This inspiring photographer documents girls’ coming-of-age in the US and Middle East

One incredibly inspiring photographer is beautifully reminding us that, even though we may be different individuals, we are really all are fundamentally the same. This artist’s name is Rania Matar, and her recent series L’Enfant-Femme evokes this feeling so perfectly.

The series is an exploration of girls’ coming-of-age transition in the US and the Middle East. Specifically, she focused on the area around Boston, where she lives, and Lebanon, where she was born. Although these two cultures, and their approach to femininity, seem so different, the surprising reality she captures is that the transition is a relatively universal experience.

“These are the same transitions, here [in the US], or there,” said Matar in an interview with HG. “There’s a universality to how they deal with it. For me, I’m the same whether I’m Lebanese or American. We create barriers, but this series is [a way] to break those down.”

There are parallels throughout this series, in the way the girls cross their arms to how they tilt their chins. One great example is in the spread below, with the almost mirror image between Molly, a 12-year-old from Brookline, Mass., and Samira, a 12-year-old in the Bourj El Barajneh Refugee Camp in Beirut.

One interesting aspect of working with girls of this age, Matar explained, is that most of them have never really experienced a film camera, even though they’re very used to being photographed with their phones.

“The selfie smile is identical around the world,” she said. “They had to let that go.”

After the photograph was taken, they expected to be able to see the pictures.  The fact that they couldn’t took them completely out of their comfort zone, she said, and they started taking it more seriously.

“The only instruction I give the girls is not to smile and I allow them to fall into their own poses,” Matar says in her project statement for the series. Her goal is simply to portray the girl as she is, when allowed to pose herself independently and interact with the camera.

“I try to capture alternatively the angst, the self-confidence or lack thereof, the body language, the sense of selfhood and the developing sense of sexuality and womanhood girls this age begin to experience,” she writes.

In most of these images, Matar also emphasizes that “sense of becoming a woman, but some awkwardness comes through. A beautiful awkwardness.”

“There’s a duality across the board,” she continued. “The feminine movement balances with protective gestures. They don’t mean to be suggestive. I found that endearing, that awkwardness as they are trying to be seen as women.”

The theme of women in the Middle East is a strong one in her work, and developed organically. She succinctly explains how this theme developed: “I’m a woman, and was a girl. I am from the Middle East, but I am an American. After 9/11, I started photographing to tell a different story to show what I knew.”

In the faces of these girls, we are able to experience a similarity of experience across perceived boundaries of age and nationality. Just as interesting? The sense of self-recognition viewers — particularly female viewers — are likely to feel, as they are transported back to that singular and universal transition between girl- and womanhood.

Get Matar’s book here. Live near Washington D.C.? You’re in luck! Matar is leading a talk at the National Museum of Women in the Arts this week.