Selections talks to six talented female photographers from the Arab world and Iran whose work spans the gulf between East and West, transcending language and culture to tell universal stories

Rania Matar, a Lebanese-American photographer, explains how her relationship with her two daughters led to a fascination with girls and women growing up and navigating transition and why she makes sure every series is shot in Lebanon and the U.S.

Each of the six women interviewed in this issue deals with this in their own way, some choosing to address the gulf between East and West directly in their work, others approaching it more obliquely. Yet ultimately, each achieves a similar alchemy — using photography as a tool, they are able to transform and translate their personal experiences into a universal format, rendering their subject matter accessible to people of any background, challenging harmful stereotypes and championing new perspectives.

Lebanese-American photographer Rania Matar photographs women and girls, exploring periods of growth and transition

The process of aging — and the experience, emotional growth and maturity that come with it — is something we all experience personally but are often able to observe and quantify only in other people. This alchemistic process is at the heart of Rania Matar’s work. Born and raised in Lebanon before moving to the U.S. in 1984, the photographer has two daughters and watching them grow and change has inspired several series of work. Over the past decade, she has focused on girls and women, capturing their inner and outer worlds, their growth and evolution, and the relationships between them.

In A Girl and Her Room, she captured teenagers in their bedrooms, exploring their increasing need for independence and their first forays into self-expression. The series was followed by L’Enfant Femme, capturing the vulnerability and bravado of girls on the cusp of puberty. Becoming revisits the same girls a few years later, while Unspoken Conversations captures teenagers approaching adulthood alongside their mothers. These photos are particularly captivating due to the complexity of the relationships captured through a sidelong glance or a half-glimpsed expression.

“When my older daughter left for college, I realised that I still feel like I’m 25 but I’m a middle-aged woman and it made me think quite a bit about my role as a mother changing and the fact that I’m getting older and she’s growing up,” Matar says. “There were so many layers to that moment, and then my relationship with her changed and we became much closer when she left home. The other personal aspect to that is I lost my own mother when I was three years old, so I’m really discovering that first-hand.”

A common thread running throughout the series is Matar’s decision to photograph women in the U.S. and in Lebanon for each.

“I’m always hyper-aware of that whole conversation in the news about “them” and “us” and it seems to keep getting worse, instead of better,” she says. “Because I live in the West I feel like a lot of the work people want to see often has this Orientalist aspect to it — they are still fascinated with the veil, with war, and I feel like people forget sometimes there are just normal, regular people who live here, so for me it’s important to portray that and to portray that universality.
Even though each girl and women that I photograph has such a specific identity and individuality, there is a universality to growing up and to growing old and to mother-daughter relationships and to going through transitions.”

Featured image: Rania Matar, Unspoken Conversations – Mothers & Daughters, Elizabeth and Austin, photograph, Boston Massachusetts, 2016, courtesy of the artist

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, A Dialogue Between Generations of Arab Women in Art #42, pages 150-151.