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Photographer Rania Matar

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ELLIOT REICHERT: I'm Elliot Reichert, and welcome to Profiles on WFIU. On Profiles we talk to notable artists, scholars and public figures to get to know the stories behind their work. Our guest today is Rania Matar.


Matar is a Lebanese-born photographer who lives and works in Boston, Massachusetts. Trained as an architect at the American University of Beirut and Cornell University, Matar later studied at the New England School of Photography. Her work considers the self-presentation of women in the United States and the Middle East, with a focus on women coming of age. Her photographs have been exhibited in the United States at the Chicago Cultural Center, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Carnegie Museum of Art, and many other venues. Internationally, Matar has exhibited in Lebanon, the United Kingdom, Singapore, Russia, Germany, Thailand, and elsewhere. Rania, thank you for joining us.

RANIA MATAR: Thank you so much for having me.

ELLIOT REICHERT: You began your training as an architect. I'm curious. How did you find your way into photography, and does architecture still have any influence on your work?

RANIA MATAR: I did study architecture and I worked as an architect for many years. And then I started having children and wanted to make better pictures of my kids. So, I started taking workshops and still working as an architect. At some point I found that I was making very different images of my children than what I thought I was getting into. And I fell in love with observing the mundane moments and telling a story through photography. So, I wasn't making the pretty pictures that I thought I would be making of my children. And I fell in love with the craft of photography. I had also done a lot of art in college with architecture, never photography. But when I started taking workshops and classes I fell in love with the craft of making photographs. After September 11, I started questioning my whole sense of identity. The rhetoric back then was very much them versus us. And at that point I'm living in the U.S. I got married living the American dream. I had children. And all of a sudden - but I was also referred to as “them,” which is very much part of my identity as a Lebanese woman from Palestinian origins. And I started trying to think of that whole idea of “them versus us” versus who I am. And I so happened to go with a cousin of mine to a Palestinian refugee camp in 2002 that marked the 20th anniversary of the massacres of Sabra and Shatila and I realized that I had no idea people lived in those conditions so close to where I grew up. So, I decided to start making photographs of that. The reason I always talk about the pictures of my kids is when I first showed these images in the United States, the first comment somebody told me was you need to get the same intimacy with all your work as the images of my children. And that was the best advice anybody gave me. Eventually - I never used the early work, but it became something that very gradually encompassed all my time, and I was not an architect anymore. Does architecture still play a role in my images? I think so very much. I think if you look at my photos there's always a structure to them. I'm very aware of the lines in the frames. I always scan the whole perimeter of the frame. I feel like just having this visual training is very much part of how I see things in terms of light and texture and the space in my images. So, I think it's very much there.

ELLIOT REICHERT: I'm fascinated by that. The work that you have in our collection is a wonderful photo of two young girls, 7 and 8 years old, in Beirut. And they're framed rather architecturally by a kind of pale blue, I think, shop door background. And they're gazing, one in a hijab the other without a hijab - beautiful yellow and pink outfits - and they're gazing so confidently. And you'd mentioned that photo was a very quick take on the street, but you seem to engage so deeply with your subjects. How do you attain that intimacy?

RANIA MATAR: It wasn't a quick take. It just wasn't a preplanned image, I want to say. I met them on the street and thankfully I had my camera with me. And I just fell in love with the two girls. I mean the attitude they had, the colors they were wearing. There was such confidence exuding from them that I asked the parents if I could photograph them. And they were all excited. Then we crossed the street and, okay, we did work to shoot a little bit, but by the nature of it, it wasn't somewhere where I went to somebody’s home and spent two hours with them. No. I don't know. I think it's a matter of creating a point where the - I don't want to call it the subject - but the person I'm photographing feels that I'm not in any way objectifying them, I want to say. So, there's a relationship that happens. And I think I've been photographing girls that age and older, I mean, for a while now that I'm pretty good at relating to them. And they're the ages of my daughters. So, it's helped a little bit. I hope that answers the question.

ELLIOT REICHERT: I've noticed in your work you tend to follow up with your subjects and take photographs of them several times in the course of their life. How do you maintain those relationships and what do those relationships look like?

RANIA MATAR: Well, I wish I could say that this is the case for everybody I photograph. But the nature of life taking over, it doesn't happen with everyone. There are a few young women who I’ve kept in touch with over the years. One of them in particular comes to mind, and her name is Sameera, and she is a young Palestinian refugee. I met the family in 2005 when she was 5 years old. And I stayed in touch with that family over the years. I mean, she lives in a refugee camp. She's a third generation living in refugee camp. They're not going anywhere. So, I know where to find them. And I built that relationship with them that now she trusts me, and it became a natural progression to photograph her over the years. What was kind of a nice story is I photographed her in the refugee camp for all those years. And last summer, she asked if we could make pictures outside the refugee camp. So, we actually left. And I took a couple of photos of her literally in the water. And she was so happy. And it was a beautiful moment. I did a project that started from L’Enfant-Femme in which the picture you mentioned is part of. And I titled it, Becoming, because it followed some of the young girls I had photograph that I photographed originally at pre-puberty and we photographed them after puberty. So, I'm trying to follow some of those over the years. And by the nature of things, there are girls I've still stayed in touch with, and it's easy to continue that collaboration other with that move or I lost touch with. And, unfortunately, this can't keep happening. With Instagram, it's easy to kind of find people. And I want the girls - which is why you're asking about the intimacy - I want it to always feel like a collaboration. So, I want the girls and the women I photograph to actually enjoy the process and feel empowered. And…I mean, it's something that's important to me. If they feel it, then in a way they're willing to do more. But I also want it to be a pleasurable experience for them. There's no money being exchanged. So, for me it really feels like a collaboration. And I work on it to feel as such.

ELLIOT REICHERT: You are Lebanese, but you're also of Palestinian descent. It strikes me that when you went to the refugee camps in Lebanon, Palestinian camps in 2002, did you feel any change in your sense of self identity or any kind of connection to your Palestinian roots?

RANIA MATAR: You know, it was a very powerful moment on many levels. And I'm trying to form my thoughts as I'm talking. When I was growing up, I grew up during the Civil War and my father who did not want me to feel in any way that I'm inheriting his baggage as a Palestinian during the civil war in Lebanon, hammered in my head that I'm Lebanese. And so, I really grew up feeling very Lebanese. The Palestinian identity for me came much later, and it kind of came, again, after September 11 and after visiting the refugee camp. I mean, I was really shocked that people lived like that. I did not grow up like this. I hate to bring religion into it, but as a Palestinian Christian, my parents met in Lebanon and grew up in Lebanon, really. But their families were able to get the citizenship. Most of the Palestinian refugees in the camps are Muslim and they do not have Lebanese citizenship. So, they're not allowed to work and they're not allowed to own property. And it feels like generation after generation they're born in the camps. So, did I relate to them? I mean, I had mixed feelings about the whole experience, because I wanted to tell their story. But part of me was feeling like I wanted to help and, in some way, that my life is better. And it took a while of photographing and getting to meet the women that I got to a point where I was able to relate to them just as women and mothers. And this was very liberating to me because I could build the relationship with them and not get in the position that I'm in any way better off. I don't know if that's making sense.

ELLIOT REICHERT: I think it does. Absolutely.

RANIA MATAR: But it was a process to get to that point and - which is why now I could go and I really have a relationship to them. And if there are families that I help, I tried to help them through the NGO. So, there's never that kind of relationship of me being in a position that's paying them.

ELLIOT REICHERT: That's fascinating, because, as a photographer you are taking their image. So, you're sort of taking something from them that you then circulate in the world as yours. But, in fact, what you're taking is a kind of presentation of their identity.

RANIA MATAR: I actually posted two images from one of the Palestinian girls that I photographed this morning. But I did send her a WhatsApp asking her if that was OK. So, I wanted to tell their story but I don't want it in any way to feel like I'm objectifying them or being disrespectful of them. And I think they feel it, which is why we have collaborated all those years.

ELLIOT REICHERT: I'm very interested in this origin story you told us, about taking photographs of your own children and then finding that the images that you were taking were not those typical family portraits but maybe something more meaningful. How was that process for you, looking at those photographs and realizing that you were looking at them not only as your children but as something else?

RANIA MATAR: These photos are so important to me. I have four children and they're all very close in age. My life was absolute chaos. And photographing them, in a way, was therapeutic and became something that I lived those moments with them. It all started because - I had one time one year, we got a photographer to want to come and take pictures; Christmas photos of my kids. And it was a horrible experience. And the fact that by then I wasn't posing them or trying to dress them for the moment, but just observing this beautiful moment that was just happening in front of me, really made me slow down and see those moments. I kind of took them for granted before, and I didn't observe them. So, the fact that there was a camera there all of a sudden made me appreciate those beautiful moment. And that's - out of all my work, that's maybe the work that's the most important to me. I mean, it taught me not only about intimacy, but also appreciating mundane moments as being important. And I think both of these states through my work. My pictures really are of woman, but not much more is happening. It's just about the women. And yes, the background or the surrounding. And I think that's really formed a little bit how my work was developed from there. In a way, it was something I shared with my kids. Unfortunately, they don't let me photograph them anymore. All my work, literally, is autobiographical. So, as I'm photographing girls and women, they're following the ages of my daughters. So, L’Enfant-Femme was inspired by my younger daughter when she was pre-puberty, and when I was seeing how her body was transforming and changing; A Girl and Her Room by my older daughter, when I started realizing how she also was transforming, and how what she was surrounding herself with on the wall was very much her developing identity. And then I - when my older daughter left for college, I started a whole project on mothers and daughters because that was very personal to me. I thought that my relationship to her is about to change and my role as a mother was about to change. So, again, I took it as a photo project. Now, my two daughters, one is mid-20s, one is early 20s. I'm realizing how hard it is to be 20 today and how their whole life is kind of so ingrained in digital communication and how stressful it is for them, that I started a whole project that focuses on texture and physicality and their relationship to nature and the outside. And this is the project I'm working with. And that I titled, She.

ELLIOT REICHERT: You mentioned a photo series in which you take photographs of young women in their bedrooms surrounded by their posters, their messy laundry, all sorts of things like that. Some of those images have a kind of presentation of femininity that feels somewhat sexual. I'm wondering if that's something that you intentionally draw out in your subjects or is it just the moment that you capture them in.

RANIA MATAR: I don't see it at all. And I don't know if that's a male gaze on it. I photograph them like my own daughters. And maybe by the nature that they're in the bedroom, people could associate that with it. I spend a long time with each of them to get them to a point where they're fully comfortable and in their own zone, maybe by the nature that it's a young woman in her bedroom. I don't know. Maybe there's an aspect that could be viewed by…as sexual. But for me, it's more about intimacy and about the fact that I got to that level with that young woman in her space. And that in some level maybe there's a voyeuristic side to it, because that's an aspect where people don't have access to that. And I was very fortunate that these young women gave me that access, which I treasure, and the parents who allowed me to be alone in the bedroom without them being there. As soon as the parent was there, the whole relationship and the dynamic with me and the young woman was altered completely. So, there's probably a profound intimacy that you're viewing in those images. I don't see more than that in it. For me, what's important about this work - and as you mentioned, I photographed in Lebanon and I photographed in the U.S. But again, I photographed in the Palestinian refugee camp, and I also went to the West Bank and included some of those images. And for me…this project was meant to start in the United States, because by then I was done with my early work that was very much based in the Middle East. And I'm like, I live in the U.S. now. My daughters are growing up in the U.S. And I want to make work in the U.S., in Boston, where I live. And as I started this project, I started photographing the young woman in the bedrooms, I had a flashback at that point of myself 25 years earlier at that point. Now, it was more 35 years earlier. So, 25 years, it was a different country, different culture, different time. But I was exactly the same, if that makes any sense. And, for me, this became very much about that universality of growing up. That's very important in my work from - again, when I was mentioning about the “them and us.” And I'm trying, through the girls and the women, to focus on that…shared humanity and universality of growing up. A Palestinian young woman in her bedroom - she doesn't own her own bedroom. She's in a shared space and with an area that's hers. Her life is very, very different than young woman in an upper-scale suburb of Boston. But, for me, there's such similarity of the developing identity, the bodies changing, the sense of growing up and becoming an adult but holding onto the child. So, this is very universal. This became a book. And the cover of the book is this young woman who is like a fake blonde in front of a Marilyn Monroe poster. And everybody thinks she's American. And I love it that it throws people off because, again, people tend to think of the Middle East as this monolithic Area where all the women are veiled and oppressed. And, for me, the work is so important in shattering that stereotype.


ELLIOT REICHERT: You're listening to Profiles on WFIU. I'm Elliot Reichert. Our guest today is Rania Matar.

I'm wondering if you could talk about your time growing up in Lebanon. You left in 1983, I believe…?


ELLIOT REICHERT: …'84. So, at the height of the Civil War, really. Could you talk about your experience and maybe why you left?

RANIA MATAR: I grew up during the Civil War. But, for some reason, when I remember my growing up and my teenage years in Lebanon, I remember my girlfriends, you know, boys, going skiing. I mean, so, it's kind of bizarre in a way that the countries felt schizophrenic. Like, the war would happen by moments, but then life went on…when there was no war. And we got used to living with that as it became almost part of life. One day we might not have school because there was fighting somewhere. And the next day the school would open. And then if there was, like, fighting at night, I remember with my neighbors we used to run in the morning and find like an empty bullet and shrapnel to collect. So, there was something kind of weird about that. But it still was…relatively livable. When things got really bad - I mean, I was fortunate my parents were able to - my father at that point remarried. We were able to make us leave and go to school in Paris for, like, half a year, on and off, but then always went back to Lebanon. When I eventually left Lebanon in '84, things had changed. I was at the American University of Beirut at that point. And the war felt like it really, really came close to home more than it had before. The president of AUP had been shot the previous few months before I left, and then the American embassy was bombed. So, a lot of people who could afford that life had transferred to American colleges at that point. I thought I was just coming for a couple of years. And before I knew it, I was living here. That being said, I go back and forth to Lebanon all the time. My father lives there. As my kids left home now to go to college, I've been going, like, four times a year. I feel like I do my best work in Lebanon. I'm very, very connected to the place on so many intense levels.

ELLIOT REICHERT: You do go back quite frequently, it seems. I'm curious. What are your impressions of Lebanon now, and how is Lebanon maybe different than it was when you were growing up, and are there any sort of reverberations of the civil war? I'm thinking especially, of course, there's a lot of regional conflicts that Lebanon seems to sometimes be adjacent to but also it can feel like it's a whole another world far, far away.

RANIA MATAR: It's always interesting going back to Lebanon. I mean, like in 2006, I went there with my four kids and literally we were one of the last planes to land that day. So, the next morning, my father calls, like, “don't leave the house.” I'm like, “why?” He's like, “the airport's closed, and there's a war.” The war between Hezbollah and Israel. And I got stuck with it, with my four kids who were pretty little at that point. My husband wasn't with me, so that was very traumatizing. And you were asking about growing up in a civil war and how I said I remember only the happy moments. It's kind of interesting because being stuck in a war all these years later with my kids, all these memories of the war that I thought I had forgotten, I guess I had suppressed, because they came back to me. So, my kids would ask me, like, “how come we see the bomb and then we hear it?” I'm like,” oh, count to six.” I'm like, “oh, how do I remember this?” So, it's like because the speed of light travels faster than the speed of sound. So, you actually see the bomb falling and then you hear it. So, it's unfortunate my kids live that. At the same time, I feel like it gave them an appreciation of what war is. I feel living in the U.S., sometimes we think of it as things that happen very far away. And the fact that they live that is something they never forget. So, that was a time where I would say going to Lebanon was very intense. A lot of other times I go with my family. They still go with me. My kids love going there. It's a very enjoyable experience. There's always an aspect of it being a little bit schizophrenic on so many levels. I mean, even when things are quiet, you could go to nice dinners and you have people partying to, like, all hours of the night. But the next morning, you have Syrian refugees on the streets and Palestinian refugee camps that are, like, less than 10 minutes away by car. So, there is that aspect of Beirut - that's Lebanon, actually - but especially Beirut, that's very intense and powerful. And I learned to embrace it all when I go there. So, I do enjoy the nightlife in Lebanon. But I also have a huge respect for the refugees. So, I try to really experience the two extremes that do feel claustrophobic. Recently, there's been a revolution in Lebanon, a movement that's really been actually started by the younger generation and the women. And it's been unbelievably inspiring to watch. And, again, this is happening but life kind of goes on. The revolution happens at night, and people to go to work during the day. So, it's hard to describe the place without being there. For me, also, what's important, if you talk about the Middle East and all this, especially talk about women in the Middle East, I mean seeing what's happening politically in Lebanon and on the ground right now it's largely led by women. People tend to be obsessed with the hijab, the veil and all of that. And it's really a non-issue very often. In Lebanon and in my photographs, you might find women and, actually, specifically in the photograph in the museum you might find women who are veiled and others who are not. And, even if they are veiled, they could be wearing, like, very tight jeans and then a veil. You could have women who are covered in black. You have women who are not covered at all. And people live side by side. And you get used to seeing it without thinking as it being an issue. Recently, with my new project about - the She project - I got a message on Instagram from this woman who is wearing the whole black...


RANIA MATAR: …Niqab, but not covering her face. She's wearing all black, but her face is uncovered. Her hair's covered, and she's wearing the abaya - what you call the abaya - asking to collaborate with me for photographs. And I thought that was an oxymoron. But I realized that even I had preconceived ideas about that. And then I went to her profile. And it said, “follow me, I'm toxic.” So, I kind of like that and she perked my interest. And we've been collaborating for the past year and a half. And she's been an absolute joy to work with. She's 100% creative. She brings an extra layer of the abaya that now she uses as a prop. She jumps in the water. She wanted to be photographed in the snow. So again, I started not to see the black covering again. So, I feel like it's an exercise in seeing that.

ELLIOT REICHERT: It's funny. I think I saw one of the photos of the woman in the snow on your Instagram. That's fascinating, that turning kind of a new take on your work. You mentioned the women being at the sort of the front of the revolution in Lebanon. And I'm fascinated by that because I follow the moments in Lebanon on Instagram, a lot actually, it’s my best source of news, from friends who post there. And I'm struck by those images of women confronting military officers or the police or creating kind of circles around a community kitchens or encampments where protesters are out. Are you ever tempted to take photographs of that side of schizophrenic Lebanon?

RANIA MATAR: I'm not a photojournalist in my work, and many people who live on the ground are doing that beautifully every day. I'm following it on Instagram as well, more than on the news, because it's not very covered on the news.

ELLIOT REICHERT: No, it's not.

RANIA MATAR: I did make some photos with my own take on it, and I did a couple of those, one on that and one on Syrian refugees. And I call them side projects for me a little bit. I found that not only the women were inspiring, but there was so much artwork that was coming out and a lot of it as graffiti all over the walls. So, I made a lot of portraits of those women and some men who were kind of initiating the revolution in front of these graffiti walls that I would eventually see as a gigantic installation of these portraits. Another side project that I did along those lines. In 2014, I started noticing how many Syrian refugees were on the streets in Lebanon. And people ignored them. When you live in a place, you tend to not see things. And I come back and forth. So, I could always see it with new eyes somehow. And I discovered that those Syrian refugees just popped out of nowhere. And they were literally everywhere, at every street corner. And some of them the ages of my children. So, I started photographing them as well. And for me, that was an important story to tell. This was before the refugee crisis had exploded, before it was all over the news. And I found that we tend to talk about the refugees as millions. But I wanted to photograph them each individually, so you see people's faces and you could see the child in there. So that was another one that I think of as a little bit of a side project because, again, most of my work has been going through, like, these stages of women who had been growing up and becoming. But those felt like important moments in Lebanon that are in some way microcosms of what's happening in the Middle East that I could provide my own interpretation of. And the fact that I live in two cultures and two countries, in a way, I feel like I could be some sort of a messenger a little bit by showing that. So, I feel like it's important for me to do that.

ELLIOT REICHERT: You mentioned earlier how September 11th had an impact and an influence on you in terms of your perception of the United States or perception of your identity. Could you tell us a little bit more about that, what changed after September 11 for you?

RANIA MATAR: It wasn't my perception of the United States. It was the fact that I thought of myself as an American from Lebanese, Palestinian origins. And it was a non-issue. Everybody in this country is from somewhere. And that was the beauty of it. I remember when I went to school in Paris. People knew right away it, OK, from Lebanon. And I was never made to feel that I could be French. I came to the U.S., and people asked me where are you from. And I would say it and then it was a non-issue. And I felt very much like I'm home. The news kind of at that point did them versus us and the negative news really hit me to the core for two reasons. For one, it made me question my sense of identity. And it made me sad because the people I knew in the Middle East were not terrorists. I mean, people are beautiful and hospitable and kind and loving. And it felt like the whole area was tainted by the action of a few, very few, that carried horrible acts. So, it became important to me to kind of - maybe also to prove to myself that where I came from did not change and people are still kind, and all that. So, it became important for me to manage both. And in a way, it did make me more come to terms, again, with my origins that yes, I live here and I'm part of the system and I work here. And I pay my taxes. And I'm raising my children, and all of that. But I also didn't want to forget where I'm from, and the fact that I love this place and I do want to photograph people with love and humanity and dignity. And it helped that I was able to do that.

ELLIOT REICHERT: It's interesting, this idea of you being a kind of a messenger or a translator, someone who's kind of between worlds or can enter into both worlds. Do you think of your work in any way as explicitly political or do you try to frame it in that way? Or is that just a kind of inherent byproduct of the nature of where you work and how you work?

RANIA MATAR: Actually, I try not to frame it at all as political, but I like the fact that it is political. And I feel like because I don't frame it as political people are able to relate to it. I try to stay away from any overtly political statements. I think by focusing on shared humanity and through womanhood and, on some level, it is political. In a not in your face kind of way, I hope.

ELLIOT REICHERT: I've traveled to Lebanon a number of times and spent months at a time there. And the thing that I miss when I'm not in Lebanon is the food.

RANIA MATAR: Yeah (laughter).

ELLIOT REICHERT: I've tried to teach myself some Palestinian food and some Lebanese food. I'm curious what your favorite Lebanese foods are, or Palestinian foods, or foods that are harder to come by here in the United States.

RANIA MATAR: You know, I'm probably the worst person to ask because I'm not a big foodie. And I think my husband must have married the only Lebanese who cannot cook (laughter). You know, I grew up without a mom. My mom died very young. So, I kind of just actually grew up in Lebanon eating Philadelphia cheese and fish fingers and cornflakes (laughter).


RANIA MATAR: Now, that being said, I love the food. I just can't make it. So, I love tabbouleh. I love hummus. I love that just the more, the simpler, but the staples - falafel - the staples of the food of the country (laughter).

ELLIOT REICHERT: That's pretty funny. Lebanon and food are synonymous to me.

RANIA MATAR: Yeah, actually you know it's funny because you're speaking of the fact that I live here but I'm partly from Lebanon. But growing up in Lebanon, my father worked for 3M. So, my father was actually the head of #M in the Middle East at that point before the war started. So, I was kind of very aware of American culture growing up in Lebanon.


RANIA MATAR: That kind of life went full circle, in a way.


ELLIOT REICHERT: You're listening to Profiles on WFIU. I'm Elliot Reichert. Our guest today is Rania Matar. Matar is a Lebanese born photographer who lives and works in Boston who work often considers the self-presentation of women in the United States and the Middle East, with a focus on women coming of age.

We've talked quite a bit about your origins and your work. I'm curious to know more about you as a person. What do you do when you're not - I guess you don't photograph your children anymore. So, what is Rania’s life like when she's not running around going to exhibitions in Beirut and Bloomington. I mean, I guess you do that quite a lot, too.

RANIA MATAR: I do a lot of running around because that's who I am. Even when I'm doing nothing, I feel like I'm running around. So, again, I have four children now. They're between the ages of 19 and 25. So I tried to keep track of what's happening in their lives. Two are in New York, one is in North Carolina in college at Wake Forest, and one is at Northeastern. And I have a wonderful husband who's been very supportive of my work. Um, I have an aging, relatively aging father now so I also try to - and just to back off a little bit, again, my mother died very young, so it was just me and my father growing up. So, I'm his only daughter, which is most of the reason why I go to Lebanon quite a bit. So, even when I go to Lebanon, I'm running around between seeing my friends, spending a lot of time with my father doing doctor's appointments, and photographing. So, I don't feel like I ever am not running around (laughter). I love to read. I love going to museums. I love going to the movies, and I exercise (laughter).

ELLIOT REICHERT: So, all the normal trappings.


ELLIOT REICHERT: I'm curious about your relationship with your father. You grew up without a mother, largely. How did that absence shape your relationship with your father, if at all, or...

RANIA MATAR: I'm very, very close to my father. I grew up completely OK as far as I could tell (laughter).

ELLIOT REICHERT: I wasn't implying elsewise.

RANIA MATAR: No, no, no, no, no, no, But I'm saying I did not - no, sorry. I did not feel like I was growing up with a lack. I felt the time where I mainly missed not having my mom is when I had my own children and I became a mom myself. And I think not having my mother is something present in all my work and my all - somebody pointed that to me once, and I realize that is probably true because I wasn't very aware of that, that I'm always interested in the sense of growing up, and womanhood, and the relationship with mothers and daughters. And even when I started photographing in the refugee camps, I was drawn to that. So, on some level, not having a mom definitely affected my work probably my relationship to my kids. Like, when I was stuck in the war in 2006, I never thought about going and making pictures then, because I realized that I don't want to get hurt, because I have children that don't want to go - I ended up going back when things were quiet and photographing the aftermath because that was important. Other than that, no, I'm very close to my father. I just had an exhibition at AUB, the American University of Beirut and it was an exhibition of only my work. And this is where I started my architectural study. This is when my father met my mother. So that place was so special to me personally, and to my family. And seeing my father there at my opening got me to be very emotional. So...

ELLIOT REICHERT: Yeah, it's like a sort of the ultimate homecoming, in a way...


ELLIOT REICHERT: have your work back at AUB. It's interesting. You mention how an absence of your mother maybe infiltrated your work without you realizing it. It does strike me that there is a maternal gaze, there is some kind of deep empathy for your subjects. And some of that comes from, as you said, your close relationships with these subjects, or your relatability to them. your children are growing up now, right? You said the youngest is 19, perhaps?


ELLIOT REICHERT: Do you feel that, as they sort of age out of that period of life, that you're fascinated by will that change your work? Will you move on to other subjects?

RANIA MATAR: Well, it has already. I mean the new work I've been making is still following my daughters, but they're older. So, I feel like this might keep happening. I mean, I'm interested in the whole sense of growing up and growing older. Doing the mother-daughter project that I taught at Unspoken Conversation, I started also focusing on the middle age part. So, I don't know, at some point, if my work might go in this direction. I - seems like my work develops one project to the other very organically, so I never over-plan it. It kind of starts, and it turns itself into a project. And I realize I'm engrossed in something. So, I'm not overthinking where it will go, but I'm sure it will start going somewhere. By the way, I also have two boys. But, somehow, it's my daughters who kind of inspire my work. I adore my boys, but there's something about working with girls that I found, for me, very empowering, inspiring, and maybe because I was one of them. And then when I was doing A Girl and Her Room, I kept thinking, you know, because my older daughter is a twin and she has a twin brother. And I always thought, “oh, my God, I should do something with boys, otherwise he's never going to forgive me for that.” And then his reaction was, like, “if you ever, ever ask any of my friends ever to photograph them, I would never speak to you ever again.” I'm like, “OK, the pressure's off (laughter).” So….

ELLIOT REICHERT: Have you photographed any boys or men?

RANIA MATAR: I've started - actually when you're talking about intimacy about A Girl and Her Room, I photographed exactly four boys when I did the - I was thinking I was going to do boys in their rooms on some level. And the whole project didn't go anywhere for many levels. For one, they don't have the same relation to their bedroom. Then, maybe, just, like, you felt like it was voyeuristic to look at girls' bedrooms. It felt so awkward for me to be in a very intimate setting climbing on the bed to photograph of an 18-year-old. I mean, there was something that didn't feel natural about it, and it didn't feel like it took off as a project for me. I was kind of forcing it. So, I tried to at some point do something - and there's a couple of those on my website that's part of the portrait where I photographed the younger 12 to 13-year-old boy because I found that age also fascinating. My son was that age, my younger son. I thought it could go somewhere, but I realized how much boys did not want to be photographed. And I'm like, you know, I'm forcing an issue that didn't come naturally to me. So, I kind of just let it go. And if it works, I did include boys in my work when I did the Syrian refugees and when I did some of the pictures of the revolution that we called Thawra, because this felt like the right moment to do so.

ELLIOT REICHERT: Thawra, the Arabic word for revolution.


ELLIOT REICHERT: Yeah, that's fascinating. Boys really are kind of vaults, I think (laughter).

RANIA MATAR: Yeah. And maybe you know what? There's so many other photographers in the world, so some other people might pick different projects and it would only be about boys or - I'm not saying it's something not that - For me, you know, I'm not commissioned to do any of the work I'm doing, so I'm kind of following my own guts creating work that's coming somehow very organically and naturally to me.

ELLIOT REICHERT: It's wonderful that you're at a point in your practice where you can do that. Was there ever a point where you felt compelled to follow more commercially-minded projects or - you know, how did you fashion yourself as a professional artist? At what point did you realize, “oh, I'm a photographer?”

RANIA MATAR: It started very organically, actually, because I was still working as an architect raising four little kids. I told you I'm always running around (laughter). I was still working a little bit as an architect, needed time off when I had my fourth child. And, again, being at home with the four kids kind of helped me grow as a photographer. And I was taking workshops at night when my husband could be home. So, originally, the work really started - I was just making work for myself, and it was not being shown anywhere. I had a teacher at NESOP who was going to show his work to a gallery. I had at a teacher at the New England School of Photography who got invited to show his work to a gallery, and he was really interested in my work that I was doing in Lebanon, my early work in Lebanon and the refugee camps at that point. So, he took my work with him and he came back saying, “the guy likes your work more than my mine (laughter).” So…but it was the first time. It put me in the frame of mind that I should print a portfolio. And eventually I met with somebody who told me, “you should start going to portfolio reviews,” which is where - there are different ones through the country - where you could go show your work to curators, gallery owners, publishers. And the work started getting a little bit of traction. I did not really work commercially at all. I mean, I did a few commissions, but if - they were only related to the work I was doing. Like, in 2011, I got invited to photograph Planned Parenthood for the annual report of the Gund Foundation in Cleveland. So, they really picked me to do work that I'm actually...

ELLIOT REICHERT: That seems like a natural fit for you.

RANIA MATAR: That's a natural fit for me - photographing young women and men at that point in that context. So, I did a few of those. And then I started teaching at MassArt - the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. I don't teach full time. I teach one class a semester. I started working with galleries and selling my work. And I need to do that because that's a source of income for me. I got a Guggenheim last year...

ELLIOT REICHERT: Congratulations.

RANIA MATAR: ...To have a fellowship which was actually a big highlight in my career. It was somebody telling me to just take time to go make work. And I really took it and ran with it. So, I feel like I've never created as much work as I did this past year.

ELLIOT REICHERT: I'm curious what that felt like - getting that Guggenheim - and what have you done with that honor?

RANIA MATAR: I don't even know if I could describe what it felt. It's up there like getting married or having children (laughter).


RANIA MATAR: It was a gigantic validation. And it was with no strings attached, like somebody telling you go make work. It's a huge gift and a huge honor. And because of that it's just - I felt like I owed it to them and to myself to create so much work. And I made a lot of work this past year, and it gave me the opportunity to go to the Middle East more often, to go to different areas in the Middle East but to also go to different areas within this country because I also, again, photograph a lot in the U.S. So, I was able to go to Oklahoma, to Ohio, to Michigan, to Florida. I made a lot of work this past year.

ELLIOT REICHERT: And how did you pick those places? In the United States, at least, they seem somewhat arbitrary. Were you following friends and family or did you simply - how does a photographer land in Cleveland per se?

RANIA MATAR: I might meet a person who - how do I find people I photograph? I stop them anywhere - at the airport, on the street or wherever. So, if somebody might be from out of town and that's a hook, so all of a sudden because I had the Guggenheim I would make a trip planned around that and then spend a few days and have this person introduce me to more people. And then the project grew like that. So...

ELLIOT REICHERT: That's amazing.

RANIA MATAR: ...I was able to do that quite a bit this past year, which was great. I went to Cairo not knowing anybody. I met somebody in Lebanon who lives in Cairo. And she was visiting my in-laws, and on her way out she was like, “you know, by the way, I live in Cairo. You should come sometime.” I'm like, “I will.” She said, “I mean it.” I'm like, “you don't know! I mean it too!” So, she eventually introduced me to somebody she knew who stayed with me for five full days and took me everywhere and introduced me to people to photograph, which was unbelievable.


RANIA MATAR: So that was really - it's things that happen that are really actually gifts. And it's like what it says. It takes a village - right? Backing off a little bit, going to portfolio reviews. I was able to meet curators who eventually, over the years, I stayed in touch with and eventually somebody invited me to have a solo show at the Amon Carter Museum and then the show went to the Cleveland Museum of Art. So, these are things that - I mean there's a combination of working hard but also of luck and of connecting with people and embracing people you meet. I mean, things happen over years, not immediately.


ELLIOT REICHERT: You're listening to Profiles on WFIU. I'm Elliot Reichert. Our guest today is Rania Matar.

I once thought about being a photographer but I would be so afraid to just approach a stranger for their photo. Have you always been like that? Was that Rania before Rania was a photographer? Or did you...

RANIA MATAR: I'm a pretty open person. I mean, yeah, I could speak to the wall. You probably could tell. I don't shut up (laughter). But I learned actually that quickly - I mean, when I started the project, especially with A Girl and Her Room, I learned also as a photographer when I started working in refugee camps, people don't owe you anything. People don't owe you to let you photograph them. It's a privilege to photograph them, so you have to treat people with kindness and warmth and respect. And otherwise you can't do that. You can't photograph people. And then I learned when I started photographing for A Girl and Her Room, I started originally with friends of my daughters, or asked daughters of my friends. And I found that very limiting for the girls. I was associated with being a mother and they were never able to let go. But for me, too, I felt like there were people watching the whole process on some level. And I was accountable to the people I knew and I didn't want to embarrass my daughter. And blah blah blah. So, I realized I like to work better with people I don't know. Like, if I'm giving a lecture, I would ask people at the end if somebody wants to be photographed. And then it started growing a little bit. And then, ultimately, I would start asking people on the street, at the grocery store, everywhere. Just imagine, my family would be with me and they'd like rolling their eyes and like, “please, no.” Then then I learned - I used to give them my card. Then I realized I'm putting them in a position to have to reach out to me. So now what I do is I would just say, “hi” to people, “I would love to photograph you. I'm a mother. And can I tell you more about what I'm doing?” And I would take their email and email them a blank email on the spot and copy myself. This way it's in my inbox as well. So, then I go home and I follow up on it. And most people say yes. And if they say no they say no, if they don't reply.

ELLIOT REICHERT: Yeah. It's fascinating that you have been able to find intimacy with subjects that you're actually not, in a true kind of social sense, intimate with. But the subjects that are your friends or your daughter's friends and their children - that was an impasse for you. You won't be able to conjure that. That's an observation (laughter).

RANIA MATAR: You know it's actually very interesting. When I was invited a couple of years ago to do a residency at Kenyon College and they paired me - part of the work was working with a psychology professor. And being paired with her I realized - and this - your question, in a way, or your observation made sense to me. And I realized that people would go to a therapist and dump their whole life story to a complete stranger - that things they wouldn't tell to their best friend. And on some level, maybe there's some of that happening where they could be themselves in front of me because I'm not judging them. And we're sharing a very special moment where I'm their photographer. I'm not a friend of their mother. And I'm not somebody who's going to be part of their daily life, and know things about them that they don't want me to know.

ELLIOT REICHERT: Mmm hmm, sort of just like ships passing in the night - just this brief moment.

RANIA MATAR: Yeah. I mean, some of them - again, I did stay in touch with and re-photograph them, but now it's very different because the relationship has been based on that from the beginning.


RANIA MATAR: We talked about this. The universality of...

ELLIOT REICHERT: It's funny because you mentioned that idea of universality and that's fascinating to me because I think of Edward Steichen in his Family of Man - the kind of, you know, we're all the same, can't we just hold hands and get along? And your work doesn't strike me that way. It's not overly optimistic. And yet it does convey a kind of human oneness or a human shared bond between humans. And I'm curious if that's something you try to consciously strike in your work, that sense of universality or is that just your kind of hopeful take?

RANIA MATAR: Maybe I should call it shared humanity, actually. A lot of the art coming from the Middle East is often catered to a Western audience. And there's a lot about wars and about conflict and about oppression of women. And I'm kind of a little bit tired of it, in a way. And for me - and maybe it's because - OK, Lebanon is a different country. And it is important to me to humanize women. And the women I know in Lebanon are strong, and they're not that different from the women I encounter here, like, as students, or anywhere. And it is important for me to just stop looking. It's important to me to show there's a variety in the Middle East. We're not a monolithic - right? - place. And, again, it's feels like over the years - it started with September 11, but we're in no better place with the relationship to the area right now. It's feels like this whole area is - there's always this division happening between the United States and the Middle East. And being from both, I'm the same person when I'm here and when I'm there. And it's important for me to portray that in my work. And I'm not trying to be optimistic or pessimistic. It's a matter of fact. I mean there's - girls are growing up - mothers and daughters are - that's a universal relationship: a mother to a daughter. I mean, she could be in a Palestinian refugee camp, or…in a suburb of Beirut, or anywhere. I mean, and it's not that it's all the same. Each relationship is different. But I think the cumulative aspect of them all, there is that same bond. That maybe one photograph might be showing more tension, another showing more love, another one showing something, more closeness or something. And I think we are - all of them at different times - makes any sense?

ELLIOT REICHERT: Absolutely. Yeah.

RANIA MATAR: I don't know if that answered your question.

ELLIOT REICHERT: I think it does. Yeah. And it raises another question somewhat tangentially. You know, a lot of my interest in the region came through personal connection but also contemporary art and Lebanese artists - especially the ones that became sort of big names - Walid Raad, Akram Zataari. They made work about the war, about the war and the aftermath of the war. And a lot of it was photography or video. Do you have any relationship to that kind of work or is that just kind of a different world?

RANIA MATAR: No, I - my first book is probably the most about this world. It's called Ordinary Lives and it's photographs of the aftermath of war. It's photographs of regular life in refugee camps. I discovered after the 2006 war the areas of southern Lebanon that I had never been to. I mean, growing up in a civil war my circle was tiny. So, I rediscovered a lot of it through my photography. And I feel like I did this work - it was important to do it -and I think I moved past it. But I still try to show that people have normal lives even within the context of war, even within the context of refugee camps. I added another aspect to the book after the fact, because I realized that it was a lot focused on areas that were mainly Muslim in Lebanon. So, I started including a very devout Christian life that also exists in Lebanon. And I played the whole idea of, like, I picture side by side of, like, nuns who are Greek Orthodox, wearing a black veil next to women who are wearing the black veil because they're Muslim. And often you can't even tell if a woman is a nun or a Muslim woman. So, what the hell does the black veil mean? It was work that I did and was important for me to do. But even when I tried to do it, I was trying to focus on life within that. And I think it's important work to photograph wars. I'm not in any way dismissing that. I think it's very important to include this work, but I think it's also - in one way, I want to include also the normal life within this in my work - which is why I've been focusing on that. I was part of a show called She Who Tells a Story - women photographers from Iran and the Arab world. And it was very interesting having 12 women in a show and every one of us had very personal work. But, again, I think the strength of that show is show how the area is not monolithic, again. So, you had a photographer from Yemen, one from Iran, one from Lebanon, me, some from Egypt, one from the West Bank, Palestine. It was all part of that exhibition. And it was interesting to see all the voices coming in.

ELLIOT REICHERT: And how did you see your work relating to the work of those other women photographers?

RANIA MATAR: It was interesting, because a lot of it felt more political than my work. And my work that was used in that exhibition was part of A Girl and Her Room. So, my work I photograph in both countries and both cultures. But the work that was chosen for that exhibition was only the work made in Lebanon, and…one in Bethlehem and some in a Palestine refugee camp. And I realized the curator didn't pick any of the girls I photographed wearing a hijab, the veil, even though it exists in my photos. But I realized because it was being complemented by other work in the exhibition. So, it was interesting seeing the work in that context. At first, I thought, you know, a lot of them were dealing with more problematic things happening in the area, and then maybe my work was not political enough. And then I realized - I owned up to it that actually my work was important because it was showing, again, that…the normalcy of growing up and the universality again. But what's interesting about that show, the picture we spoke about, about the blonde young woman with the Marylin Monroe poster was in the show. And people would come to the curator and tell her, you know, “we thought you're only showing Arab women in this exhibition.” And she said, “I am showing Arab women.” And people would get into an argument with her that, “there's no way this is an Arab woman.” So, then I realized, you know, my work is important in that exhibition, right?

ELLIOT REICHERT: Yeah, it shows a whole ‘nother side, an unexpected side. Yeah, that's fascinating. It strikes me as a very Lebanese sentiment to show the everyday life in the midst of chaos.

RANIA MATAR: I mean, I grew up like that! So maybe this is why I never thought about it. You kept asking me about this, and as I'm saying it I'm realizing that has been my life. I had to make a normal life and go to school and maybe at night there would be fighting and then the next morning is quiet and school is open.


RANIA MATAR: (Laughter) I mean, I used to go skiing with my boyfriend. And you had to go through cross points because it was called the Green Line.

ELLIOT REICHERT: Yes, the Green Line.

RANIA MATAR: Actually, nobody knows there's skiing in Lebanon but there's skiing in Lebanon.

ELLIOT REICHERT: There is skiing in Lebanon.

RANIA MATAR: So, there would be like what was called the green line. So, to go - I lived in West Beirut.

ELLIOT REICHERT: They separate east and west.

RANIA MATAR: Yeah. So, it was never known as East and West Beirut. It became divided during the war. And I stayed in West Beirut, but skiing...

ELLIOT REICHERT: Which is the Christian…

RANIA MATAR: Yeah, West Beirut is the more Muslim area.

ELLIOT REICHERT: I'm sorry. Yes, yeah.

RANIA MATAR: Yeah, but we stayed there. That's where I grew up - I thought, the most cosmopolitan area of Beirut - we had to cross to the other side of Beirut to get to the mountain. And we would literally be waiting to see when the crossing points are going to open, because there were snipers. And when the sniping stopped they open and we go skiing. So, there was something kind of strange about it. And maybe this is why in my work I want to focus on normal life despite all that's going on, right? I don't know (laughter).

ELLIOT REICHERT: Just holding onto that center (laughter).



RANIA MATAR: It's something you call the new normal, I guess? You get adjusted to whatever situation you're in.

ELLIOT REICHERT: Yeah, the new normal. That's a very resonant phrase (laughter).

RANIA MATAR: Yeah (laughter).

ELLIOT REICHERT: Thank you so much, Rania.

RANIA MATAR: Thank you so much. This was a great conversation.


ELLIOT REICHERT: I've been speaking today with Rania Matar. Matar is a Lebanese-born photographer who lives and works in Boston. Her work often considers self-presentation of women in the United States and the Middle East, with a focus on women coming of age. Thank you for being with us. This is Elliot Reichert for Profiles.


MARK CHILLA: Copies of this and other programs can be obtained by calling (812) 855-1357. Information about Profiles, including archives of past shows, can be found at our website: Profiles is a production of WFIU and comes from the studios of Indiana University. The producer is Aaron Cain. The studio engineer and radio audio director is Michael Paskash. The executive producer is John Bailey. Please join us next week for another edition of Profiles.

Rania Matar

Rania Matar (Aaron Cain, WFIU)

Rania Matar was born and raised in Lebanon and moved to the U.S. in 1984. As a Lebanese-born American woman and mother, Matar's cultural background, cross-cultural experience, and personal narrative deeply inform her photography. She has dedicated her work to exploring issues of personal and collective identity, through photographs of female adolescence and womanhood, in an effort to focus on the universality of issues of identity and individuality.

Her photography has been widely published and exhibited in museums worldwide, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Carnegie Museum of Art, National Museum of Women in the Arts, and more. A sample of her work was recently on view at the Featured Exhibition Gallery in the Eskanazi Museum.

Matar has received several grants and awards, including a 2018 Guggenheim Fellowship, and she has published three books: Ordinary Lives (2009), A Girl and Her Room (2012), and L'Enfant-Femme (2016).

She is currently associate professor of photography at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and regularly offers workshops, talks, class visits and lectures at museums, galleries, schools and colleges in the U.S. and abroad. During a recent visit to the IU campus, Rania Matar spoke with Elliot Reichert, the Eskenazi Museum’s first curator of contemporary art.


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