It’s one of the most reposted pictures on Instagram: a woman lounges on a bed with a slice of pizza in her hand. The viral image, in fact, belongs to Palestinian-born, Australian-raised photographer Sarah Bahbah, an artist whose work thrives on social media and, most recently, in two exhibitions: New York’s “Fuck Me, Fuck You” and a solo-exhibition in London, open until June 21st.
The Insta-famous pizza image is part of Bahbah’s “Sex And Take Out” series, a project that brings together fast food and nudity, exploring the heart of modern romance as it does. This is Bahbah’s bread and butter: exploring the highs and lows of love through episodes of moody, cinematic photos. Her more recent photographic projects use overlaid, pithy captions – in the style of foreign-film subtitles – to reveal the intimate internal monologue of Bahbah’s angst-ridden protagonists. A dark undercurrent runs through her work; romantic ambivalence is used as emotional armour and equal amounts of candour and sarcasm uncover a very Millennial anguish.
It’s a powerful example of what can happen when art and literature collide with Instagram. Above all, Bahbah is a powerful storyteller, making use of the modern world’s most powerful storytelling vehicles: words, images and social media.
For the last month, the artist has been posting photos from a new series titled “I Could Not Protect Her.” Presented in typical Bahbah fashion, but departing from the glib tone, the series depicts an intensely personal journey of surviving sexual abuse.
The more sombre tone sensitively explores life after childhood trauma, yet the images retain the charm and fragile poignancy of stills from a vintage film. What could easily have been a heavy-handed and predictable show of pain, is treated – instead – with exceptional nuance and honesty.
Subdued suffering is portrayed through the protagonist’s surface-level insecurities, which spiral throughout the series as a result of past trauma. Bahbah’s heroine projects her fears of being the victim of unrequited love through flighty and irrational remarks, which ring true for anyone who has experienced love or insecurity. As viewers, we are allowed into the most intimate thoughts of the protagonist and conversations she has with her partner and friends, much like a fly on the wall.
Bahbah’s brave – and very public – confrontation of childhood trauma has allowed the artist to come to terms with her past, through the cathartic publishing of her work. “I am finally in a good place mentally,” she said in a powerful interview with TeenVogue. Having struggled through therapy for years, the transparency of her art, through the framework of what is essentially entertainment, has given her a voice she didn’t have before.
In the same interview, Bahbah detailed the way she was silenced when she was younger:
“As a child I remember everything was ‘a secret.’ I was constantly silenced by the manipulative notion of ‘you’re my favorite. Don’t tell anyone.’ More often than not, I was lured by material things in order to be alone with the predators. If any abuse was happening and witnessed, I was blamed for being inappropriate, because there’s no way ‘the man’ could be. […] Through my art I had begun to manifest freedom. My sole intent in my work and my being is to practice transparency of my emotions, and to express, express, express, as for so long I didn’t have a voice.”
Instagram has made it possible for Bahbah to heal; the use of it has provided her with a wide-reaching platform to access other like-minded people in her search for acceptance. The artist’s half a million follower count doesn’t lie: her message of suffering is universal.
That we’ve bulldozed the walls between our private and public lives is an oft-cited criticism of the social media age. But Bahbah’s art proves the internet offers a sanctuary where millennials can be true to themselves. If Instagram is a sea of illusions, it’s one in which we can indirectly face our deepest troubles.
The final scene of ‘I Could Not Protect Her’, written, shot and directed by me. Access into my inner dialogue, a story manifested in raw images. Released daily. Featuring @teething_tierra, @yomatisse, @gianninaoteto, @thegirlonthebike_ Associate producer: @lisamarieposso Stylist: @erikagolcher Set design: @lustandtheblackcat
Bahbah isn’t merely challenging the art establishment to accept work that’s freely shared online, she is also challenging the use of social media. Yes, there’s the edited and the photoshopped. To some extent or another, social media will always be a curated version of life. After all, we are free to pick and choose what we post. But we must also credit Instagram – and channels like it – for providing a platform where very real problems can finally be heard. We need to look no further than #MeToo – one of the biggest social media movements in history – to see the merit in these spaces. What was once brushed under the carpet is now being dealt with all over the feeds that we view on a daily basis.
Harnessing the bulldozed walls between public and private life in a positive way is what has made Bahbah’s work so popular. Her raw images – no doubt – make others feel less isolated and prove that Instagram is a place for authenticity.