Keeping it 100 With Sarah Bahbah
If you’re not familiar with Sarah Bahbah and her inner-narrative subtitled photographs, you’re sleeping. The artist—who’s based in Los Angeles because she’s a self-described “sun baby”—has been creating versions of the series she’s now famous for since 2015, when “Summer Without a Pool” launched her into the international Instagram spotlight. Since then, Bahbah has continued to create art that reflects the inner female dialogue, earning her movement of explorative narration a cult following, within the photography community and beyond. For our last installment of the Keeping it 100 series, we sat down with Bahbah to talk honest dialogue, her first FUJIFILM camera, and where she’s headed next (hint: it goes beyond the stills she’s become so famous for).
What was your experience with FUJIFILM like before this? Have you tried any of their other cameras?
Yes actually, last time I was in Milan my friend had I think the FUJIFILM X100, but it’s the more expensive model, I think the body is like $1,300 or something, but we just frolicked around Milan at night time and the photos felt like film, but it was just point and shoot. It was super easy, it was compact, and I ended up loving the photos so I was actually going to buy that camera, and then you guys hit me up with this opportunity, and I was like alright I’ll see how this one is! So it was kind of serendipitous, I would say.
That’s kind of what everybody’s been saying, that the Film Simulation stuff is amazing, which is great. Do you normally shoot film or digital?
I actually started with film and then I moved into digital maybe a year or two into my photography career. I found digital just far more convenient for the work I was doing and I had really tight turnarounds so the whole purpose of my style kind of developed over time, but I wanted it to appear as if it was film but it was actually shot on digital.
Yeah, I feel like film has that kind of authenticity to it; it feels so raw and in the moment and obviously you can’t tweak it as much as you can digital, so it’s a little more untouched.
What did you like most about the new X-T100? How did it help you capture your vision?
My ultimate objective with shooting is ensuring the talent feels comfortable, and the environment feels raw and real. The compact nature of the FUJIFILMX-T100 allowed for the shoot to feel more candid and comfortable as the camera fit in the palm of my hand yet had all the necessary functionalities of a larger DSLR. The typical high pressure scenarios of shooting was eliminated as the camera isn’t “intense” and big. It’s easy settings and functionality to create, gave for more creative freedom and flexibility then usual, and created a scene for myself and the talent to feel as though we were just having a casual hangout.
Tell us a little bit about the photos.
The talent (who wishes to be unnamed) pictured has never been in front of the camera for a “photoshoot” before. I met the talent a year ago, and I have begged her to let me shoot her. She finally said yes. We met at my neighbors house for breakfast and conversation, and the shoot happened organically after that.
So, do you live in LA full time now?
Yeah, I do. I was bicoastal for like two years. I was between LA and New York, but I officially settled in LA this year like three months ago.
How are you liking it so far?
I love it. I’ve spent more time in LA than I have New York. I think I’m a sun baby, and I just need to be around blue sky all the time, otherwise I get really sad.
How do you feel like your environment affects your creative process, or what you’re working on and how you feel inspired?
I would say the things that inspire me most is usually the sun, when the sun is out, I think I am mostly inspired by color. I love playing with blues, I love playing with reflection and the warmth of the sun on someone’s skin. In terms of the visual aesthetic, I would say being in LA my work has really shifted to be more summery than anything else. Especially in one of my series, “I love you me neither”, that was one shot all in LA and it was the perfect summer day and I guess when we were shooting it made me really want to put her in front of trees and then get a bit of the sky in the background and then have a pool in it and I guess you can really see that in the work.
So you obviously have such a signature style that resonates with so many people, but how did you get started making the subtitled photo series?
So I started that series in 2015. I was scrolling through Instagram and the things that were catching my eye the most were the screenshots from films that had the subtitles underneath, so I thought how cool would it be to challenge the Instagram platform to create stories that appeared as if they came from film but they were actually stills. So I decided to create my first story, which was “Someone without a pool”, and my goal was to have each still stand alone so people could see it and interpret it based on their experiences, but then when you bring the work together, it’s a bigger story. In photos you see the expressions and the words, but people are constantly projecting so when they read it they are only going to know how to compare it to their own experiences. So even if it means something to me, it’s going to mean something completely different to someone else and I really was inspired by that idea, so that is how it came about.
What is it like speaking with people who react to your work and have a whole new interpretation or understanding that you didn’t necessarily think of when you were making it?
I think it’s really special to hear other perspectives, because in my mind I read it and it means so much about a relationship I’m experiencing and then to them it’s like, “Oh, this reminds me of something my mother would say to me.” I just think it’s really special that we can all interpret based on our own experiences and our own emotions.
I was reading about your focus on the inner dialogue of the female experience and I’m curious what drew you to that subject matter. Why do you feel like it’s important to highlight the female experience?
I think for me I grew up in a very traditional Middle Eastern household, and I was constantly silenced for expressing myself. As I grew older I still had those habits to not speak up about things that were bothering me, and it wasn’t working for me. I realized it wasn’t working, and so I began to write a lot of my feelings down and express in other ways, and then I kind of brought the two together. I was like wouldn’t it be special to be able to put my inner dialogue onto photos and then put it out there, because these are all the things that we’re too afraid to say. In doing so, I’ve been told it’s encouraged a lot of young women especially to do the same and just be transparent with their thoughts and their emotions. Because we’ve all been conditioned to be these picture perfect women who are kind of just standing around being beautiful, and we have so much in us and we are so powerful. If we just felt safe to express, then we would feel so much emotional freedom. I guess that was a big part of it. I just wanted to feel freedom in my words and my thoughts and my indulgences.
Has it been a cathartic experience for you these past few years?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s really evolved the way I communicate, as well, with the people in my life. I feel like I’ve removed the walls that limited me and now I’ve created a safe space within myself to express. If the things I’m expressing aren’t accepted, it has nothing to do with me. I can’t take it personal. For me, I’m only going to feel liberated if I’m constantly expressing and then if the other person isn’t receiving it in a way that’s conventional, then it has nothing to do with me.
How do you hope to encourage girls who might be absorbing your work and are in a similar situation where they feel like they can’t express themselves?
I think by me putting it out there so publicly, I’ve given myself permission to do that. So when people, young girls especially, are sharing the images, they’re also giving themselves permission to express. Even if they’re not saying it directly, the fact that they’re still sharing the work.. It’s a gradual progression between using other people’s words and eventually using your own. It takes time for everyone.
So for this FUJIFILM project, our focus is authenticity in your work. How do you feel like you are able to pursue that with your work as a whole?
With the project, I am going to be taking the camera with me to Positano. I’m on vacation at the moment and I’m doing my own writing project, so I’ll be with two people I consider my soulmates, actually three, and I imagine I’m just gonna not plan any of the shots and just capture them kind of in the moment. I think being present and mindful is being authentic so that’s how the two will play.
Cool. Who’s really inspiring you in the world of photography right now? Either in your own personal world or the industry as a whole.
Xavier—I met Xavier by the beach with mutual friends one sunset in Malibu. We met when I was going through a difficult time, in my vulnerable state, I opened up to him without many limitations, and it created such a strong foundation for our friendship. Xavier gets it. His work is wonderful and his being is inviting and inspiring—much like Sulem and Grant.
I met these two through Instagram DM. Sulem and I were chatting years before we met over our mutual love for artist Leon Bridges. I met up with Grant for coffee a year ago, and since have had him by my side assisting on shoots for Gucci, Conde Nast and the likes.
The common denominator with these three is their drive and ambition, vivacious hearts and desire to push boundaries and constantly create AMAZING work. I love their souls and their creative eyes.
Awesome. So my last question is just looking ahead to the rest of the year, what are you excited about? What do you have coming up?
I am currently doing a working vacation, so I’m in the midst of writing a treatment for my TV show that I’ve been working on for the past year, and that’s something I’m extremely excited about. It is definitely a new step from photography, but I’m having so much fun with it. It’s based on my alter ego so I get to really explore my imagination. It’s super fun! I’m going to be continuing with my solo exhibitions, and ending the year in Miami for Art Basel week.
“Keeping It 100” is a series in partnership with FUJIFILM North America
Stay tuned for more from our “Keeping It 100” series for the FUJIFILM X-T100