Rania Matar: Fifty Years Later
Lebanon is still suffering the consequences of the civil war that began 50 years ago. Following brutal clashes, corrupt governments and month-long lockdowns during the corona pandemic, explosions in the port of Beirut pushed the country even further into crisis. The Lebanese-born, American photographer dedicated her series to the women of Lebanon. The portraits stand as representative of the hopes, fears and perseverance of a whole generation.
Her pictures are emotionally close, sometimes shockingly close. Each of the portraits that Rania Matar takes of a young Lebanese woman, stands in its own right, as though telling the complete story. Those portrayed are vulnerable – and strong. All they can do is keep on going. They all share the same fate: they were born in Lebanon and they stayed in Lebanon. The settings that the trained architect brings together with the protagonists of her pictures, convey the story of a life that no longer exists.
2025 will be the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Lebanese civil war. “As we approach this symbolic date,” the photographer begins, “Lebanon is still suffering the consequences. The country has collapsed economically – there are shortages of cash, gas, electricity, medicine, even water.” The layers of destruction are present all over the country that she left barely forty years ago.
“I want to tell the story of Lebanese women through the eyes of a woman as our collective history. The women, the land and the architecture are strongly intertwined.”
“The pictures are about exile – my own, but also that of the young women – and the painful decision they have to make: do they leave their homeland or do they stay despite all the difficult conditions?” There is the example of Fawzia. She put on her mother's night dress for the picture, and hopes that the younger generation will turn the country into a better place. Then there is Yasmina. She is lying down in a building as though part of a metaphor. She has a snake tattooed on her right arm – in her religion this is a symbol representing the deviation from the prescribed path. And then there is Mona. With a number of jobs, she has to work exhausting shifts so as to gain a small bit of independence for her life.
“I see my younger self in the women; I feel their hopes, pains, dreams and fears. I was their age when I left Lebanon in 1984 during the civil war.”
Matar’s photographs are like windows into the reality of life for women in Lebanon. They speak of how women stand in the wounds of a city and move on with their stories: how they dance, how they believe, how they hope, and how they defy everything – despite everything. Abandoned and destroyed buildings, as well as nature, play essential roles in her images: walls become the wounds of a city; she stages a young woman as Venus in the rubble; in another a figure dances in front of an old mural. And then there is that one picture that is different from all the others in the “Fifty Years Later” series. The protagonist is missing, as though she just stepped outside the frame. The picture leads into hopeful green, asking “Where should I go?”
Matar’s project was submitted by Antonia Benedetta Donato and Saeed Nassouri, who were among this year’s 60 international LOBA nominators.
The daughter of Palestinian parents, Matar was born in Lebanon in 1964, and moved to the USA when she was 20. In her documentary photography work, the mother of four deals with questions of collective identity, intercultural experiences, female adolescence and being a woman. The work of the former Guggenheim Fellow has been exhibited in renowned museums worldwide, and has received wide recognition, including the Leica Women Foto Project Award in 2022. Rania Matar is an Associate Professor of Photography at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.
Portrait: © Helena Goessens