Visual Culture

Photographing the “Beautiful Awkwardness” of Girlhood

Alexxa Gotthardt
Sep 6, 2018 6:48PM

Rania Matar, Maryam 9, Beirut, Lebanon, 2011. Courtesy of the artist, Robert Klein Gallery, Boston, and Galerie Tanit, Beirut.

Rania Matar, Alia 9, Bourj El Barajneh Refugee Camp, Beirut, Lebanon, 2011. Courtesy of the artist, Robert Klein Gallery, Boston, and Galerie Tanit, Beirut.

Photographer Rania Matar’s youngest daughter, Maya, was 12 years old when she noticed the first signs of the girl’s inevitable transformation from child to woman. “She was a late bloomer, and it was that point when her body had just started changing—and her whole attitude was changing with it,” Matar told me over the phone from her home in Brookline, Massachusetts. “I found that so beautiful, in a way…beautifully awkward.”

At the time, Matar had just finished a project documenting teenage girls in their bedrooms—environments that revealed each young subject’s personality, desires, and dreams. She had wondered what form her next series would take. As she looked at Maya, she found it.

Since 2011, Matar has photographed girls on the cusp of puberty, that “short, very special moment when girls start to be aware of their womanhood,” as she described it. Matar dubbed the series “L’Enfant-Femme” after a French expression that describes a girl who’s in the process of becoming a woman.

Over time, another series blossomed from the project. Titled “Becoming,” it features the young subjects of “L’Enfant-Femme” years later, creating a visual timeline of their transformations. Both series join Matar’s overarching oeuvre, which collectively explores moments of metamorphosis in women’s lives. The two series are included in her first mid-career retrospective, which was organized last year by the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas, and will travel to the Cleveland Museum of Art this fall.

Rania Matar, Clara 8, Beirut, Lebanon, 2012. Courtesy of the artist, Robert Klein Gallery, Boston, and Galerie Tanit, Beirut.


When I spoke with Matar, she had just finished photographing several of her subjects from “L’Enfant-Femme” and “Becoming” for a third time, well into their teenage years. Together, we looked through the images, marveling at the transformations that girls undergo. Bodies, poses, and fashions change; self-awareness and self-confidence fluctuate, too. Insecurities abound, but so do defiance, experimentation, and elation.

Matar took the earliest images when the girls were between ages 7 and 14. Her subjects come from different worlds, tied together by Matar’s own history: She met some of them in Brookline, Massachusetts, where she currently resides; others she met in her native Lebanon. There, she photographed girls from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, from affluent homes to Palestinian refugee camps. “Somewhere along the line, I realized that I was exactly like those girls when I was that age, in a different country, [from a] different culture,” said Matar. “I realized that there’s such a universality to being a girl and growing up.”

No matter their background, that universality can be seen in each portrait, captured at the pause between childhood and adulthood. Take Clara, only 8 years old, who poses like a mini odalisque, but sports a single chipped blue nail and friendship bracelets stacked on her wrists. Shayna, 10 years old, finds herself similarly in transition. She stares confidently at the camera, crossing her legs with a newfound awareness that parts of her body should stay hidden. A bandaid on her knee, however, hints at the scrapes that come from long hours of summer play.

“The details of the body language are important, and sometimes they show that duality,” explained Matar. “I’m looking for that complexity in the way they hold themselves.”

Matar doesn’t pose her subjects; rather, she lets them move in front of the camera at will. They choose their own outfits, too: In her earliest portrait of 9-year-old Dania, the girl selected a purple keyhole tank top and hot-pink shorts, her toenails painted deep red and her hair adorned with a crown of butterfly clips. She topped off the look with a hand placed cheekily on her hip. Other girls show less outward confidence in front of the camera. Yasmine, 12, clutches a pillow in front of her body, while Tynia, 12, wraps her arms protectively around her torso. Two other 12-year-old girls come from very different backgrounds, yet share the same stance: Both Molly, photographed in her home in Massachusetts, and Samira, photographed in a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, cock their legs confidently to the side, arms crossing their chests.

Rania Matar, Marguerita 10, Naccache, Lebanon, 2011. Courtesy of the artist, Robert Klein Gallery, Boston, and Galerie Tanit, Beirut.

Rania Matar, Marguerita at 14, Naccache, Lebanon, 2015. Courtesy of the artist, Robert Klein Gallery, Boston, and Galerie Tanit, Beirut.

For the young women Matar continued to photograph, these poses shift. Some subjects appear to gain self-assurance, while others aren’t sure what to do with their new, swelling figures. Dania, of the butterfly clips, looks more timid at 12, her body covered and her posture less direct. Samira, on the other hand, at 17, wears tight jeans, a bright-red veil, and makeup-adorned eyebrows, her searing gaze seeming to reveal a desire for self-expression.

It’s Matar’s images of Charlotte, though, that continued to stick with me after our conversation. At age 11, she looks warily at the camera, unsure of where to place her long legs as she sits on a couch, knees knocking together awkwardly. Above her, on the wall, a photograph of a confident woman in a bathing suit underlines the girl’s youthful shyness. Four years later, Charlotte’s gaze and body are both relaxed; a reproduction of a semi-nude Modigliani hangs over her head. At 15, the difference between Charlotte and the artwork that accompanies her isn’t so stark.

Looking at the images, I wondered what Matar’s next photo of Charlotte will reveal about the young woman’s personality. Matar is curious, too. “It’s about the passage of time,” she said of the series. “I’m fascinated by the process of growing up and growing older—by how their lives are going to change.”

Alexxa Gotthardt