Rania Matar: Personal and Poetic, Part 2

Her compelling images bridge two cultures with the passionate eye of a fine arts photojournalist and the tenderness of a mother. Her tireless quest for vitality and truth keeps her vision fresh.

Rania Matar’s work focuses mainly on women and women’s issues. She has created searing documentaries of the lives of women and children in the Middle East, the Palestinian refugee camps, the recent spread of the veil and its meanings, the aftermath of war and the Christians of the Middle East. The universal theme: revealing the day-to-day existence of people who have been forgotten or misunderstood with singular compassion and sensitivity. At her home Boston, Massachusetts, 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. Matar’s 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 insightful words, is the second part of her incredible story.

Q: You mentioned that you used a Leica M6 and M7 with 28 mm and 35 mm lenses for all your black-and-white work in the Middle East, and that you’re looking forward to acquiring an M9. Based on your shooting experience with DSLRs, how do you foresee the Leica M9 fitting in with your work and do you plan on getting any other lenses to complement your wide-angles?

A: I would like very much to own an M9 and hope to in the not too distant future.  The DSLR worked well for my project of the girls as I was in a more posed setting and did not need as much the immediacy and the quietness that the Leica M would have provided.  I also needed the very high ISO that I was able to get with my current camera. I did, however go to Haiti this past spring and wished over and over that I had an M9. I am also planning on doing more work with women and girls in the Middle East in the future and would hope to be working with an M9 for that also. As for lenses, I like working close to people so I think I would stick with my wide-angle lenses for the moment. Even working with the girls with my DSLR, I used 24 mm and 35 mm lenses.  I own 50 mm lenses for my Leicas and my Nikon D700 but hardly ever use them!

Q: How do you think your formal training as an architect and your focus on art and painting have influenced your approach to documenting the lives of women and children in the Middle East? Do you take a different approach when documenting the living spaces of teenage girls or is there some unifying element to the way you see things photographically?

A: My formal training as an architect and my focus on art was helpful to me because seeing and composing became second nature. Once acquired, this becomes part of how you see the world. When you learn to really see, your mind never stops working.  My thesis consisted on designing a museum for Picasso’s latest work and through that project I learned how a space and what occupies it become inherently connected, how you can design a space according to what goes inside it and how, on the other hand, what goes inside a space transforms the space. Photographing people in their spaces or their immediate surroundings is very much how I compose my images. The notion of space, how people occupy it and also how the space affects them is obvious in the twp bodies of work we are discussing. While the work in Lebanon has a greater sense of immediacy, with “A Girl and her Room,” I’m taking a slower more deliberate approach.

Q: Since you are an experienced traditional darkroom worker and have also worked on your digital images to better articulate your vision without changing their content, what do you think the essential differences are, if any, between analog and digital from capture to the final image?

A: I think it is a choice to make, but it’s a treat to be able to do both. I could never have done what I do with my images digitally if I hadn’t been trained in the darkroom, but now I do the darkroom work on the computer. Yes, it’s less romantic than being in an actual darkroom, but I’ve learned to enjoy it. I became proficient at it when I was working on my book since I had to scan all my negatives and work digitally on each negative to make every single digital image match my darkroom print.  I felt that I was doing the same work with the same frame of mind but doing it digitally. It made the transition to my current body of work which I’m shooting digitally and in color much easier. One negative point in the digital process is the tendency and ability to edit too soon. When I work with film and in the darkroom, there’s a lag in time and emotionally between the moment I take the shot and the time I get to look at the whole body of work and edit it, which I think is healthy. I feel that I need space between the time I live and experience the moment, the time I take the picture and the time I edit the work. With digital, it’s too easy to edit as you shoot and I find this disruptive, distracting and detrimental to the whole process. I never delete an image on the spot. I download everything, then I wait a few days before looking at the whole body of work that was shot in that session. By then, I feel removed enough from the moment the image was taken and I can look at the body of work with a fresh eye. I feel that keeping the shooting process completely separate from the editing process is very important. I sometimes miss being in my darkroom and don’t feel I’ve made a permanent switch. As I mentioned, I like being in control of every step of the process from the moment I press the shutter button till the moment I see a final print that satisfies me. In some ways, working digitally has helped me achieve this with my color work the way that working in the darkroom helped me achieve it with my black-and-white.

Q: As a woman with Middle Eastern roots who has lived in and been influenced by the West, can you say something more about your ability to “understand the country and the people” of Lebanon while being able to “see it all from the bewildered eyes of an outsider”? In short, what are some of the advantages and disadvantages of having this unique perspective?

A: When you live anywhere for too long, you adjust to a situation and go on with your daily life. You stop seeing and noticing situations that are interesting. In the case of Lebanon, sometimes these things are almost bizarre. For instance, growing up in Lebanon during the civil war I just went on with my life and assumed this was the way things had to be. I was not interested in learning about refugee camps, about other areas of Lebanon that did not fit into the cosmopolitan life that I knew. I was 11 when the war started and like most children was resilient enough to learn to live with it. It just became a fact of life and then things would be peaceful and life would be normal again and we all forgot about the war till it struck again. However, living in the U.S. for a few years eventually made me aware of my background and also very aware of human right issues and the abnormality of the situation in Lebanon that I used to view as normal.  Being removed from the war not only in distance, but also in time I eventually became very interested in putting it all together and coming to terms with my two identities, the American and the Lebanese. September 11 and the constant bad news coming from the Middle East probably subconsciously precipitated that too. I felt that I was in a position to see Lebanon from the perspective of a Lebanese, and also of a Westerner. On another note, and based on my personal experience, I know that war and its effect on people are very real. Living in the U.S., I watch, like everyone else, news and wars from the comfort of my living room — almost like watching a movie. We hear of the destruction of faraway places we don’t relate to and of the death (collateral damage) of people we don’t know. In reality, war affects normal people like you and me and it’s very real.  So I was very much a Lebanese insider in that sense. Not only could I speak the language and understand the culture, but also I had lived through the civil war and then the 2006 war (with my children) so I could relate to people and what they had gone through. I am one of them, even though I now live somewhere else. Photographically speaking, being an insider was very critical to the access I had and to my ability to understand, relate and create relationships with the people I was photographing, but being an outsider helped me see it all with some healthy distance, see the changes that were occurring from year to year, notice billboards in front of destroyed buildings, notice women in mini-skirts side by side with women fully covered, notice tanks stuck in an ordinary traffic jam, see with bewilderment situations that the American in me learned to notice.

Q: What do you think are some of the most important things that you learned from your friend and mentor Constantine Manos, and aside from his recommending that you try the Leica, how do you think your association with him has helped your work to evolve?

A: Constantine Manos taught me to always take the best picture I can at any given moment and, in any situation, to stay as long as it takes to get it and not to settle for anything less than the best I can do. He noticed everything in a photo so you couldn’t get away with any cropped body part or something from the background interfering with the foreground like, for example, a pole that looks like it is coming out of someone’s head, etc. I learned to be demanding with regard to myself and my images, to always see the whole frame at all times. Eventually this all became second nature. Even more important, Costa also taught me to take complex images and to look for poetry in the work. For him, doing documentary wasn’t enough. It had to be personal and poetic.

Q: You mentioned that you think that no other camera feels like a Leica. Do you think this unique tactile quality, or any other qualities of the Leica M or its Leica M lenses inspire you or facilitate your creative process?

A: I think every camera offers something different and using different equipment for different projects is important. It helps the photographer take full advantage of the equipment he/she is using. The Leica was extremely helpful and important to me in almost all my work, especially all my work in Lebanon. It was small, it was quiet and it made me feel unobtrusive. It helped me seize beautiful and intimate moments.  A larger or noisier piece of equipment would have altered the situation I was trying to capture. With the Leica I was able to be present and photographing without altering the moment with my presence and/or my equipment.  The Leica M just helped me disappear as a photographer. I had started this project using a Mamiya 7II.  I was worried that by switching to a 35 mm camera, the quality of my prints might suffer, but it didn’t.  The images were sharp and full of contrast and the quality was exceptional.

Q: Why do you think it is important for a photographer to be in total control of the image through the entire process from capture to print? Is it basically an issue of integrity and authenticity or does it have a practical value in terms of the end result?

A: I don’t know if this is important for all photographers. I am only speaking for myself. Many photographers built close relationships with their printers, a relationship where all expectations are met and the printer knows exactly the outcome the photographer is expecting how the image is supposed to feel. I personally enjoy controlling the whole process. I feel that for me it is part of the artistic process. I view myself as creating a piece of art and I take pride in owning every aspect of it. It also makes me feel independent and in control. So I don’t know if it is integrity, authenticity or just a feeling of ownership, pride and control. Maybe it’s all of the above. I enjoy the whole process from the clicking of the shutter to the final print I hold in my hand. Then I know that it’s exactly how I want it to be. I welcome all the help and the advice I can get along the way, but in the end I simply love doing it all myself. I am currently reading Diane Arbus’s biography and I love this statement she makes, “Nobody is going to love your pictures like yourself.”

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three to five years? Do you think you will be exploring new subject matter, new techniques or just going with the flow?

A: I tend to go with the flow and it seems that even when I have a clear idea in mind, it ends up evolving anyway once I start working on it. It’s good to be open to situations that come along, but I have to admit I’m toying with the idea of experimenting with a 4×5 camera for some of my portraiture. I’ve never used one as I was always drawn to the immediacy of moments and situations. But as I mentioned, I like trying on different equipment and discovering different ways of doing things — it’s part of growing as a photographer.  My vision is my own, but I might learn new things about myself, my way of working and my own vision by trying different things. I think it’s important to stay alert and motivated and not get too comfortable with one’s way of doing things. Having worked with the digital process for the past couple of years, I would like to slow the process down a little and experiment with what it would be like working in a more deliberate manner. This would not replace my work with a 35 mm — I still like to travel and I still have many ideas for projects I would like to photograph, some if it with a Leica in the Middle East.

-Leica Internet Team

You can see more of Rania’s work on her website, http://www.raniamatar.com/.