Inside the Private Spaces Women Can Call Their Own
Rania Matar's photos of teen girls in their bedrooms celebrate similarities between America and the Middle East.
Raissa, Medford, Massachusetts, 2009, from A Girl and Her Room series
Women are overlooked far too often in photography. How can we continue to combat this erasure? My answer is this column, “Woman Seeing Woman.” While it’s just the start of solving this problem, I, a female writer and photographer, hope to celebrate the astoundingly powerful female voices we have in photography by offering a glimpse into their work.
Rania Matar’s projects feature women in the Middle East and the US who allow her to photograph them at their most vulnerable, alone in their homes, bedrooms, or other sacred, private spaces. “The fact that I’m a woman is defining my work,” she said. “As a woman, I’m photographing the woman. There’s none of that layer of a woman feeling like she’s being objectified, I hope.” Matar has shown work around the world, but this year marks her first solo museum show. In Her Image, an exhibition of four photo projects, is on view at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Texas through June 17, 2018.
Matar did not start out photographing women from an explicitly feminist perspective. For her, it was more autobiographical. As her daughters grew up, and later, as she noticed herself also aging, she was curious about what that experience looked and felt like for others. “In some way,” she said, "I’m telling my own story and my daughters’ stories and those of all the girls and women that I’m photographing.”
Matar’s project A Girl and Her Room allowed young women to express themselves however they wished, alone in their bedrooms. At first, it was only going to be shot in the US, but Matar quickly noticed she was seeing herself and her Lebanese/Palestinian roots in all of the young women she was photographing. “I felt like the story of women in the Middle East was under-told or told in a very specific manner, especially in the West where I live,” the Boston-based photographer said. “[The story] was always tending to focus on women being oppressed or ‘Oh my God, she’s wearing a veil’ and there’s so much more to a woman in the Middle East than that.
“I am Lebanese and I’m Palestinian, and I was living in America, and I graduated college, and I was married, and I was working, and I had kids, and the fact that this whole categorizing of ‘the other’ [existed]... all of a sudden I was like, ‘Am I one of the other? But I’m here,’” she said. Tired of the narratives she encountered, she chose to photograph young women in the Middle East, in addition to the US, to tell a story about the similarities between American and Middle Eastern people. “I think it’s important not to forget that there are regular people and regular women living behind that and regular children do everything that they do in the United States. That for me is an important aspect of representation,” she said.
A Girl and Her Room spawned several other projects, like L’Enfant Femme, for which she photographed preteen girls; She, which features women in their 20s and focuses on physicality and the environment; Unspoken Conversations, which features teenage women and their mothers; Women Coming of Age, which features middle-aged women, and more. Each series is reflective of where both she and her daughters have been or are currently in their lifetimes.
Matar’s body of work is arguably not one that would have the same results if a man shot it. “A man would not have been in the room with a woman nursing a baby in the first place in a Palestinian refugee camp, let’s put it this way,” Matar said. Similarly, Matar once tried photographing young men for her Room project, but found the experience uncomfortable. “I think women can understand other women more than a man would,” she said, and feels the opposite is also likely true. “In some way, our womanhood bonds us.”
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