Rania Matar: Giving a Voice to the Oppressed, Part 1

She uses photography to bridge two cultures with the passionate eye of a fine arts photojournalist and the tenderness of a mother, revealing the dignity of the human condition and giving a voice to the oppressed.

Born and raised in Lebanon, Rania Matar moved to the U.S. in 1984. Originally trained as an architect at the American University of Beirut and Cornell University, she worked as an architect before studying photography at the New England School of Photography and at the Maine Photographic Workshops in Mexico with Magnum photographer, Constantine Manos. She currently works full-time as a photographer and teaches documentary photography at the Massachusetts College of Art & Design. She also teaches photography each summer to teenage girls in Lebanon’s refugee camps with the assistance of non-governmental organizations.

Matar’s work focuses mainly on women and women’s issues. Her previous work has focused on women and children in the Middle East and her projects; which examine the Palestinian refugee camps, the recent spread of the veil and its meanings, the aftermath of war and the Christians of the Middle East; give voice to people who have been forgotten or misunderstood. In Boston, where she lives, she photographs her four children at all stages of their lives and is currently working on a new body of work, “A Girl and her Room,” photographing teenage girls from different backgrounds. Her work has won numerous awards, has been featured in prestigious publications and exhibited widely in the U.S. and internationally. Her first book, “Ordinary Lives” was released October 2009, published by Quantuck Lane Press and distributed by W.W. Norton. Here, in her own revealing and thoughtful words, is the first part of her incredible story.

Q: What camera and equipment do you use?

A: I used a Leica M6 and M7 for all my black-and-white work in the Middle East.  I used wide-angle lenses, 28mm and 35mm, and all natural light.  It was the perfect camera for that kind of work; it is small, quiet and unobtrusive. I could disappear easily and capture people’s daily lives without substantially altering the situation with my presence and my equipment.  I also used an M8 for some of my work on the Christians in the Middle East.  For my most current color work, I am using a Nikon D700 and a Mamiya 7II with medium format film. However, I am really looking forward to owning a Leica M9 soon.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: I think of myself as a fine art photographer who likes to work on projects that could be interpreted as documentary or better as personal documentaries, since they are so meaningful to me, especially at the time I’m working on them.  There is inherently a documentary aspect to my work because of its ability to tell a story, but I also like to think of each image as a standalone piece that has all the elements that I look for in a successful photograph.  In addition, I am revealing my own interpretation of the subject matter so in that sense my work is very personal too. This is where editing is crucial. For me also, each image is very important as a piece of art.  I myself work on each of the images from the beginning to the end of the process.  I take the photo, I develop and process the work and then I work on each image to make it best it can be artistically, be it in the darkroom or digitally – without altering the content of the image.

Q: Were you a serious enthusiast before going pro? What made you decide to go pro?

A: Photography seems to have happened to me at the right time in my life.  I am an architect by training, but I also focused quite a bit on art and painting in my architecture training.  I originally started photography as an enthusiast and began taking photo workshops, initially to take better photos of my kids!  Eventually, when I found photography as I am practicing it now, almost by accident, and more specifically photography in Lebanon and in the Middle East, it seemed to have brought all I had lived and done together into a wow moment.  Things somehow worked themselves in such a way that it all just clicked (literally) and felt right. It started happening as I fell in love with the means and ability of telling a story that I cared about through photographs. It started once I stepped into a Palestinian refugee camp in 2002, but it kept developing over the next few years as I grew more confident and more passionate about it. There was a point when I felt that everything I had done and lived through so far all converged to make photography the right medium and life choice for me. Growing up in the Middle East, living through the Lebanese Civil War, my architectural background, my love for all arts, my interest in social issues, my love of people (I guess am drawn to people in my work), my role as a mother and as a woman which drew me in all my work to focus on women and women’s issues, all came together in this one passion.  At some point, I just found myself doing photography full-time!

Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, and art form, a profession?

A: In 2002, a transformational year for me, I decided to start photographing the aftermath of the Lebanese Civil War and I went for the first time to Shatila, a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut.  It was ten minutes by car from where I had grown up, but I had no idea people were living in such terrible conditions so close to where I had lived.  By then, I was a woman and a mother and it was really sad for me to see the conditions children were made to live in.  At the same time, it was very inspirational for me to see how they made the best of it and how they were actually happy!  I learned to discover how much beauty there was behind the immediate and the obvious.  One just had to look for it.  I decided to start telling the story of those women and children in the camps by photographing their daily lives. Over the next few years, I went back again and again, building relationships and aiming to grasp the intimate details. I eventually carried this project outside the camps, started photographing many aspects and areas of Lebanon I did not know and learned to discover them through my lens. I was interested in understanding the meaning of the spread of the veil, in learning to discover Southern and Northern Lebanon and after 2006 in telling the story of people who had lived and survived the war between Israel and Hezbollah. Having grown up in Lebanon, but also having lived in the West for so long, I was able to understand the country and the people, but I could see it all from the bewildered eyes of an outsider. I think this was very important in my photography. This project took a few years and by then I was working full-time as a photographer and was fully passionate about the medium and the project I was involved in.

Q: Did you have any formal education in photography, with a mentor, or were you self-taught. Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?

A: I had formal architecture training with many art classes. I started taking photography seriously and signed up for workshops in 2000. I took many workshops at the New England School of Photography. I had a teacher, Nick Johnson, who was tremendous in teaching me how to make beautiful prints. I fell in love with working in the darkroom. I then took a workshop with Constantine Manos (Costa) from Magnum and Stella Johnson through the Maine Media Workshops in Oaxaca, Mexico. This changed my whole approach to photography quite a bit as I learned to work in very close quarters with villagers and photograph their intimate and daily lives, use a Leica and disappear behind my camera.  Eventually, over the years, Costa became a mentor to me and he still is to this day. Books were also a tremendous influence in my learning process. I love collecting photo books and I was influenced by so many of them from Sally Mann as I photographed my children, to Costa Manos’s Greek Portfolio, passing through all the masters: Henri Carter-Bresson, Elliott Erwitt, Diane Arbus, August Sander, etc.

Q: What genre are your photos? (e.g. fine art, photojournalism, portrait, street photography, etc.)

A: I view my work as fine art, primarily in the way I approach, treat and think about my work, but also as people photography, portraits and environmental portraits. My previous work focused more on the decisive moment, but gradually seemed to have moved towards a slower, more deliberate approach of portraiture. I have also lately been working on a project titled A Girl and Her Room, which is project about teenage girls in their intimate space.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: When I first started showing my work to Costa Manos, I was using a Mamiya 7II to photograph in Lebanon. He recommended trying the Leica as it would serve me better in what I was doing. I did and instantly fell in love with the camera! I was able to get prints that were fantastic, but most importantly, I just worked so well with the camera. It became an extension of my hands. I still love the feeling of it and don’t think any other camera feels the same. All my images in the book “Ordinary Lives” were shot with a Leica.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?

A: I take a very personal approach in my work.  I find projects that are meaningful to me and I go with them. I am only doing my personal work and do not do any commercial work.  I find that I have to LOVE a project and/or subject to be able to carry through with it.  I think you have to care passionately about a subject to be able to get successful, meaningful and personal images.  This is how I approach my work.  My work in Lebanon was very personal to me and I felt that I needed to do it.  It was a way for me to bridge my two cultures – the Middle Eastern and the American. I also feel that my work reveals my own interpretation of what is in front of my lens. I pride myself not only on taking the photo, but also developing and processing each image and working it to make it best it can be artistically and technically, be it in the darkroom or digitally – without altering its content.

-Leica Internet Team

You can see more of Rania’s work on her website www.raniamatar.com and www.ordinarylives.raniamatar.com.