For a generation raised by the internet, platforms like Tumblr, deviantART, Reddit and 4chan represent just a handful of the many forum-like websites that have revolutionized the way we communicate with images online. Spreading like wildfire, these diverse and dynamic networks connected people from all over the world, resulting in endless threads of image-sharing and textual commentary, paving the way for new expressions of humor and emotion via .gifs and condensed web lingo.
In addition to these new forms of conversation, the early stages of our era of hyper-communication ushered in a number of new creative movements, grounded in the powerful capacity of images to convey meaning across geographical borders. On Tumblr in particular, visual stories and emotional moments condensed in film stills and their accompanying subtitles garnered widespread popularity, the influence of which can be seen in many popular visuals today. What’s more, with our gradual shift away from Tumblr to Instagram, these aesthetic treatments are now even more shareable and accessible, and their universal language is still regularly used in powerful creative expression.
As a Palestinian raised in Australia and now living in LA, Sarah Bahbah has photographed for international brands like Gucci, TopShop and Condé Nast. But it was her fine art series that first garnered her a cult-like following online. Merging cinematic photographs with thought-inspired subtitles, Bahbah’s work explores emotive narratives about love, sex, and relationships from a woman’s perspective. Her stylized portraits and achingly honest text flow together to tell short narratives that are both vulnerable and empowered—an approach adored by the 920k followers who share her work widely and fill out exhibition openings.
In this interview with LensCulture, Bahbah reveals the motivation and inspiration behind her instantly recognizable images, and discusses the role that the Internet and Instagram has played in her career progression.
Alana Holmberg: The themes in your work are simultaneously complex and familiar. Lots of emotional information is wrapped up in a single take. What inspires you to explore these topics?
Sarah Bahbah: The themes I work with are inspired from a real place, and learned off the back of living. I have learned to completely immerse myself in whatever situation I am experiencing, be it good or bad. I take on the experience of great highs, knowing very well that deep lows come with them. I can’t romanticize logic, and subjectivity helps me create.
It sounds tragic and romantic, but I feel more inspired when I am wholeheartedly experiencing everything this world has to offer. I delve heart-first into these offerings from the universe, because it is a part of my process towards liberation. As a form of control, the patriarchy has conditioned women to find shame in their indulgences. I express my indulgences through my work as a way of reclaiming my female identity. This is what stimulates my concepts.
LC: Why do you think your work has resonated so well with your audience, particularly on Instagram?
SB: I think my art resonates because I produce work that is both accessible and extremely relatable. It’s based on engaging honestly with the self, emotions, and relationships, and a lot of people have found my expression of these themes comforting and empowering. In some way, Instagram is like a shared visual diary or dream board, and aspirations for a way of being can be posted as encouragement.
LC: I imagine that exploring female sexuality through photography can raise eyebrows and stir reactions from more patriarchal forces. Have you encountered any pushback on your work or issues with censorship, either personally or publicly?
SB: I would say that I have encountered more confusion than ‘pushback’ in response to the way I choose to express sexuality in my work. The confusion comes from society’s continuous sexualization of the female body, but my art explores sexuality for the female, and not for the lusting male gaze. I’m currently working on a piece that explicitly deals with the subversion of the male gaze, because that is a conversation that needs to be had intentionally. It is a part of the patriarchy’s control and agenda to keep female sexuality shameful and repressed, so exploring this part of humanity on such a personal and public scale is incredibly empowering for me.
LC: Your aesthetic is like a photographic version of a graphic novel, or a series of film stills. Sometimes the expressions and close-ups remind me of Roy Lichtenstein illustrations. How did you start combining text and images in this way?
SB: My style of photography has definitely been inspired by cinema. I am really drawn to foreign films, particularly because of how I experience and interact with them. While the beauty of foreign films are kept at bay because of cultural incomprehension, the translated subtitles are an active attempt at understanding them. In my Tumblr days, I was always lured to screenshots and snippets of foreign films. I would find myself interpreting the subtitled images with my own narrations. That’s when the idea occurred to me: it would be a unique approach to create a story that appears as film, but was in fact a series of cinematic photography stills. Pairing subtitles and still images has been a powerful way to personalize my work while still keeping the themes approachable and interactive.
LC: With work that touches so deeply on human experience and emotion, it must be important to find the right people to work with. How do you cast your models?
SB: The models I work with act as the vessel for the characters I want to bring to life. My way of casting is the furthest thing from impersonal. I search for the model who will most genuinely fill the role of the character, and who will be able to carry the narrative of the series. The pairing must be a truthful embodiment, and not just a look someone is trying on. It comes down to authenticity and connection. I spend a lot of time building a genuine relationship with the models; observing and engaging them, conversing with them, and listening to them on multiple realities. I want to make sure that the model, in their heart of hearts, understand and respects the space they are entering.
LC: We spoke a bit about why Instagram is an important and symbolic way to reach your audience, but what role does your account play in your professional career? Can you describe how your efforts or experiences on that platform translate into your client work and your artistic practice, or vice versa?
SB: Instagram is what helped start my career as a recognized artist. My first series, Sex and Takeout, was given so much love on Instagram, and since then my audience has continued to grow. For this reason, I am still really active on Instagram, and I do frame my work to fit into the Instagram format. I think this is really important—I do it to stay connected and personal with my audience. But at the end of the day, the platform itself does not inform my practice or art.
LC: It is true—Instagram provides an unmediated connection between the photographer and their audience. How have you found the experience of having such a large community invested in your work, right there on your phone? Has anything surprised you? Are there parts of that accessibility that you find challenging?
SB: My relationship with Instagram is double-edged. On one side, I feel truly blessed to have an international community of people invested in my work, and who are supportive of me. It has been really incredible to open up like this, and to be received so well. But on the other side of this process, I am quite a guarded and introverted person. I am someone who regenerates by taking time away for themselves and turning inwards. What has been really challenging for me is being constantly present and ‘live’. I am still learning to find a balance between these two seemingly contradictory worlds.