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Finding humanity among ruin

The Harvest House Tour in Sherborn this Sunday, which benefits the town library, includes a Colonial with two golf greens and a vintage car collection. The Harvest House Tour in Sherborn this Sunday, which benefits the town library, includes a Colonial with two golf greens and a vintage car collection.

One photograph captures a young, veiled Muslim woman in Lebanon listening to her iPod. The next shows the women of Hezbollah as they pause mid-rally in Beirut to kneel and pray. Yet another catches a mother smiling at her toddler's wobbling early steps - taken in front of a rubble-filled backdrop of destruction wrought by the 2006 Lebanon War.

Since 2002, Watertown photographer Rania Matar has pointed her lens at what she calls "the complexities" of life in her native country, and arts institutions worldwide are beginning to take note. Awards are piling up, museums are purchasing her work, and in addition to having her images exhibited on four continents, her photographs are currently featured in two local group shows.

But getting to this point was nothing the 43-year-old mother of four ever imagined aiming for. Nor was it easy or safe. In her pursuit of the full picture, Matar has found herself working her way into the confidence of the militant group Hezbollah, sharing strangers' most painful moments, and fleeing the war via a harrowing high-speed cab ride.

"Until 2002, I was an architect and I was doing fine arts photography as a hobby - just portraits, still lifes, and the like," she said. But a chance visit to the Shatila Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut changed that.

"I was so shocked and appalled by the conditions I saw there that I returned and just started photographing and I never went back to architecture," she said. "It was really a turning point for me."

First, though, there was a delay. It took Matar a full year to "get over" the emotional toll of visiting Shatila, and only then did she return with her camera in her hands and the words of former Life Magazine photo editor Peter Howe in her head.

"I met him and he told me, 'You have to get close up. If you want to help these people, you have to get right in their faces,' " she said. "But getting the close-up shot is not always the easiest shot. In the beginning, a woman might start to cry and I would just put the camera down. Finally though, I realized that people did not mind me being there."

Working through nongovernmental organizations also gave Matar better access to camp residents, and through repeated visits, she earned their trust.

"I always gave people the photographs I took, and I always returned, so they'd know I wasn't just there to take something and leave," said Matar. "Later, I was able to go into people's homes and get pretty in-depth photos of their lives. My photographs became much more intimate, and it's those later photographs that I tend to show."

Those black-and-white images have also caught the eye of curators like Leslie Brown of Boston University's Photographic Resource Center, who was the first to show Matar's work.

"The kind of photographer that Rania is doesn't come around often," said Brown. "The quality and the light and the way she sees the delicate things that she does and tells these stories that need to be told is what makes her work so important."

Over time, Matar has widened her perspective to life outside the camps, documenting the resurgence of the veil for Muslim women as well as the Lebanon war. And always her focus is on the unexpected and the personal - be it the look of anticipation as a woman veiled head-to-foot awaits a Botox treatment for around her eyes, or the quiet grief of widows mourning the war dead.

"My work doesn't have a particular message. I'm just there to document the moment," said Matar.

While on a book assignment during supposed peaceful times, Matar found herself caught up in the 2006 "July War" - with her four children in tow.

"I arrived in Lebanon on July 12th at night and I woke up on July 13th and the airport was closed and the war was going on. It was horrible," said Matar.

Matar's family piled into two rented cabs and fled via the road to Damascus.

"It was very scary. The road had been bombed the day before and it was bombed the day after. It was eerily quiet. There was not one other car on the road, and the driver was just speeding like crazy. I really fell apart," she said. "I'm not a war photographer. All that mattered then was getting my kids out."

But after returning to Watertown and getting her children settled into school like any other parent, Matar went back to photograph the war's aftermath.

"There was so much destruction that you almost became numb to it. So I focused instead on how quickly people returned to reconstruction," she said. "I photographed a shoe salesman, and there he was with his shoes back out on stands again except that everything around him was destroyed. It was humbling seeing people pulling back to life like that."

"A lot of people when they photograph wars, they photograph corpses . . . ," she said. "But I think there's a beauty in showing the humanity of people."

Mater's images are featured in "In Sights," an exhibition of work by the 10 recipients of the 2007 Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Fellowships, as well as at the 2007 New England Photography Biennial, which awarded her one of the show's two Purchase Prizes. Her online portfolio is at raniamatar.com.

"In Sights" Sept. 11-Nov. 18 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown. Opening reception 5:30-7:30 p.m. Sept. 18. Hours: noon-8 p.m. Wed.-Sun. Admission free. Call 617-923-0100 or visit arsenalarts.net.Also: The 2007 New England Photography Biennial through Oct. 28 at The Danforth Museum of Art, 123 Union Ave., Framingham. Admission $8, students/senior $7. Call 508-620-0050 or visit danforthmuseum.org.

YOU CHOOSE WHO DUNNIT: Did Jasper do in his nephew? Or did Neville off his romantic rival? Or did some other shady character snuff out poor Edwin Drood? The answer is one of literature's great unanswered questions. That's because the author of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," Charles Dickens, died before he finished writing it. Fortunately, those bust-out-into-song Broadway types seized on this one in 1986 and turned it into a Tony Award-winning musical where the audience decides who the culprit is each night.

"It's never the same because the ending changes every night. It all depends on who the audience says is guilty," said Russell R. Greene of Waltham, who is directing Turtle Lane Playhouse's production of the show in Newton.

"We're performing the piece as if it's the first time that the musical theater troupe has ever put on the show. So we have this musical theater dramatic hell kind of thing going on," he said.

Adding to the fun, choreographer Jennifer Condon has beefed up the dance numbers and seating is cabaret-tyle with tables and drink service.

"The Mystery of Edwin Drood" Friday-Oct. 14 at Turtle Lane Playhouse, 283 Melrose St., Newton. Tickets: $25; senior and student discounts. Call 617-244-0169 or visit turtlelane.org.

A HARVEST OF HOMES: Last year's tour went so well that the Friends of the Sherborn Library once again are leading décor-ophiles and architecture hounds on the second Harvest House Tour of the town's most interesting homes. From a sprawling 55-acre estate with grounds designed by the Olmsted brothers to a brick Colonial with its own two golf greens, each stop also features snacks and flower arrangements by local florists. Proceeds benefit library programs.

Sherborn Harvest House Tour, 1-5 p.m. Sunday, departing from Sherborn Library, 4 Sanger St. Tickets at library $35 in advance, $40 day of. 508-647-9082.

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