Us and Them. In today’s overly politicized atmosphere, it is easy to let our perspective of the world become defined by Manichean geopolitics, through simplified narratives that fill our minds with hate and fear. But take a breath and spend some time with Rania Matar’s photographs. In these worlds-spanning portraits, you will find relief, even joy and a reminder about those deeply individual struggles that we all pass through in life and which bind us together more deeply than any surface differences.
The (pre)teenage girls pictured in the pages of L’Enfant-Femme occupy a world before the arbitrary divisions we construct in adulthood. If these young people are facing any splits, it is between their childhood and some impending stage of maturity—though the book’s hyphenated title signals that even this distinction is another outward break that disguises a deeper unity.
Once within the pages of the book, we are given only a name, an age and a photograph—plenty to pore over. The resulting 80+ portraits, taken alternatively in Massachusetts and Lebanon (and even in refugee camps in the latter country), elide geographical and cultural differences by focusing on the essential and fundamental struggle each subject is facing: growing up. The images are filled with telling, idiosyncratic details: a steady (or uncertain) gaze; knobbly knees and elbows jutting out; carefully (or even suggestively) placed hands—all of which speak volumes about the eternal human questions of growing older, of finding yourself and of becoming comfortable within the world.
As we continue to leaf through, we are pulled back into a time that we all remember (even if we try to forget it)—not childhood exactly, but that itchy, scratchy time that came between the golden days of true youth and our present condition. Whether in comfortable bedrooms, cozily decorated salons or benign public spaces, these girls’ worlds are open, familiar books. A t-shirts’ slogan, a choice of bedspread, the length of a hem—tiny markers of difference amidst a sea of identification and connectedness.
After all, the hopes, dreams, fears and struggles of a girl in Beirut have much in common with a self-conscious American suburbanite. Dania at 9 and Dania at 12 (pictures 22 and 23 above) gropes to find a comfortable identity between child and woman, self-confidence and uncertainty. The fact that she has spent those years in a refugee camp in Lebanon is not evident at all until we turn to the book’s final pages, where the full captions of each photo are revealed.
Or take Clara (picture 1 above), the very young yet serenely confident woman who faces us on the front cover. Later, when she is revealed to be a mere 8 years old, we understand Matar’s hyphen (L’Enfant-Femme): 8 going on 18 going on 88. After all, the very idea of being “grown-up” is a childhood illusion. As we age, we discover that we never stop growing, never stop changing and always retain something essential from our formative, childhood years. The doubts we all have about ourselves—as well as our moments of poise and confidence—have their roots in this fragile time.
While we ceaselessly erect categories and divisions to simplify our understanding of the world, Matar’s camera forces us to pierce deeper. East and West, Muslim or Christian, white or brown, enfant or femme—what meaning do these have when we really confront ourselves, and each other?
Editors’ Note: An exhibition featuring this work (as well as other photographs by Matar) will be shown at the East Wing Gallery from December 10 to January 14, 2016. Matar will be present for the opening of the exhibition on the 10th of December at 19:00 and will also give a gallery talk and book signing on Saturday, December 12.