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Making The Private, Public: A Conversation With Photographer Sarah Bahbah

December 14, 2017

“You’ve probably seen my work on someone else’s account,” reads Sarah Bahbah’s Instagram bio. And rightly so. The photographer’s profile has become one of the most shared accounts on Instagram, hosting her portfolio of seductive, coming of age images. A LA transplant by way of Melbourne, Bahbah got her start shooting music festivals, capturing intimate, private moments within the human experience and bringing them to light. Today, her body of work has expanded to colorful, 90’s-inspired episodes that she releases periodically through her platform. Her work has featured faces like Neels VisserCailin Russo, and Adesuwa Aighewi as characters she builds within her storylines, each inspired by their own life experiences. Her sarcasm and candor makes her account relatable and introspective, allowing her to amass a cult following of over 230,000 people. From her teenage angst series Summer Without a Pool to her breakout “food porn” series Sex and Takeout, Bahbah is a creative force to be reckoned with, pushing her followers to be as fearless and vulnerable as she is. Bahbah talks the release of her latest series, For Arabella, and how she hopes her art empowers women to abandon self-censorship, embrace indulgence, and live in the moment.

How did your photography career begin?

When I picked up a camera as a teenager, I was trying to collect visual references for painting. As I began to collect more formative and more vivid experiences, being in the moment meant capturing it. There is that familiar trope that being in the moment means dropping our screens, that did not apply for me. Being present meant being perceptive of those experiences with a focus on the emotive and candid intimacies in people; the second I figured that out, I realized I needed to photograph full-time.

Tell me the process of creating a new series. They feel like movie to me – you have a strong story line with characters and a dialogue.

Intuition is the driver for my creative process, every time. When I begin a new series, there is a natural momentum there, though I do not necessarily know why. Sometimes, I’m surprised by them. You know how some method actors can explain what their characters would do in hypothetical situations? A similar thing happens with mine; they arrive, I’m not always certain where they came from, but I know what they’ll do next. The story lines tend to be experience led, from dreams of mine, or events from my parallel universe. When these ideas come, it’s often words first and visuals second; hence the titles in the work, which lends to what has been described as a cinematic feel.

Where does the dialogue come from? How do you pick and choose sentiments that you feel compliment the image?

The dialogue is written over a period of months, usually after I have internalized intense conversations I have had with significant connections. I’ll replay those conversations in my mind, and it’s the unspoken dialogue in those actual conversations that become part of my art.

You started out photographing music festivals. How did you transition from loud, crowded moments to intimate ones?

Every moment is loud and crowded, but my target has always been the intimacy between people, places, and occasionally, crowds. I enjoyed taking photos at music festivals, however my aim was always to take that one photo that shows the human experience in all its complexities. Of course, I still do, I’ve just gotten much better at drowning out the noise.

You tap into extremely private moments in everyday life. Why do you feel that has become your primary focus?

You’re getting a bit of glimpse into my inner life with these. Many of these moments are recreations of a time where I wish I had responded differently. Oftentimes the characters have thoughts that are considered too taboo to have, particularly for women. The female characters are especially strong because when I reinvent those moments, I suspect that the things I wish that I said would not have been easily tolerated, because I’m female. I’m changing that expectation, and keeping these characters invincible.

How do people usually respond when you take their photograph?

If it’s my friends, they tend to flip the finger as I zoom in on their face while cracking up laughing. If it’s strangers, I feel as though I can make them feel comfortable in an instant. What ever I ask my models to do or wear, I’ll do it and wear it with them. Vulnerability is a two-way street. I lower my walls so that they can too. Several of my models have thanked me for choosing them, and describe working on the projects as contributing to their sense of empowerment and strength.

What inspired your latest series? It feels much darker than your previous.

Therapy and a lot of introspection.

Who is Arabella? Who does she represent to you?

Arabella represents my existence in another life. She lives through the experiences I would have had if I took a certain direction in my life; she’s my RiRi, or my Kendrick Lamar.

And more broadly, Arabella is the voice for all women who are too afraid to speak on consequential subjects. She is a reminder that we have the power to say what we are feeling without self-censorship.

As a woman, these images are extremely empowering. How do you hope your art affects women today in terms of embracing themselves and their sexuality?

As women, we need to feel ownership over our indulgences, our pleasures, and teaching others how to please us. We need greater indulgence in our words, indulgence in our bodies, and what do with them. Many of us have inherited boundaries that are unnecessary and unkind, I am an advocate for doing away with over-thinking it, and claiming that freedom moment to moment.

I have described this aspiration before; transparency in our words and actions, is the future of emotional freedom, and committing to transparency in communication is what we need to strive for. That may be the most central message depicted in my work.

You’ve gained an incredible following on social media of 232,000 people. How have you used Instagram to amplify your brand?

I’ve been building my series of episodic subtitled, quasi-narratives on Instagram by way of engaging my audience in an original way. I’ve created individual pieces that tell a short story, but when the body of work comes together, a longer narrative is available for interpretation. I’ve left space for the viewer to make their own transitions between the images, and to find their own meaning of the works – which makes the images relatable, which is part of the reason for the viral appeal.

You’ve been very outspoken about people taking your art on Instagram. How have you maintained power over your work in a digital age where everything is shared?

I have 232,000 lawyers looking out for me daily 😉

Follow Bahbah on Instagram here and shop her prints here

 

**This article was originally published for Forbes.com.

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