I was 13 and determined to cover every inch of the flower wallpaper in my bedroom with posters of celebrity heartthrobs, cutouts of rebellious catchphrases, milk-mustache ads, and more. Children’s books, stuffed animals, and other vestiges of early childhood were shoved into corners of my room—a space that reflected how I envisioned myself during that transient, shape-shifting period between childhood and adulthood. Rooms like mine are the subject of A Girl and Her Room, an exhibit at the Umbrage Gallery in Brooklyn, New York, featuring selected images from a new book by photographer Rania Matar.
Before conceiving A Girl and Her Room as a project, Matar photographed her own adolescent daughter and her friends, joining a long line of famous photographers whose daughters were their subjects, from Julia Margaret Cameron in the 19th century to contemporary photographer Sally Mann. “My daughter had been a complete tomboy and all of a sudden would spend hours straightening her hair,” Matar tells The Daily Beast. “I recognized her even less when she was with her friends. It was as though they were performing for each other.”
She broke away from tradition when she shifted her focus to photographing girls individually in their bedrooms, noting how each girl was an expansion of her space. She began seeking out girls from different backgrounds, both in the U.S. and in Lebanon, where Matar grew up and had previously photographed women in refugee camps. “I became fascinated with the similarities of issues girls at that age face regardless of culture, religion, and background,” she says. “I was discovering a person on the cusp of becoming an adult, but desperately holding on to the child she barely outgrew, a person on the edge of two worlds and trying to adjust to the person she is turning into.”
Siena, 16, from Brookline, Mass., sits on her bed against a wall plastered with provocative images of famous swimsuit and lingerie models: Bar Refaeli on a beach in a skimpy bikini; Heidi Klum revealing cleavage in a Victoria’s Secret ad; Adriana Lima topless on the cover of GQ; Gisele Bündchen posing in men’s briefs with her legs open. The sexy pictures clash with Siena’s animal-printed bed sheets and a large stuffed animal at the foot of her bed. She stares absentmindedly at her computer, her lips parted and hand resting between her legs. Is she posing suggestively to mimic the idealized figures behind her? The most striking element about Matar’s pictures is that their subjects seem to know little more than the viewer.
Though none of the girls in Lebanon have overtly sexualized images taped to their walls, Matar says the girls themselves were similar in both countries. “Where a girl in the U.S. dyes her hair pink, a girl in Lebanon wears a veil,” she says, adding, “but [the expression] comes from the same place.”