Rania Matar's Lucy, Newton, Massachusetts (2020). Courtesy of the artist

Exhibitions

Rania Matar's hauntingly beautiful lockdown portraits go on show in Florida—see them here

Lebanese-American photographer captured images of her neighbours at their homes in Massachusetts and collected their stories along the way

In a scenario that many can probably relate to, the Boston-based photographer Rania Matar found herself stuck at home last April during the coronavirus lockdown, working with six restless young adults in the background. While trying to focus on her forthcoming book Rania Matar: She, the artist found herself looking across her yard and into her neighbour's kitchen window—where she saw a similar scene playing out. In that moment, she decided on her next project: photographing the local community through their windows.

Matar took to Instagram and posted one of her signature portraits with this message: "The last few days/weeks have been unsettling for everyone. We are all getting used to being isolated [in] our own cocoons and our communication has been through FaceTime, Zoom and whatever other available digital media. I miss seeing people [...] if you live within a 30 minute drive from Brookline and have access to a ground floor door or window at your house or apartment, I would love to come and say hello and make a photograph."

"I was surprised by the amount of responses I got," the Lebanese-American photographer tells The Art Newspaper. "It proved to me that people were really craving human connection on some level." Matar began driving round her neighbourhood and ended up taking hundreds of socially distanced photographs that captured the bizarre—but common—coronavirus experience.

"The beauty of it is that nobody was rushed; nobody had anywhere to go. I completely bonded with people and ended up doing full photoshoots," Matar says. She published the photographs regularly on her Instagram account, where she could tell the stories of her sitters and also reach more people who were interested in taking part in the project.

A selection of 27 of Matar's lockdown photographs are now being shown at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum in Florida (Rania Matar: On Either Side of the Window, Portraits During Covid-19, 2 February-9 May) with an accompanying virtual exhibition for those who cannot attend in-person.

Here, Matar shares the stories behind some of her most striking lockdown portraits, from sitters who wore their mothers' clothes, to a baby's birth and first Christmas.

Tracy, Worcester, Massachusetts (2020). Courtesy of the artist

Tracy had just bough her store Taproot Treasures—a small independent metaphysical book shop with an array of spiritual gifts—in March 2020, right before Covid-19. Her store is magical but sadly I couldn’t go inside. I had photographed her at her window and as I was packing my bag, right before I was about to leave, she asked me to take a photograph for her own use and she held those stones with messages for me: “Smile” and “Blessings”. It was a beautiful moment and so appropriate for the strange and unsettling times we were all living in. She had also left a little pink mesh bag, hanging on her front door handle, with beautiful crystals and rocks with messages like “Thank You” and “Courage”.

Sally, Ella, Tori, Hingham, Massachusetts (2020). Courtesy of the artist

This woman is one of the early people who responded to me—you can see in the background that is reflected into the glass that it was still wintery. There's something very grey about the image but I love the daughter with the red hair. The cool thing about this photoshoot was that the woman is also a photographer and when I got there she had chosen the best window to do the picture in and had put a gigantic ladder outside waiting for me. It felt very collaborative. In the past I have worked on projects about mothers and daughters and so this work reflects that as well.

Marie, Cambridge, Massachusetts (2020). Courtesy of the artist

Marie is a friend of mine I hadn’t seen in a while and she reached out to me on Instagram when she saw the project. Like everyone she had been working from home and I met her at her window. We couldn’t have coffee or chat—we had to connect through the barrier but I love how the outside was reflected into the window. If I moved a bit one way or the other I would see my own reflection on her, connecting us metaphorically. It felt as if she was outside and inside at the same time. Everything felt as blurry in those early days.

Loretta and Camilla, Newton, Massachusetts (2020). Courtesy of the artist

The woman in this picture is actually a German au pair who had just arrived in the US a few months before the pandemic hit and then was suddenly locked down with this new family at home. There was something cool about the relationship between her and this young girl. The woman is wearing her robe and the girl is trying to imitate her stance.

Minty, Kayla, Leyah, Layla, Cambridge, Massachusetts (2020). Courtesy of the artist

I met this beautiful family through a photographer friend of mine, KristenJoy Emack, who is Minty’s sister-in-law. Minty is the mother and she is here with her three daughters ages 9 to 16. I showed up at their window and met them for the first time all huddled together greeting me from across the window. It was absolutely breathtaking how they posed themselves very naturally. It feel like during the pandemic many families have become closer and learned to live together again in very close quarters, with kids and parents all stuck at home. It started raining shortly after I arrived but I was delighted to have been able to make this photograph before it started pouring.

Austin, Boston, Massachusetts (2020). Courtesy of the artist

As the project developed, the sessions became more like a photoshoot and I wanted to make it fun. I could see all these flowers reflected into this window—they were actually part of gigantic vase that I couldn't move and I had a very narrow sliver where I could see the person. So as I was photographing her, I asked her if she had something pink to wear. And she went and put on her mother's dress and it was unbelievable how it matched exactly to the colour of the flowers.

Cyrus, Brookline, Massachusetts (2020). Courtesy of the artist

A similar thing happened with the non-binary Persian sitter Cyrus, who is a performer. While I was photographing I was saying how I loved the red flowers and they said, "Oh my god, I'm gonna wear my mother's Comme des Garçons shirt." I think in the early photos there was a heaviness and everybody was wearing their sweatpants. And as time went by people were dressing up for the photos. Cyrus wrote something lovely on Instagram about our shoot: “[Rania Matar] created a safe space for me to celebrate my gender freely. And her eagerness to uplift folks with nuanced identities, especially among the diasporic, Middle Eastern Arab community, is a special thing.”

From left to right: Susan, Salem, Massachusetts (2020); Susan, Baby Violette, and Raffy, Salem, Massachusetts (2020); and Susan and Baby Violette’s First Christmas, Salem, Massachusetts (2020). Courtesy of the artist

What I love in these images is the sense of the passing of time. The woman is actually the wife of the son of an old babysitter of ours, who I completely lost touch with. It was so nice to get a message from him on Instagram. I took his wife's picture when she was eight months pregnant and it was a gorgeous moment. Then I went back when she had the baby, and again over Christmas. It was beautiful because the project was not only connecting me with new people but it reconnected me with people who were once a big part of my life.