Rania Matar speaks through pictures again with her new book.

By Harshad Jadhav

Updated: January 10, 2022

(Photo credits to ​​Helena Goessens)

This interview has been lightly edited for comprehension and length.

Rania Matar returns with a series of portraits of women entering adulthood in her new monographic book, "SHE," published by Radius Books in October, and depicting shared humanity through womanhood despite cultural differences.

Matar, associate professor of photography at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, started her project in 2017 in Ohio. It later evolved as she continued to take pictures and applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship, which she secured in 2018. In the same year, she started photographing young women like Kefa in the landscapes of Gambier, Ohio, with which she was in love. The photos depict the transitory space of young women after they leave their homes and before they begin their journey into the new world awaiting them, and the relationship they are making with nature. Later in 2019, she took that work in Lebanon, where the trees of Ohio were replaced with smashed walls and broken windows.

(Kefa, Gambier, Ohio, 2018)

(Photo credits to Rania Matar)

"The Guggenheim Fellowship was an unbelievable honor and a stamp of approval. I received a grant that allowed me to take time off and to travel more widely within the US and the Middle East," says Matar, 57, who was born and raised in Lebanon and moved to the U.S. in 1984.

An architect-turned-photographer, Matar worked on three books previously —“L'Enfant-Femme” in 2016, “A Girl and Her Room” in 2012, and “Ordinary Lives” in 2009. She studied architecture at the American University of Beirut and Cornell University and later studied photography from the New England School of Photography and the Maine Photographic Workshops.

"I started taking photography workshops to make better pictures of my children, and then after 9/11, I became interested in telling a different narrative from the Middle East," says Matar.

In a video interview over zoom, Matar discussed her new book, her work, and her overall journey as a photographer. Below are excerpts, edited for clarity, from the conservation.

Q: So, what is the idea behind the book –– SHE?

A: This work started when I was in Ohio for an artist residency. I fell in love with the rural Ohio landscape and I started photographing young women in that lush beautiful landscape. While my earlier work was in the familial and domestic space, the backdrop for this work was the natural setting. Those women have left home and it felt metaphorically appropriate to photograph them in the more global environment they found themselves in. In my work, I focus on the two cultures I am part of and on the shared humanity through womanhood.

(Lea, La Maison Rose, Beirut, Lebanon, 2019)

(Photo credits to Rania Matar)

Q: What was your purpose for visiting Ohio?

A: I was part of a show there that was very different from the work that I'm making now. It was an exhibition about the aftermath of war, ... and they invited me ... so I can talk about the exhibition, and team up with the teachers to talk about the relationship of the photographer to the subject especially with a psychology professor and I was also expected to make work.

Q: Who invited you there [Ohio]?

A: It was the Museum: the Gund Gallery at Kenyon College, through a Mellon Fellowship.

Q: How long have you been working on this project?

A: I started working on this in 2017.

Q: Did COVID impact your work somehow?

A: It did very much, and I did a project during the stay-at-home advisory during COVID. ... The other thing that it did, is it gave me the time to make prints ... and [I] started editing, to work on the book. So, I used the time well ... Another thing that impacted was that ... the book got delayed so, I was able to add images from Lebanon after the explosions of the Port on Aug. 4, 2020, so that affected the book as well. Because some of the images would not have been in the book had it been published on time. So, that's thanks to COVID, right.

(Demi, Brummana, Lebanon, 2021)

(Photo credits to Rania Matar)

Q: What challenges did you face as a photographer during your time in Lebanon when you photographed young Syrian refugees on Beirut’s streets when there were social and political conflicts?

A: Are you talking about the project – Invisible Children?

Q: Yes.

A: I never had a conflict. There is an idea in the West that women in the Middle East are oppressed or whatever, and it is not true in many places. I never felt limited working in Lebanon. On the contrary. I had access that men might not have had. The country is in a tough place at the moment and it is sad to witness but it also feels more important to tell the stories. Sometimes the challenge that I might face is when there is a place that I want to photograph, and I have to get permission from the Army, and I do not get it because things are very tense.

Q: Does your architectural background help in your photography work?

A: I think it helps a lot, I have a sense of composition, and I have visual training that becomes like second nature, so I am very aware of the full-frame. I pay attention to every little piece in the frame. I care about my lines being parallel to the frame, so there is architecture in me in the way I subconsciously structure my images.

Q: You traveled a lot in 2018 and 2019, so can you tell us how you manage your personal life?

A: On my travel to Lebanon, I used to take my kids with me when they were younger, and we [used to] spend a long time in the summer. ... Also, now as my father is older, I travel a little more often. It is always a bit of a juggling act, having children here [U.S.] and a father in Lebanon. So, I had a reason to go besides work. And it is an added bonus that I can make work there. When I got the Guggenheim Fellowship, I did not have kids at home anymore [they grew older], my husband was very supportive, and I was able to travel more.

Q: What was the most challenging thing about publishing this book?

A: What was challenging is that I had made a lot of work and had many images that I was happy with, but I cannot use all those images. One has to edit to keep the book a good size to be accessible and not feel redundant. So, it was challenging to delete photos that I was fond of. I always share the images with the women in the photographs, but if their image was not used I had to explain to them that I was sorry, but the publisher could not fit all the work, which is exactly what happened.

Q: Can you tell us about your general experience of talking to children, teens, and women?

A: The women I am photographing now are not children. They are like in their 20s. They have full agency of agreeing and not agreeing and being proactive while working. When I was photographing refugees, the children on the streets, that was a bit different, and I just started asking them where they are from, what they are doing, and where are their parents, and I would buy them water or something.

Q: So, you have worked with teens whom you previously photographed as a kid. What differences did you observe in them after their transition?

A: It is interesting because we all went through puberty at some point. So, ... there is the physicality of the biological changes we all go through, that is just the same, right? ... Some girls get shyer as their bodies develop, and others get more self-confident ... There is a universality about going through the changes but at the same time, every experience is very individual. It was important for me to explore both the universality and the individuality of the experience.

Q: What are your upcoming plans? Are you planning to do another book or any project that you are considering working for?

A: I feel like I have a couple of projects that could turn into books, but I'm not ready yet. One of them could be the windows project [On Either Side of the Window] that I did during COVID lockdown –– I have enough [photos] to make a book. And the mothers and daughters [Unspoken Conversations] could be a book. I am also working on a new project where I am photographing young women in Lebanon only, the younger generation, which is at a cross point. The country is in a tragic place and their stories are very important to me. This work is a self-portrait in some way.

(Windows Project: Mia and Jun, Allston, MA, 2020)

(Photo credits to Rania Matar)

Q: Is it going to be the second part of this book [SHE]?

A: No, I think ... I love that it says: "where do I go"? And I feel like this could be my title. But not yet, I mean, SHE just came out ... so, I don't want to think about another book till I am ready, and I do need to give the [SHE] book at least two years out in the world before I publish another book. I need to think about the work, not just about the book.