I had the opportunity to create some images with and to briefly interview Photographer Rasha Kahil as we anticipate her contributions to SBL6.
SB: How much of a role does morality play in your work; in the sense that you as a photographer have been bestowed the power to share people in such intimate ways? Do you ever struggle with morality and/or censorship?
RK: I do actually; I very often have moments where I go what the fuck am I doing? Why am I doing this? I don’t know why Im doing this?! Its all over the internet as well; images of myself and those I know, and once it is there you can’t take it back.
In terms of morality; with the In your home series, there was a element of that, regarding invading peoples privacy. Even though I didn’t shoot people without them knowing, I did shoot in their personal spaces which actually offended some people, even those I knew personally. There are these occasions where I tread a fine line but I don’t feel that in doing so, I am doing anything necessarily wrong; just seeing how far boundaries between personal and private can be pushed, and working with emotions as well as thoughts. Even though I work with something really personal (whether its my stories or other peoples) I like the way in which they can be appropriated to anyone and for me the best part is having people come back to me and say I was really touched by this; or your work really speaks to me. It is nice to get that reassurance or validity, that people can see past the face value and interact with it on an emotional level especially when sometimes I feel like Im doing something that is a a bit out there and exploring things I maybe shouldn’t show or talk about so much i.e. vulnerability, sex etc. In things like fashion, nudity and sexuality is everywhere- its fine but once you re-contextualise it and make it within a personal sphere, you can begin to start offending people.
SB: I read in some past interviews that you’ve done that your aim is to seek truth in sex and relationships. Do you feel that the truth in which you seek, and wish to share can be truly demonstrated or shared through photographs?
RK: When I say to seek truth it really is for me, to not sugar coat anything and really telling it how it is. Because a lot of my shots are never really set up, it is what it issues This is what happened. Showing it and sharing it just becomes like a visual diary. I wouldn’t say Im actually seeking out a truth in sex or the issues that I photograph, but Im showing them as they happen; as they are and as I feel them. It becomes my truth; recording of an experience as it happens, whether it is an undone bed after sex or something else. Its interesting because they are things we talk about all the time and they’re never really perfect. Its interesting for me to portray that because they are an integral part of everyone; myself and my friends and they are always emotionally charged when discussed.
SB: Approaching sexuality in images, from a quasi-autobiographical approach isn’t at all endemic to your work, and seems to be a path gaining more and more popularity (with younger female photographers especially) but Im interested to find out what peoples reactions to your specific approach have been? “XI” for example, in being more explicit and closer to home than other series’…
RK: People have generally quite enjoyed “XI”; in the sense that they were shocked to read something that was so raw, but there is a lot of comedy in there as well. I had a cousin who read one of the stories, and said to me: All I wanted to do was give you a hug. Its that kind of reaction; no one was necessarily shocked with anything, because its almost as if people have experienced most of what was mentioned in XI particularly.
When I wrote those stories, it wouldn’t take long at all and I would write them quite intuitively. The photography side of it was un staged; on a few occasions I have had a camera available during a sexual encounter and taken pictures, but only when I knew the person really well. Generally, it has been traces of the event which was shown the most; an undone bed or stains.
A lot of people could relate to what was being discussed; whether it was something as funny as vaginal farts or something, but when you write about it, the whole experience itself becomes more grounded and less taboo. Unlike watching porn which is more times than others, fabricated and trying to serve some kind of usually unreachable fantasy, “XI” was literally as if I was telling a story to my girlfriends: thus generating a lot more relatability with viewers and audiences.
SB: I noticed that a lot of your work explores ‘Shame’ and ‘Pride’ as key themes. ‘Poses‘ for example, deals with anonymity in a way that could be interpreted as shame, or at very least, a desire to be distanced from ones own body. Is this a deliberate technique? If so, why?
RK: I also did a series which I called The Shameless which looks at it too. I think this fixation on shame is to do with this sense of the fact that at the very start, I am the one being shameless in a way; taking photographs of things people maybe tend to hide or not necessarily things people would want to put in the public domain. Where does it stop or start?! (laughs) We share so many images; whether its on Facebook, or tumblr and there is an over-saturation of shared imagery with more of a desire to do so now, than ever before. As a result, there is the question of Where do you stop; where do you draw the line? How do people portray themselves and how much do people put of themselves out there? They are interesting themes for me to pick up on in my photography; its not always as defined as in “Poses”, where it was literally a case of me asking these models to be in the images and pose in a way that they would want to be seen,with some protection given in the form of anonymity. With “The Shameless”, it was an edit of around 80 images that show that moment where people break down the barriers and let go within the moment they are experiencing. It featured a lot of private moments; where people are either drunk or crying, nude or vulnerable, dressing or undressing…. all of these moments where you don’t or wouldn’t usually take an image, is when I would snap something.
The element of anonymity is something Im actually exploring in one of my newest series’ (which will be exhibited at Art Taipei in Taiwan) entitled: Between 11 and Noon; not neccesarily anonymity by obscurity but moreso by leaving audiences little information about the subjects that have been shot and their relationship to me.
SB: But what is it about sharing (these types of images) that you like? Is it therapeutic…?
RK: Yeah definitely. I started photography itself after a breakup: I was in this very passionate relationship with someone and took about 5000 portraits of him over the course of the 11 year relationship. Then the photography just died down, but started back up after another relationship ended, and I began to realise that photography was a way for me to really hold on to things, as an antidote to loss or abandonment. I used to write diaries from age 9 to the age of 19, so I have probably always had this thing in me of wanting to record everything that was going on as a form of self therapy. Whereas I used to do it in writing, now I do it through images. In your home was that in a way, which was almost recording and consolidating relationships or experiences with people, because ultimately I was at that persons house for a reason.
SB: I was going to ask actually, how you managed to shoot that series with the owners of the homes being unaware?
RK: I was at each home, invited normally and would be hanging out with that person, but if I was alone suddenly I would just quickly snap a picture. Its almost as if that series was portraying that feeling of marking this experience with an acquaintance or close friend.
SB: Coming from Beirut originally, how are takes on sexuality compared from there to here? Are we as enlightened on the subject as we think we are in the West?
RK: Well thats the thing: I think there are a lot of misconceptions about Beirut. It’s quite a liberal city, probably one of the most liberal ones in the Middle East. It has a thriving art community and a lot of artists have dealt with the issues I have, so what Im doing isn’t groundbreaking in that sense at all. I think sometimes its hard to share my ideas because the last thing I want to be is shocking or sensationalist so for me to be able to show my work in Beirut, in a Gallery Space and having people respond to it in a positive way who understand the ideas Im trying to communicate through the work, was really nice. The fact that I could do that there, was a sign that I am being able to do what I want without people just dismissing my work as being nude or shocking for the sake of it. Over there, there may be some people who don’t agree with my work but on the other hand there are people in London who don’t either. But I wouldn’t be able to say that in Beirut Im seen as The Brave One– its nothing like that
SB: So when you were back in Beirut, did you produce the same work, focusing on nudity/sexuality etc?
RK: Not necessarily in the same ways, but I did used to use the body a lot in general. I did a BA in graphic design in Beirut, and even when doing that, I incorporated the body. My final year project was actually book which was based on the body and the day in the life of the body; so technically Ive been doing this since 1998. Its always been with me but Ive never turned it into a tool for personal work or academic work until I did my masters degree at the RCA where I realised that this was something more than just something I wanted to dabble in; I want to pursue this as a ‘proper way’.
SB: Your contribution to Sang Bleu VI is a non-human series. I wanted to find out a little bit about the project without giving too much away as well as finding out what is like for you to approach a non human series compared to a human one?
RK: The series is basically a collection of images showing beach resorts that I had been seeing for years on the coast of Lebanon, on this main highway that covers the whole country. These buildings have always fascinated me because they’re kind of planted in the middle of nowhere; on stand-alone building surrounded by nothingness. For me, I do shoot landscapes quite a lot but its landscapes that give out the same sort of feelings that I get when I shoot people: that sense of vulnerability, bleakness etc. Its the same sort of feelings of awkwardness; empathy….so I approach them in the same way as how I approach friends and subjects close to me.
The Images in the series are created from the perspective of how they are perceived from the highway. I had my mother as a co-pilot and while driving, I would say stop! and quickly get out of the car to shoot a pictures, with these massive trucks driving past, beeping their horns at us. In Beirut, there isn’t the same accumulation of local knowledge as there is the West so I don’t know when these buildings were built, or their history since their conception. Ive actually been on Google maps, just to see what is on the other side of some of the buildings. I have found one of them (which took ages) and found out that there is just a little pool and five deck chairs; so it was a relief to my curiosity that there is life on the other side on the buildings (laughs).
Kahil’s New Series- “Between 11 and Noon” Will be exhibited at Art Taipei, Taiwan (Nov 9- 11th)