Words by Rae Witte. Photography by Sarah Bahbah.
“You’ve probably seen my art on someone else’s account,” reads Sarah Bahbah‘s Instagram bio. She’s not wrong. From your friend’s Instagram stories to brand campaigns, the work of the Australian-born Palestinian artist, photographer, and founder of Possy Agency, who now resides in Los Angeles, pops up in all corners of the Internet. Since her 2014 series “Sex and Takeout” went viral, her work has been displayed at Scope and Art Basel, and she’s even been leveraged by Gucci for their fragrance campaign.
Bahbah’s art is a combination of inner monologue, based off self-awareness, and photos beautifully depicting words of vulnerability, which has firmly placed her in a position to be a voice of young women across the world. Because it revolves around relationships of all types, it’s nearly impossible to comb through her catalog and find something that doesn’t pull at your heartstrings. But even with the content being based on such a basic human concept, Bahbah is surgical with her words and a master of chemistry with her eyes.
Over the past month she’s been rolling out her latest series, “I Could Not Protect Her.” In it Bahbah examines constant abandonment and disassociation from emotion and others. Through Bahbah’s lens, we watch the protagonist spiral from being with a lover, to being alone and forced to face the childhood trauma she’s avoided her entire life.
Following her “I Could Not Protect Her” and “Fuck Me, Fuck You” shows, which took place in New York City and Los Angeles, Bahbah takes a breather to sit down and discuss how love plays a role in her creative process, being vulnerable, and facing one’s trauma.
Rae Witte: How does love play a role in your creative process?
Sarah Bahbah: Love is a large part of my being. But to love, I must put my heart out there, even when knowing what the outcome will be. My work comes from the experiences surrounding different types of love.
Artists like yourself are more comfortable being vulnerable than most, but I think there’s always more depth. What about vulnerability?
It’s funny, the way I am translated through my work is different to how those around me know me. Within my circles, I would probably be the last person to be labeled as emotional. My comfortability with vulnerability has grown with practicing transparency through my art. Up until recently, I was very guarded and resistant to becoming vulnerable.
Three months ago, I was hopping continents without a moment to breathe. I wasn’t living my established routine; I wasn’t boxing, sticking to my diet, seeing my therapist, or sleeping. I had lost my balance. During this time, I met somebody, and for the first time, I showed this person my most vulnerable side. My walls were down because I didn’t have the strength to hold them up. It was in these moments of complete vulnerability that I got the most writing done.
My comfortability with vulnerability has grown with practicing transparency through my art.”
Do you think as creatives you ever reach a point of full vulnerable transparency in your work?
I always aim for vulnerable transparency in my work. My vulnerability and creative expression are closely attached, but I can never be ready for how either will manifest. Because my work and emotional landscape is so public, I withhold a little bit of myself as a means of protection. I do this as a precaution. Like everyone else, I am still learning, and to keep doing so I need to maintain a safe space for myself to continue practicing.
How does your work affect your dating life since inspiration is pulled from human connections?
Honestly, I keep finding myself in trouble. If I am dating someone during a series release, it has always been necessary for me to sit them down and say something along the lines of, “this is not about you.” It has never directly been about my relationships. My work is always focused on the protagonist. It is about the protagonist’s reactions, projections, desires, and insecurities. That being said, I definitely need to stop dating narcissists.
You’ve said that you know how to make models you don’t know comfortable in an instant. This is hugely beneficial in life, genuinely making people comfortable to open up. How do you do it?
I lower my walls, just enough. I show them that I am willing to learn and grow with them. And I do this with honest intentions. I also try to arrange a meet up prior to shooting, to gage whether we will connect or not. If the chemistry is there then the shoot will take place.
You’ve said “For Arabella” is your strongest work. Can you choose an image from it and give us context to what inspired that dialogue and photo?
I want to talk about “I’m your beauty Queen. You’re just my dick” because it got such an interesting response. It is basically about the male and female roles reversed, but it freaked so many people out! Some thought that women shouldn’t be saying things like that, others questioned whether I was encouraging women to speak like a “man.” That wasn’t my intention, but why should it be a stress if it was? “For Arabella” was never intended to become a feminist series. I created the series with emotional liberation in mind. “For Arabella” is about a woman overcoming her suffering and trauma by embodying the “fuck you, I do and say what I want!” mentality. It is about a woman finding strength in transparency, indulgences, and emotions. The more people project their discomfort with this piece, the more it becomes evident that society still has a lot of changing to do.
My creativity peaks when I am hurting, when my freedoms have been restricted, when I feel like I am not moving, when I feel unsafe, misunderstood, or unheard.‘
Do you find your creativity peaks during times of distress? If so, how do you combat it?
My creativity peaks when I am hurting; when my freedoms have been restricted, when I feel like I am not moving, when I feel unsafe, misunderstood, or unheard. Otherwise, I am usually fairly apathetic and numb–emotionally and creatively. I make sense of feeling thrown off centre by reframing chaos as beauty. We generally only perceive beauty on greener pastures, but through my creative lens, I try to understand the beauty in all the spaces I fill. To me, beautiful moments stand out the most during times of darkness. In some way, those moments have become my life-line. For this reason, I don’t think there is a need to re-imagine my creative process.
Don’t go to bed angry at the people you care about.“
What’s the best advice on love you’ve ever received?
Don’t go to bed angry at the people you care about. My aunty said this to me.
In past interviews, you’ve referenced your traditional upbringing and being taught to suppress your thoughts and emotions. As you grew into your own and have come to let that go, has that affected your relationship with your family? Does it fuel your art?
This question has never been as applicable as it is now. In the past, all my efforts had been spent on reconciling and understanding my trauma internally. My subtitles series is the external narrative for my attempts at letting go. The traditional Arabic perspective doesn’t match the content of my work, so my parents have chosen to stay away from my art. I’m OK with this. My art is extremely personal, honest, and expressive, so not having to worry about the backlash from my parents means that my work continues being a safe space for me to explore my trauma.
With each series release, it’s like my efforts at reconciliation come into effect. “I Could Not Protect Her” really takes up the biggest therapy space. Before I released this series, I spent a lot of time working through some really important things with my family. It wasn’t pretty, but these things never are. “I Could Not Protect Her” symbolizes my family’s willingness to talk about and begin to accept the hurt that lives with us.