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Thursday, 6 October 2016

Rania Matar and The Mass Psychosis of Childhood

                Darine 7 and Dania 8, Beirut Lebanon, 2014   (all pictures copyright Rania Matar)

I went to the pub a couple of weeks ago to celebrate the birthday of one of my Bath Photography friends, James Allen . He also happened to have a newborn baby with him, and there was a bunch of people round the pub who had children from a few months to a few years.

It took me back, and you could see it took others back. Eyes followed Minnie the Newborn as she was passed around the circle of people (nobody passed her to me funnily enough. Do I look like the kind of person who drops babies?). There was something so other-worldly about newborn children, you just can't take your eyes off them. It was like having some lizard-brained element of your brain come up and direct your eyes to the object you should be attending to.

And then you look to James and Sophie (Minnie's mother), and you see them totally in tune with this baby-world. Minnie is all they have been looking at for the last few weeks. It's a different way of thinking and a different way of being, one that they clicked into when necessary. It's the mass psychosis of parenthood basically. And it's necessary, because if you didn't have it, there is no way you would allow your life to be so dominated by this crying, farting, yellow-shitting thing that doesn't even know how to smile yet (except when it farts). Without that psychosis, sleeplessness would take over and baby, sack, rock and river would be the order of the day. Thank goodness for hormones or the human race would die out (oh, and the earth would be saved. Extinctionism, there's a thing.) And of course it's a psychosis that I used to have, that my wife used to have. That we don't have any more, praise the lord.

My daughter grew up. But I remember when she was 4 or 5, or 8 or 9,  or however old. Whatever age it was, you'd be in tune to that. You'd understand the rawness of it, the physicality of it, the madness of it. And you'd be part of it. It's like a mini-mass psychosis. And once you're out of that world, you're out of that world. It's very strange.

But there are times when you return temporarily. That's what happens with  Rania Matar's new book, L'Enfant Femme.

                  Savannah 10, Snowmass Colorado, 2016

This is a book of rather beautiful pictures of young girls on the verge of adulthood. The book is a traditional photobook of portraits beautifully produced with a series of images and a couple of short pieces of writing at the back.

Being on the verge of adulthood is a common theme in photography, but one that Rania does supremely well, but with an eye on the beautiful qualities both of the photograph and of the girls who are in them.

The girls are shot in their environments, both interior and exterior, in the US and Lebanon, and have expressions which, though verging on the deadpan, are so direct that their characters do come through. But it's their poses (some of which they chose themselves I'm guessing) which also tell a tale.

Darine, 7 and Dania, 8, are a case in point; they stand in front of the camera with Darine glaring, head slightly tilted down, legs apart and at a slight angle. She's the badass one. Dania, meanwhile, holds her pink handbag with her pink  painted nails and her pink hijab (sunglasses on top) as polite as can be, an 8-year-old going on 48.

For me, as a father, it is always strange to see pictures of childhood. I have been so immersed in it, through photography, through fatherhood, that everything should be instantly recognisable.

    Joelle 9, Beirut Lebanon, 2012

I have been in those spaces both as a child, as a photographer and as a father. But it is incredible how fast things change. My daughter is in a different space to the girls in L'Enfant Femme and as a result so am I.

These girls are incredibly physical. They are bambi-like beautiful, with big eyes and long legs, in the same way young deer are beautiful. But behind that beauty there is  sometimes a fragility. They are unsteady on their legs. But they have also been photographed to have a certain strength of character, the idea that they are who they are and don't mess with them. It's a popular trope in photography, but it's something that is tremendously difficult to do without a hefty does of sentimentality. But that is avoided, leaving pictures that do represent a sense of the person these girls will become, a person occupying a very physical body.

When you are a father you take that physicality for granted. Just as when you are the parent of a five-year-old, you take for granted they will jump on your back or hide under the table. You get used to that idea. The problem is as soon as you get used to it, the child changes and you have to change.

                Aya 8, Bourj El Barajneh Refugee Camp, Beirut Lebanon, 2012

I suppose that starts when a child is born and you come home and all of a sudden you have a child to look after. Not even a child. A baby.

You are thrown into that situation and you simply have to adapt and become a mother, become a father. There are parts of that which come naturally. But there are also parts which don't. You have to invent your new self, you have to grow into it. You have to decide to become a mother or a father. It's easier in some ways for a mother, because the child is part of the body, the hormones completely take over and you are possessed by an unconditional love. But it's a love that changes.

I'm making a guess that this is part of the motivation for Rania Matar, that her photography is a central thing in her life, and it is the way that she identifies as a mother. It's a part of her motherhood. I might be wrong, but when I see those pictures of those loose-limbed girls, I think of how she must feel with her own daughters and how her motherhood must change as her children get older. And I wonder if her photography isn't a way of preserving that relationship, both to herself as a mother, and to that age of child. It's a beautiful age, but it's one that you need to be in to understand - in, or around. And that's where the L'Enfant Femme takes you.

Buy the book here.


Stan B. said...

That's an impressive group of portraits...

ch said...

I like the varied use of interesting backgrounds for these portrait photos!