Since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic nearly a year ago, we have been forced to transform the ways in which we engage with the world. With the threat of infection literally lingering in the air, many have retreated into social isolation, a physically and psychologically challenging feat unto itself. With no end to the pandemic in sight, many have sought deeper connections with their daily practices to maintain some semblance of equilibrium in an increasingly uncertain world.
For Lebanese/Palestinian-American photographer Rania Matar, the pandemic created a radical shift in her personal and professional lives. As a portrait photographer, Matar’s work challenges xenophobic, Islamophobic notions of “them vs. us” that flooded the American media following the events of September 11. A natural extrovert possessed with the profound gift for creating warmth and intimacy with her subjects, Matar uses the camera to collapse barriers created by jingoistic propaganda and fearful ignorance, revealing the innate humanity that lies beneath the surface of things.
Awarded the 2018 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship for her series She, which will be published this June by Radius Books, Matar has spent the past few years traveling the globe making photographs that explore female adolescence and womanhood in the United State and the Middle East. When the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, Matar put her travels on pause and began to consider making art from a different vantage point.
Happiness Lies in Your Own Backyard
During the first few weeks of lockdown, Matar’s four adult children and two of their cousins returned to the nest, now living and working from the artist’s Brookline, MA, home that she shares with her husband. With eight adults under one roof, Matar frequently found herself in the kitchen preparing meals. One day, she found herself gazing out the window and noticed her neighbor doing the same. Though they were separated by physical distance and panels of glass, Matar recognized they share a common sensibility — that of the desire to connect.
Realizing we were all alone together, Matar seized upon an idea, and posted a portrait of a person in a window on her Instagram, inviting people who lived within a 30-minute drive from her home to have their photograph made. The desire to transgress boundaries imposed by horrific circumstances resonated far and wide, and Matar soon began driving throughout Massachusetts to make a series of poignant portraits now on view in the new exhibition, On Either Side of the Window: Portraits During COVID-19.
“I would drive to them and something beautiful started happening. I realized people had time and were craving the connection — and so did I,” Matar says. “I love the intimacy and I started to think, ‘How do I make an intimate picture when there’s a barrier between us?’ It was a matter of taking the time.’
There was something beautiful about the need to be connected.
Connecting Across the Divide
“The first couple of shoots were a learning experience because I didn’t know what I was doing,” Matar says but she learned quickly, recognizing patterns emerge as she made the work.
“In a lot of the early pictures, there was a heaviness because it was the time nobody was getting dressed. People would be in their pajamas — but everyone was invested and they gave me their time. In the beginning, people weren’t leaving their homes, and they would leave little gifts for me at the door. One guy left me a painting; one woman left me stones that said ‘Courage’ and ‘Thank You.’ Someone left me chocolates. There was something beautiful about the need to be connected. They wanted this, which was very touching for me,” Matar remembers.
“I would spend an hour with each person and it turned into a shoot. There were instances where I photographed them through the screen, which have the pictures a little bit of texture and made them feel painterly. You could see the change of seasons in the photos and that tells you time is passing by. As the project moved along, people started dressing up for the shoot. I felt like there was a performance element that was happening and the window was like a stage. It was framing them to do whatever they wanted within that little rectangle. I let them do whatever they wanted.”
The Circle of Life
The series was a revelation in more ways than one. Matar received a message from a man she knew years ago; he was the son of her former babysitter who used to play with her children when they were young. They had long lost touch, but the project gave them the opportunity to reconnect. He invited Matar to photograph his wife at the window, when she was eight months pregnant.
“It was so beautiful to see him. He’s a man now, a father!” Matar says, noting they invited her back to photograph the family after she had given birth and then again on Christmas. The theme of hair brushing runs throughout the works, connecting the images across the passage of time. In the first she brushes her own hair; in the second he brushes her hair while she breastfeeds the baby; and in the third, she brushes the baby’s hair with a tiny pink brush, a detail that brings joy to Matar’s heart.
“This project helped me keep my sanity. I have a lot of energy and love being around people. It was so liberating and invigorating for me. I met so many people and it reconnected me with people I knew and loved but lost touch with,” she says.
Matar suddenly remembers receiving a card from one of her subjects, and finds it among her things to share the sentiments of one of the sitters with us. “She said, ‘Thank you for all that you have done for us. You captured the most important time of our lives and I cannot thank you enough for that. We are so glad to have you in daughter’s life,’” Matar says.
“This project made me realize we were all living busy lives and something essential was missed. It’s okay if we slow down a little bit. Connections are important. I found the silver lining.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.
Rania Matar: On Either Side of the Window – Portraits During COVID-19
February 2- May 9, 2021
Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College
1000 Holt Avenue-2765 Winter Park, FL 32789