In collaboration with Slate's photo blog, Behold, we are extending the conversation with some of their featured photographers.
Rania Matar began her career as an architect but after taking photography classes to better capture her four children, Matar soon changed professions. Her work is informed by both her dual nationalities (she is both Lebanese and American) and her experiences raising her children, specifically her two daughters. What she is experiencing inside is often reflected by the images she creates of other people. Her current, ongoing, work explores the complex mother and daughter relationships she titles “Unspoken Coversations.”
We asked her about her first break in the photo business and her work with galleries. Read the full Behold feature here.
Tell me about your first "break" in the photo business and how that helped to push your career.
I might call it a "break" in the photo world rather than business, and I believe I had multiple "mini-breaks" sequentially, one leading to the other, rather than one big break. I was originally trained and was working as an architect. I started photography to take better photos of my kids. After September 11, I decided to start photographing in Lebanon, where I am from originally, as I wanted to tell a different story from what we were hearing on the news. My photo instructor at the time, Nick Johnson, was very supportive of this early work and took it upon himself to put it in front of a gallery owner who loved the work and connected me with Magnum photographer Costa Manos, who became a mentor and a teacher after that. This was important to me as it finalized and confirmed my shift from architecture to photography.
The second break came when I presented my work for the first time at a portfolio review with Leslie Brown, then curator of the Photographic Resource Center in Boston. She published the work on the PRC blog - my first (online) publication - and urged me to start submitting the work to competitions and presenting it at portfolio reviews. I then submitted some work to the New England Biennial and won the first and purchase prize. The jurors were Karen Haas, Lane Curator of Photographs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Arlette Kayafas from Gallery Kayafas in Boston. I believe this was a big turning point for me, and I will always be thankful to both Arlette and Karen for that. I also believe this led me to become a nominee and then a finalist for the Foster Prize at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston with an exhibition.
The third break happened one year at the Meeting Place at Fotofest, when I presented for the first time A Girl and Her Room. The work was very well received, and I walked out that year with two new gallery representations, a couple of sales and some exhibition offers.
I believe breaks happen because of people who believe in your work and are willing to support it. I could not have achieved any of what I have achieved if it weren't for all the baby steps and the people who supported me along every one of those steps. I am thankful to them all for that.
Do you currently work with a gallery? If so, talk a bit about how that relationship began and what is expected of you and how that influences your work.
I work with a few galleries, and this is a tough question as I find every relationship is different, and all started differently. Because I live in Boston, I might say that Carroll and Sons gallery in Boston is the gallery I work closest with on a regular basis, but I have very good relationships with all my galleries. I started working with Joseph Carroll at the recommendation of many people in the Boston community who thought we would be a good match. The Boston photo community is small and things seems to have happened very naturally. I am learning that often finding the right gallery happens because of people's recommendations and introduction, often artists from the gallery. I think it is hard and intimidating for most artists to approach galleries, and having people help make introductions is very helpful, but it is the first step then you slowly have to learn to know each other and figure out if the relationship will work and see if the work is a good fit. It is also always helpful to speak with other artists represented by the gallery and ask about their experiences.
I started recently working with Galerie Eulenspiegel in Basel, Switzerland and this relationship also started because of an artist of the gallery who recommended my work to the gallery owner, but also highly recommended the gallery to me. I had my first exhibition there this past January.
But then things can happen a little differently, and I have recently connected with Richard Levy Gallery who will be presenting some of my new work for the first time at Art on Paper in NYC this week. Richard and I connected, strangely enough, through Facebook as I had been posting some work in progress that I had made in Lebanon this past year about the Syrian refugees in Beirut. We then met coincidentally in person during Art Basel at Miami Project where the gallery had a booth and Richard asked to know more about this body of work, and here we are. Sometimes it is just serendipity.
Having a gallery who understands and champions your work, who can help you edit, present your work the best way it can, and put it out into the world is key. It is also a treat to have someone an artist trusts deal with that, so that he/she can focus on making work. Galleries can also give you a presence in a place where you would not necessarily have one otherwise. Galerie Janine Rubeiz in Beirut is very important to me for instance. I live in Boston now, but Beirut is also home for me and it is means a lot to me to have someone giving me a presence in a place that personally matters very much to me but where I am not present physically most of the time.
Do you categorize your work as "fine art"? Why or why not? Do you think categorizing photography is important?
I don't personally like the categorizing of photography. I find it sometimes limiting. I do think my work is fine art - I treat it and present it as such - but it is also portraiture; it is about people, about girls and women, about identity and daily life. Sometimes my work has also been referred to as "Documentary" or "Personal Documentary". I stopped trying to put a label on it. I believe it could be all of the above and I want to keep following my own instincts as I am working without having to box myself and my work into one category or another.