While many photographers focus on either aesthetics or rigorous documentation, Rania Matar fuses them — and adds a generous dose of humanity for good measure.
Born and raised in Lebanon, the Boston-based photographer makes work that focuses on the daily lives of girls and young women around the world. Matar always engages with her subjects and gets to know them before taking their portraits, which capture these young people as individuals while addressing the universality of adolescence. Matar’s latest photo book, L’Enfant-Femme (2016), features photographs of preteen girls living in US and the Middle East, bridging the culture gap and showing the girls as they really are, without judgment.
A few of the girls in L’Enfant-Femme also appear in Matar’s ongoing Invisible Children series, portraits of Syrian refugee children on the streets of Beirut and third-generation Palestinian girls living in the Bourj el-Barajneh refugee camps. (During our interview, Matar points out that there are 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, a country of 4.5 million people.) Matar shoots the portraits on the street — often on the very blocks where she finds these children — and even though she doesn’t pose her subjects outright, the results mimic classical studio portraiture, lending a kind of aesthetic weight and permanence to both the refugee kids and the project at large. She began the series in 2014 and continues to seek out, have conversations with, and photograph these children whenever she goes back to Lebanon.
Fifteen photographs from Invisible Children are currently on view at C. Grimaldis Gallery in Baltimore. One of these, “Khadija 11, Beirut,” is a special benefit print, with all proceeds from the edition of 50 going to the Karam Foundation, a US-based nonprofit that aids Syrian refugees.
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Elena Goukassian: How did the Invisible Children project come about?
Rania Matar: I was in Lebanon in 2014 when I noticed these kids everywhere on the street. I started talking to a boy who was 14, and it was very disturbing to me, because he was the age of my son. It was too close to home that this could be my kid. There was something very upsetting about it. At that point, I started paying attention to each individual kid. I would approach most kids if they looked like they wanted to talk; some of them didn’t want to be photographed, and I would accept that, but the ones who were willing, I photographed them. It was a very organic process that grew into a project.
EG: Were a lot of the kids OK with being photographed? Did you give them anything in return?
RM: A lot of them were. They were happy to be paid attention to. A lot of them are either begging or selling Kleenex or chewing gum or shining shoes. Lebanon has a lot of different issues, and people are not happy to have the refugee kids on the street, so they were often a little nervous when I started talking to them, but most of them were very open to it. But I didn’t want it to become a business proposal. Often after taking their picture, I’d go buy them water or gum or ice cream in the summer, and I would give them money, but I was very careful. I didn’t want it to be like they’re letting me photograph them just because of the money. It was important for me to make that distinction as well, so as not to change the ethics of the project.
EG: Did they tell you their stories?
RM: Some of them would. Some were more open than others, but the sad part is their stories kind of blended into one big story. For almost every one of them, either the father was dead or fighting — and they didn’t even know who he’s fighting for. Most of them were from Aleppo or from Idlib. A lot of their mothers would be either staying with family or begging on another corner. But what somebody told me — and it was never confirmed by the kids — was that they would be dropped off by trucks to get money. I don’t know where the money went; there was something very sad about it, and for me it wasn’t anymore about the specifics. These are beautiful children that should be in school, and here they are on the street, the next generation.
A couple of them would give me a name and then the next time I’d see them they’d give me another name. So they kind of got to be street smart. I think they have this kind of self-protective mechanism. I just have a name and age for them, and if the name is wrong name, that’s the one they gave me, so that’s the one I’m putting down.
EG: Did you always photograph them where they were standing or did you pose them elsewhere?
RM: When I started, it was where they were standing. I’d only move them a little bit here or there to make the photograph better or the light better. And then I realized that I was really working with the walls. I had never noticed all these walls, and they became an important part of the project. The kids are all standing in front of all these graffiti walls, and the walls have layers and layers of history, of people adding to them — whether it’s graffiti or ads. And for me, the kids became this new layer of history plastered on the walls. They became almost as transparent and anonymous as the walls.
I wasn’t taking them in the car to take them somewhere else, but I might walk with them to the next wall across the street. They became so associated with the walls, so even if I moved them, they were within the same area.
EG: Did they have their corners that they always stood on? Were they friends or more like competition?
RM: A lot of them knew each other in the same vicinity, absolutely. They tried to spread out a little bit, so each of them got to cover a little area. One girl I found the next year in the same spot, and I was happy and very sad at the same time to realize that she’s still here. Her name is Maya — and my daughter’s also Maya, so I like her even more because of that. She’s the one with the pink shirt in front of the high-speed internet sign. With the young girls, if you look at my work in L’Enfant-Femme, I was photographing them with the same frame of mind. They’re also kids in the same age bracket. They happen to be Syrian refugees, but at the end, they’re just girls.
EG: How many of these kids do you think are on the streets of Beirut, selling little things and asking for money? Are there adults, too, or are they mostly kids?
RM: There are some adults, and I wasn’t as moved by the adults, maybe just because the kids don’t have a choice; they’re thrown there and told to bring money back, and there’s something so wrong about it. So for me it was really more about photographing the teenagers and the kids. How many are there? I don’t know. It seemed like last summer, there were less of them on the street. I don’t know where they are or where they went. I know that they’re not really wanted there. Some of them, if they could get out, maybe went back to Syria.
But not all the Syrian refugees in Lebanon are poor and begging. I photographed one just this past summer; she was getting married, and I want to include her as part of the project, too. I don’t know if this is the new normal for Syrian refugees or how long they’ll stay in Lebanon. It’s just the big unknown. In the exhibition in Baltimore, we also included two Palestinian refugee girls, and I want to always be careful making that distinction, because it’s a whole different story. Those girls were born and raised in the camps, and their mothers were born and raised in the camps. They’re also invisible children, but at least the Palestinian refugees by now they have a system and they go to school in the camps. There are about 450,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon as well. But these kids you won’t see begging on the streets, so there’s a fine line there.
EG: You have lots of friends and family in Beirut. How do they feel about the kids on the streets, and how did they feel about your project? Were you able to change their minds if they had negative opinions?
RM: I stopped trying to. Some people look at the pictures, and say that it’s very wrong that these children are on the street and not at school and we should do something about it; and other people are so fed up, because Lebanon has its own issues right now, and they don’t want to deal with this extra layer. I don’t get into the politics of it. For me, it’s not about what’s happening in Syria; nobody agrees on that. If you talk to two people in Lebanon, they’re going to have very different points of view. It’s about the fact that these are children, who are thrown out of their homes, and they’re on the street begging, and it’s putting a very human face on the refugee crisis. You could really look into the eyes of those kids, giving them their identity and individuality when all you hear is about the millions of refugees. When you hear about a million, it becomes abstract. It doesn’t mean anything. When you start looking at one person on their own, it’s relatable. You’re looking at the human being.
EG: Which ones are your favorites photographs from this series?
RM: I love the little boy with the red balloon; his name is Tamer. I love his attitude, and I love the graffiti. I was able to trace that graffiti before all the paint was added on it. In white inside the balloon, it used to say “ana,” which means “me” in Arabic, and the face of the man was not covered. Somebody came and covered the face with red and they covered the “ana,” making both the man and the word anonymous. So that adds to the story of the anonymity of the child as well. And visually, I just love the attitude of this kid. That’s his identity, and I found it pretty incredible that a six-year-old boy poses like that.
EG: Invisible Children is an ongoing series. When is your next trip to Lebanon?
RM: I’m going there in October. I added a couple photographs to this series this summer, and I just scanned them, so they’re not quite ready. There’s one that I’m looking forward to: I was very moved by a young woman named Reem. She was 16. I went for a run in the morning, and I saw her and I had to stop and turn back. Her face was completely burnt and peeling from the sun, but she was so beautiful, and I thought I needed to get her sunscreen and photograph her. I managed to find her later that morning. I got my camera, but I had to take her somewhere there was shade, and where I saw her the first time. (She’d walked across the whole corniche, along the water.) So I told her, let’s go back, and she got in the car with me. And I told her she should not do that. She trusted me, and obviously I didn’t want to do her any harm, but it kind of scared me that she actually got in the car with me. So, that’s just how vulnerable they are.
EG: Why did you decide to have a special benefit print on sale at C. Grimaldis?
RM: It was important for me give that print and all the money to the Karam Foundation, to feel like I’m giving something back to the kids. So, not only bringing awareness, but actually something to help. It’s fantastic when you can make art for a good cause and somebody else benefits at the same time.
Rania Matar: Invisible Children continues at C. Grimaldis Gallery (523 Nort Charles Street Baltimore, Maryland) through October 22.