By JESSICA JULIAO
En Foco/In Focus, which opens Jan. 22, 2013, at CIIS, includes 56 images by 48 artists, selected from the permanent collection of En Foco, a New York-based non-profit dedicated to cultural diversity in photography. The below interview is third in a series conducted by CIIS students and emerging photographers, Jessica Juliao and Colleen McGruder.
It was the intense stare of the deceased mother pictured in the photograph hanging on the wall, carefully framed by her two young daughters having a moment to themselves, that drew me in. There seem to be a few things happening here in Rania Matar’s Dead Mother: perhaps a mother’s love watching over her children; the severe expression of the older woman framed by the youthful grace of her daughters; and the cultural connection that is felt through the veil donned by all three. This image is only one of a series that invites us into the lives of Lebanese women, Muslim and Christian, and disrupts the Western stereotypes that exist around the hijab.
Jessica Juliao: Your images speak to the coexistence of the Muslim and Christian communities living in Lebanon. How difficult was it to capture these casual and at times very intimate moments? Did you have a preexisting relationship with most of the women in your photos or did you approach complete strangers?
Rania Matar: These images were not choreographed at all; it was really simply me capturing beautiful daily moments. When I started photographing in the refugee camps I originally felt like an outsider, almost like I should not have been there. Eventually I started meeting NGO (non-governmental organizations) staff and having them introduce me to women and their families. Once I came with somebody who people trusted I had a foot in the door. So access was very important, and once in, it was up to me to justify people’s trust in me. I used very little equipment, trying to make it the least invasive as possible.
In the beginning I was tentative; I wanted to be accepted so I can tell the best and most truthful story possible. I do speak the language; I was born in Lebanon and am part Palestinian, so that also helped in being trusted. In all the work in the Middle East, mainly in the refugee camps, I was inspired by my early work photographing my children. I remembered how intimate these pictures [of my children] felt, and this is what I wanted from the Forgotten People and Veil series, to achieve that same level [of intimacy] with people I did not know. I felt that I owed them that.
JJ: In your project statement you talk about the social pressures among Muslim women in Lebanon to wear the hijab. Some women wear it for religious reasons, others for self-expression, others as political statement. How do you see this pressure taking different forms among different age groups/generations?
RM: I would not say it is really social pressure as much as it is an implied pressure amongst some younger women. Women do not have to wear the hijab in Lebanon, but I found after September 11th there was an implied pressure, especially for younger girls, in the sense that it became the thing to do and girls wanted to be like their friends. A Western parallel might be my daughter wanting to wear Uggs because all of her friends have them. At the time it also became a symbol of identity, a statement, a symbol of belonging to the larger Muslim community, but also in some cases a fashion accessory. In the past couple of years, I found that it was not as present among younger girls and I was surprised to find out that some girls who wore the headscarf after September 11th ended up not wearing it anymore. There are so many layers and so much symbolism to the hijab and why women decide to wear it. I think I just scraped the surface with my work.
JJ: In one image you show a Muslim woman wearing a hijab tattooing the eyebrow of another woman who is not wearing the veil. Is the woman being tattooed also Muslim? I associate tattooing with Western cultural practices, and would love to learn more about whether—and how much—accepted practices differ between the Muslim and Christian populations. And to what degree do the communities respect what differences there are?
RM: I don’t like when people ask if the woman is Muslim or not. I think it simplifies the issue. People of different religions mix together beautifully in Lebanon and those are two women interacting. It doesn’t matter if they are Muslim or not. The story behind that image is that I just happened to be walking by and saw the women wearing the hijab sitting outside of the beauty parlor. She actually owns that parlor. After I took the photos she asked me who did my eyebrows and eventually I ended up on the table getting my own eyebrows done. She then asked if I was interested in Botox! It was wonderful—a very hysterical scene. The thing is, women who are wearing the hijab, the veil, also get their nails, their hair and their faces done. They care about their appearance and their beauty and to assume that because they wear the hijab they are any less “feminine” is a huge misconception. It’s just that only close relatives and friends can see what is underneath. A woman who wears the veil just won’t be photographed without it, and I have to respect that.
JJ: It’s interesting to hear you speak of these women maintaining appearances underneath their hijab. Also in one of your images you see the hijab being sold on mannequin heads offering an array of colors and materials.
RM: Oh yes, I mean you will see women wearing the hijab with tight jeans and heels looking very Western. I think that in the West there was/is a lot of ignorance in associating the hijab with women being oppressed or backwards, and for me being in Lebanon and seeing the different uses of the hijab it was very different. I am sure that in some places women are under strict requirements to wear the hijab, but in my experience there is some sense of choice and a personal decision about wearing the veil. Again, I am only speaking about Lebanon in that case.
I aim to emphasize the similarities of what it is to be a woman, a girl, a mother, more than to focus on the differences. In fact, you stop seeing the hijab after a while, because it is such a non-issue when you deal with people as human beings. The only rule that I had to follow was an unspoken rule of respect—I could not photograph the women without their hijab. If I was in their homes and they took off their hijab, my camera would be turned off. And as soon as I turned my camera on they would put on the hijab. It was like this beautiful dance that we understood.
JJ: Do you feel, when seeing the women without their veil and dress that they themselves become someone else? Do they seem more free in a sense?
RM: You know, it happened only once, and it was because I was photographing during Ramadan. I was following this woman who was volunteering to distribute food to the poor. She was wearing the hijab and dressed in the black coat, so basically fully covered and I only saw her face. We went back to her place after working and her husband was at home cooking. She then removed her headscarf and her black dress and I realized that she was wearing jeans and a t-shirt underneath. It was actually quite interesting as she was the same person underneath the garments, it was in fact my perception of her that felt different, which is why I wish I could have photographed her both ways.
You know I have another interesting story that I would like to share because in this country [U.S.] we have such a misconception of Islam in general. I was photographing during Ramadan and from my name, Rania Matar, you can not tell if I am Christian or Muslim, and I was not broadcasting it one way or another, because I am not very religious to start with. But one woman wanted to know if I was fasting or not. When I said that I was not fasting, she asked me if I was Christian. When I said that I was, she brought the Koran and she read to me a whole passage about the Virgin Mary. It gave me the chills. She wanted to tell me that we are the same. She then pointed out to me, which I never realized, how many Muslim women are in fact named Maryam, which means Mary. So it did not matter to her or I what we believed in, it was just a connection we made and nothing else mattered. It is also after building these connections that you can achieve better images.