the entire body of work, you’ll see all my protagonists have such an ambivalence towards love and heartbreak. In one piece, one character says, “I need love.” And in another piece they say, “Fuck you, I hate you.” This title really captures that influence.
You’ve been exhibiting a lot more recently. What sparked the fire?
Seeing friends do so well on their own inspires me, and there are so many women entrepreneurs that are just slaying it. It’s important to be as boss bitch as possible. I just started to do what I wanted to do. I had bigger goals for myself and just started representing myself, created my team, and funded all my own shows. I wanted to have solo shows everywhere. I started in Miami, and even though I invested a crazy amount of money, I believed in myself and was motivated to keep going. So I had a show in LA, and now New York. I plan on doing a whole European tour over the summer. I don’t want to depend on anyone to achieve what I want to achieve.
What has the feedback been like?
There’s a great appreciation for the messages in New York. The feedback I’ve gotten here has been so strong. People tell me I’m giving their heart and mind a voice. That’s my favorite. It’s been very meaningful to know that what I’m doing is making such a difference in the way that people express themselves.
What’s the difference between looking at your work up close versus on a screen?
Fans have told me it’s so different seeing my work in person rather than online. There’s a difference between swiping on a phone and being able to stand in front of a photo and actually take in what’s being said: a beautiful message at a scale larger than your head.
Has exhibiting earned you more credit for your work?
Absolutely. If someone shared my photo [on social media] without credit last year, I would say that 70% of people would get away with it. This year, only like 5% are getting away with it. I stopped giving a fuck a long time ago, but my followers are actual spies. I love them.
Dylan Sprouse was one of the first men you shot for your series. What was that like?
To me, feminism is about making women stronger and allowing men to feel vulnerable. We need to give men permission to cry and be soft and say what they feel. They don’t have to be such a strong figure.
How do you capture such candid honesty?
Everything you see, from the pictures to the dialogue, comes from my thoughts and feelings. I internalize conversations or things that I want to say, and then I create and I write it down. I’ve been trying to practice transparency for a few years now with my thoughts and emotions. Women have been silenced too long about saying what they feel when they want to, but it’s more important now than ever.
So what’s next for you? What are you hoping to share?
There’s a lot of messages that aren’t being communicated in society and a lot of taboos that aren’t being addressed. I want to use my platform to raise awareness about conversations that aren’t really out there. In this day and age, we need to be able to feel comfortable communicating the things that we subconsciously repress. I’m working on a new series. It’s already shot and written. I just have to edit it.
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