Despite landing a solo show in LA, the Palestinian-born, Australian-raised photographer tells us why she’s barely begun to tell her story
Update 4 June 2018: Sarah Bahbah is bringing her works to London, showing from June 7 – June 22 at Lawrence Alkin Gallery
Photographer Sarah Bahbah has a penchant for the cinematic. Her images, which feature subtitles in the style of foreign film stills, are moody and sexy, with text providing a sardonic twist. Think of them as a millennial take on the Nouvelle Vague, with fewer clothes and more pizza. It’s a concept that’s certainly been a hit – the artist currently boasts nearly 400,000 followers on Instagram.
Bahbah, a Palestinian woman who was raised in Australia and has since migrated to Los Angeles, is currently showing a new exhibition called F*ck Me, F*ck You at the HVW8 gallery in Los Angeles. On display through January 21, the show incorporates works from Bahbah’s various photo series – her most famous is called “Sex and Takeout”, a wink and nod to food porn – all of which explore love, heartbreak, sex, and the general pain of leaving adolescence behind. On a bright California winter day, we met over a particularly gorgeous fruit plate to discuss female empowerment, diversity, emotional transparency, and working with teen heartthrob Dylan Sprouse.
“I want to be true to expressing my emotions and my feelings and my thoughts and my desires” – Sarah Bahbah
What mood are you hoping to convey with subtitles and written dialogue?
Sarah Bahbah: Transparency and indulgence are my two major themes. For me, it’s super important to always make sure that I’m expressing myself. Especially as a Palestinian, I was suppressed and repressed for my entire upbringing. In my family, we’re very conditioned to just stay silent as women, and if we have problems, to disregard them, to not worry about them, not speak about them. As I evolved as an adult, I realised that’s not the way. There are things that I care about, and I need people to know.
So in terms of transparency, I want to be true to expressing my emotions and my feelings and my thoughts and my desires, and I want to be true to my desires to have indulgent moments. When I’m creating the work that I do, that’s my sole focus, and that directly or indirectly hopefully empowers other females to do the same. It’s really important to me to make sure I’m constantly pushing myself to be the most honest, real person, and to be true to my emotions. I hope it encourages others to do the same.
Your subjects tend to reflect Eurocentric beauty standards. Is widening the pool of models something you think about?
Sarah Bahbah: Most of my art was created when I lived in Australia, and I was pretty much surrounded by white people only. (Laughs) For me, I’m totally aware that I need to diversify. As a brown girl, I want to shoot more brown girls, and I want to be able to really depict my story of being a Palestinian being raised in Western society.
I was raised in a very strict household, and it comes back to the repression thing. It was such a hard thing to deal with as a kid – having my parents enforce all these rules on me, and then coming out into the Western world. It was confusing, and I got kind of compromised. There’s a lot that came from that, and I feel like I still haven’t done justice in expressing those stories. I’m ready to go into that.
What was it like working on your series #ThisIsNotForYou with Dylan Sprouse? Did you guys collaborate on the concept?
Sarah Bahbah: Dylan DM’d me on Instagram saying that he wanted to work with me. I happened to be in New York two days after that, so we met in a bar just to see how we vibed – and then we totally vibed, and we decided to just do it. Two days later we shot around Williamsburg, just in my friend’s apartment and the bar that we met in. The story was something I had been working on, but I was constantly asking him what he thought of it. We kind of started hanging out every night during Fashion Week, and I just kept coming up to him and going, “I just came up with this line, what do you think?” And I was going through something as well, so I was using my emotions to translate the story that had already started. There was just a lot of good synchronicity there.
Do you interact with your followers a lot, and what kind of messages do you get?
Sarah Bahbah: I get a lot of messages. It gets overwhelming, and I wish I could respond to everyone. But things that make me really happy and that inspire me to keep going is when I get messages from followers and they say, “you’re helping me to express myself, and feel the things that I’m feeling.” People write me stories about what they’re going through, and if I’m having this impact, that makes me want to keep going. Even when I released the series with Dylan Sprouse, so many guys messaged me and said, “Thank you, I wish I could be this vulnerable, and you’re giving me words.”
F*ck Me, F*ck You runs at the HVW8 gallery in Los Angeles until 21 January 2018