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Hiba, Beirut 2010
Hiba, Shatila Palestinian Refugee Camp, Beirut, 2010Photography Rania Matar/INSTITUTE

Portraits of girls on the cusp of teendom

This new photo book is a powerful reminder that the emotional whirlwind of growing up female is so very universal

Before 9/11, Rania Matar worked as an architect. But in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks, the Lebanese-American photographer became disillusioned with the deluge of warped media coverage about the Middle East – seemingly solely concerned with stories about “the veil, wars or terrorism,” as she puts it. She yearned for more nuanced representations of the region – ones that better reflected her own upbringing, as someone who skirted the more-permeable-than-most-believe boundaries between Western and Arab cultures.

After years of capturing everyday Lebanese women and children in mega-heartrending, monochromatic fashion, as well as teaching photo workshops to teen girls in Palestinian refugee camps, the focal point of her work very naturally evolved into the dualities of North American and Middle Eastern girls. Matar’s photographic series dismantle preconceived notions about the Arab world in the most personal and poignant of ways. She reminds us that distinctions related to geography, social classes and places of worship are utterly irrelevant for young girls wrestling with burgeoning notions of selfhood.

Matar acknowledges the autobiographical elements that find their way into her forthcoming photo book, L'Enfant-Femme (the “Child-Woman”). “I realise that every time I photograph (a young girl), that I was her 25, 30 years ago in a different culture altogether,” she explains. For the project, Matar invited pre-teen girls in America and Lebanon to pose for the camera however and wherever they’d like – in their cluttered and hyper-saturated bedrooms or facing a graffiti-strewn wall, and staring down the barrel of her lens with utmost confidence or angst-ridden awkwardness. In locking eyes with Matar’s diverse girl squad, we recognise that their nationalities are both unknown and irrelevant. The subjects are all swept up by the same transformative whirlwind of imminent adolescence, and that’s what matters. All the arbitrary divisions we lazily fall back on when reaching adulthood are markedly absent. The evocative gaze and telling body language of each girl convey a transnational struggle to find your place in the world. “Who’ll run the world,” goes the frequently asked question. Here’s hoping the answer can include Yasmine, Madi, Farah, Tynia and all of Rania Matar’s brave enfants-femmes.

“All the photos are about coming to terms with femininity and womanhood, while being a little awkward. There’s something so beautiful about that awkwardness” – Rania Matar

How would you define this idea of “l’enfant-femme”?

Rania Matar: When my daughter turned 12, her whole demeanour and attitude changed, along with her body. One day she was lying on a sofa in Lebanon, and my father-in-law said, “Look at her, l’enfant-femme!” It can’t be translated to English because “child-woman” has a different connotation. I kept the French title because it created the boundaries for the project. It made me realise what I was after: that awkwardness. All the photos are about coming to terms with femininity and womanhood, while being a little awkward. There’s something so beautiful about that awkwardness.

The girls you train your lens on range in age from 8 to 13 – a fairly broad sample, considering the specific moment in time you’re documenting.

Rania Matar: I was originally interested in featuring girls aged 11 and 12, exactly my daughter’s age at the time, but then realised I needed to give myself more flexibility because girls develop differently. So it became about pre-puberty. Once, I went to photograph two girls and their little sister was pouting at the back of the room. I told her mum, “I’ll photograph her, no problem!” I was just doing that on a whim, but she gave me a gift – that girl became the cover of the book, and she was only eight. So I realised I had to broaden my sample.

What you’re documenting in L’Enfant-Femme is such a fleeting moment. Some of the girls you photograph project defiance, others insecurity. But your portraits also hint at something so very universal about this transformative time.

Rania Matar: Indeed. Some of them are confident and fragile at the same time, and often, as they go through adolescence, they start revealing more of the vulnerability than the confidence, interestingly enough. The body language also changes. It is such a short period in time, but such a defining moment, just before a girl hits puberty.

Did the project help you better relate to your own teenage daughter?

Rania Matar: Yes, L’Enfant-Femme and my previous project, A Girl and Her Room, both did. My eldest daughter now is 21, and I’m close to her again. As a teen, they go through this phase. I’m photographing all of them without the mothers present, because if the mother were around, the whole dynamic would change. There was something really interesting about realising that the relationship with the mother is very powerful, either in positive or negative ways. There was faith on the mothers’ part, because I was asking them to leave so I could be alone with their girls. It made me understand that the mother has such power over the daughter. If she’s around, the daughter will pose very differently. And not dress the same, either.

You let the girls dress however they’d like for the portrait. In fact, the only cue you provided was not to smile. Why was that so important?

Rania Matar: Selfie culture was growing as the project was developing, and here I was, photographing them with a medium format 6 x 7 film camera, where they can’t even see the photo. That took them out of their comfort zone. I wanted them to take the session more seriously and stay away from this selfie attitude. We’re totally programmed to smile for the camera; it’s a reaction we are taught. I believe it’s very American, because when I was in the Middle East, photographing refugee kids, they didn’t have the automatic instinct to smile for the camera. When I asked the girls not to smile, they all of a sudden had to think. I wasn’t going to let them just hide behind the smile. They had to think about what to do with their hands, their feet and their body language. A lot more of their personality comes through.

While the girls in L’Enfant-Femme are Lebanese, Syrian or American, the shared experience of girlhood connects them all.

Rania Matar: Absolutely. At that age, girls want to pose in some way, but are also a little bit awkward. They’re so endearing and fragile. I get a little defensive sometimes when people ask, “how is this empowering girls, making them pose like that?” But it is, and it’s beautiful that each one of these girls, in her own way, is coming to terms with her own femininity. She might also be a soccer player or a tomboy or whatever, but she also wants to be perceived as a woman, on some level. It’s innocent, and I feel as though people who read more into it have been indoctrinated to do so by society. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.

“I get a little defensive sometimes when people ask, ‘how is this empowering girls, making them pose like that?’ But it is, and it’s beautiful that each one of these girls, in her own way, is coming to terms with her own femininity” – Rania Matar

Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan penned a beautiful introduction to your book, stressing that you both belong to a sizeable global community that doesn’t see Western and Middle Eastern worldviews as mutually exclusive. “Rather, they combine to shape who we are and what we believe,” she explains.

Rania Matar: I relate to everything she says about being part of two cultures on such a profound level. The most fundamental aspect of my work is to show how we’re all just the same. In L’Enfant-Femme, there’s a young girl wearing a pink scarf, who’s in a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, and the girl on the page next to her is a Jewish girl from Brookline, sporting a bracelet that reads: “I love Israel” with the star of David. The girls look almost identical, especially in the way they’re standing and their facial expression. There’s something very visceral about that for me. It’s an important part of the message I want to convey.

Your photo series all explore these fascinating liminal states. L’Enfant-Femme zeroes in on the transition to adolescence, while A Girl and Her Room shifts its focus to impending adulthood. Would you say Unspoken Conversations, your latest project featuring mothers and daughters together, captures another such turning point?

Rania Matar: Absolutely. When my daughter left for college, I realised that was also another big transition in my own life as a woman – middle age. It’s a pretty powerful moment. Photographing teenage girls with their mums has been a very different way of working for me, because with all my other projects, it was just the girl and I. Here, the mom is not only present but also part of the photo. Something quite interesting happens: whereas the girls alone might look fragile, with her mother in the photo, she often looks more confident, whereas the mum looks more vulnerable. The mother is being photographed next to a younger version of herself. That’s pretty powerful.

Rania Matar’s work will be featured as part of the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ upcoming exhibition, She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World, on view April 08–July 31 in Washington, D.C. For information click here

L’Enfant-Femme is published by Damiani Editore. More info here

Follow Michael-Oliver Harding on Twitter here @olivermtl