The portrait embodies the most basic of photographic gestures – one person points a camera at another and releases the shutter. In this sense, a commissioned portrait by Richard Avedon or Robert Mapplethorpe is not very different from a passport photo or a mug shot. Photography has created an immense archive of human likeness. What makes one image more important or affecting than another? The answer is contextual and unstable.
Rania Matar was born and raised in Lebanon before emigrating to the U.S. in 1984, and her elegant portraits of young women and girls often explore issues of gender and national identity within the charged context of Middle Eastern politics. Her series A Girl and Her Room, for example, portrays young women from the U.S and Lebanon in the self-expressive environments of their bedrooms. Each portrait resonates not only with the details of individuality but observes cultural differences as well. Her work straddles two photographic impulses, to universalize and to specify.
In her current exhibition, Invisible Children, at C. Grimaldis Gallery through October 22, Matar presents portraits of young Syrian refugees that she photographed on the streets of Beirut and in Lebanese refugee camps. The photographs are compositionally simple, the subjects are centered in the frame, sitting or standing in soft, indirect light a few feet from the camera, staring into the lens.
Many of these portraits are arresting. We are allowed to gaze intently, noticing tiny details, such as the spider-like lashes sprouting from the almond-shaped eyes of Alia, a nine-year old living in the Bourj El Barajneh Refugee Camp in Beirut. Like all good portraiture, her work quiets and challenges us to appreciate individuality, the spectacular uniqueness of each embodiment of humanity. It is impossible, for this viewer at least, to contemplate Matar’s photographs without thinking about some of the other images that have documented the ongoing crisis of Syrian refugees – of the 2015 image of Alan Kurdi, the three-year old Syrian child whose body washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean, or the uncomprehending expression on the face of Omran Daqneesh, as he sits covered in blood and soot after surviving the bombing of Aleppo in August. Although Matar’s subjects are implicitly under duress – their lives have been uprooted, their futures uncertain – they are fortunate in comparison to the children captured in those horrifying images. Matar’s Invisible Children refute invisibility as they peer into the lens of the camera, perhaps hoping that Matar’s compassionate vision might somehow translate into collective redemption.