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CHICAGO — An adolescent girl in her bedroom is a curious thing. If she has her own and doesn’t share it with a swath of siblings, it will become her sanctuary, a place to which she retreats when she wants to get into her own zone and be with herself. Typically, the walls are covered in posters of teen idols or bodies she idealizes and there is a mirror figuring prominently, as well as a laptop (open to Tumblr?) on the bed or at the desk. Stuffed animals and a journal are bound to be lying around somewhere, and there might even be writing on the wall (literally).
In her series A Girl and Her Room, Boston-based artist Rania Matar photographs adolescent girls in their bedrooms, capturing them in moments vulnerable and fresh. She manages to do so without a hint of voyeurism, and with a serious dose of respect for the girls themselves.
“The project came about because I had a teenage daughter,” Matar tells me when we talk by phone. “She was transforming in front of me — she had been a tomboy before, and then she became this girly girl, spending hours getting dressed and what her hair was like. I started photographing her when her friends would come over.”
From there, Matar began to notice how her daughter and friends seemed to be performing for each other, forming a sort of hybrid ‘girl’ identity. But what of the girls on their own? Who were they when the others weren’t around? To answer this question, Matar went straight to the source: the bedroom.
“The bedroom was the only place she could be herself, finding out who she is and surrounding herself with things that represent her,” says Matar. “Computers and mirrors were the connection to the outside world.”
Matar’s project considers cisgender girls who are either based in or around Boston, or in Lebanon, where the artist grew up. “Izzy, Brookline, MA” (2011) is a photograph of a young girl with green hair and golden graffiti on her purple wall; she looks away from Matar’s camera, a cigarette in her mouth. In the next photo of the series, we see a Lebanese girl adjusting her pink headscarf, black liner outlining her eyes. Shot in 2010, she is Nohad, and her location is the Bourj al Barajneh Palestinian Refugee Camp in Beirut, Lebanon. Matar snaps her camera at moments that capture the girls’ essences in a way that isn’t invasive, intrusive, or voyeuristic. It’s a compassionate look at young women today.
“A lot of people do projects about girls and that age is very interesting, and people focus on the rebellious aspect of being a teenager,” says Matar. “For me it was really different. I was really not being judgmental, and I realized how vulnerable they all were as girls — even the ones who were not trying to be. I really tried to treat them all with respect and not judgement, and they all felt it.”
Adolescence, especially when it comes to young girls, is one of those topics that continues to fascinate both adults and teens themselves. Projects like Emma Orlow’s The Do Not Enter Diaries capture the world of teenagers’ bedrooms from the occupants’ own perspectives.The ongoing project presents short video portraits of teens of all genders in their bedrooms talking about what the spaces mean to them.
Lindsay R., a super arty girl, used to share a bedroom with her brother, which she said made her “always feel like her space was being invaded.” The green-haired girl (like Izzy in Brookline) describes the things she does in her room — play guitar, spend a lot of time online — and has a painting of “The Last Supper” featuring Groucho Marx in there. “I spend most of my time in front of my computer, like most Western teenagers … but let’s not focus on that,” she says at the beginning of her video, before getting into what her room means to her. Oh, and she has a drawing of a girl wearing a t-shirt that says “fuck your beauty standards!” on it. New Zealand–based Ben S. describes his room as a “place of zen,” as he goes through and describes his pillows and also how he changes outfits “an unreasonable amount.”
But it’s one thing to watch teenagers creating portraits of each other for each other and an internet audience; it’s another to come from a place outside of adolescence while remembering what it means to be in that phase of life.
“I am from Lebanon originally, and I started photographing in the US,” Matar says. “Here I am — 30 years ago I was exactly like those girls, except I was growing up in a civil war in Lebanon, but the poses were the same. This is about identity on so many levels, including mine.”
Rania Matar’s series A Girl in Her Bedroom is currently on view at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (465 Huntington Avenue, Boston) as part of the exhibition She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World, through January 12, 2014.
Matar’s current exhibition L’Enfant Femme is on view at Carroll and Sons Gallery (450 Harrison Avenue, Boston) through October 26.