As of late, I’ve become more and more drawn to portraiture which makes extensive use of the surrounding environment to tell us more about the subject themselves, to the extent that it is now creeping into my own work. Although I love the intensity that an intimate close up portrait can bring, the creative freedom that is afforded to you in an environmental portrait allows you to tell a story, to show more of the subject and who they are. This, amongst other reasons I will explore in this Closer Look, is what drew me to Rania Matar’s beautiful portrait series “A Girl and Her Room”.
Last week, I looked at Anastasia Taylor-Lind’s Women of the Cossack Resurgence – a look at a female-dominated society, photographed by a female photographer. I wanted to further explore this area with Rania’s work. Much of Rania’s work is focused on women and women’s issues, “A Girl and Her Room” being one such project. The project examines those difficult teenage years, looking at the strains associated with the transition from childhood into adulthood and the various pressures experienced by girls growing up in today’s society. One the one hand, they are children. On the other, there is pressure from peers, media and popular culture to move into adulthood.
The series is excellent at exploring that confusing period of your life, where half of you desperately wants to grow up and be taken seriously as an adult and the other half doesn’t want to fully let go of childhood. Rania often portrays this in the series by juxtaposing themes of adulthood with themes of childhood. This is sometimes reflected in the subject’s choice of clothing, which indicate physical and social maturity – “going out” dresses, evening gowns and the like. Sometimes, it is reflected in their surroundings – a shelf full of various make-up, bags, shoes and posters of models and bands. In the same glance across the image, you notice paraphernalia associated with childhood: stuffed toys, bunk beds, colourful drawings and photos of themselves as a younger girl.
The very first image you encounter in the series – “Siena 17, Brookline MA, 2009″ – implements this juxtaposition extremely well. Siena’s wall is plastered with posters of models in bikinis and adverts for fragrance and cars, whereas her bedsheets are patterned with pictures of farmyard animals and a large stuffed teddy rests in front of her.
There’s just so much to talk about here, I’m finding it hard to be concise (surprise surprise), but what I find really wonderful about the images is the different degrees of maturity and each girl’s unique response to growing up. Girls the ages of 12 through to 21 and 22 are photographed and it’s fascinating to see what items incrementally change in the room – a sort of battle for room space between objects of the past and objects of the future. It’s also interesting to note that there is no hard and fast rule to what stage of maturity a girl is at relative to her age – everyone goes through that change at their own pace, and this is demonstrated by the incredibly diverse personalities on display.
There are many themes running through the images: the extensive inclusion of the mirror and how it reflects the subject’s preoccupation and concerns with self-image: the inclusion of pregnant girls and the even greater gulf between being forced to grow up and accept responsibility and the desire to remain a child: the subjects who live in other countries whose rooms, although initially seemingly different, follow the same patterns and reflect the same anxieties, concerns and desires as those of the North American girls.
Aside from being rich in thematic detail, the individual images are also rich in physical detail. Rania includes dozens of little touches in each image. Initially, I consider the subject and her expression, then my eyes move around the room at every little detail, then back to the subject again. What is truly magic about Rania’s work is her composition – some of the rooms are absolutely packed with bits and pieces yet Rania manages to include all this without losing the subject herself in the background. That incredibly clever use of space is the master stroke that sets these portraits apart, as it would be all too easy for them to feel too busy and overloaded.
The series has inspired me to really look at and develop my own environmental portraiture, paying very careful attention to use of space. I urge you to go and look at the “A Girl and Her Room” project as a whole – it’s important to view the featured images here as part of the whole series, because not only is a story told in each picture, but a story is told as you progress through each image. Plus, they’re great, so why wouldn’t you go and look at them all?