You’ve probably seen her art on someone else’s account…
When I leave Sarah Bahbah – the brains behind this genius Instagram account – I feel as if I’ve grasped just a spark of the explosive energy that drives her burgeoning creative power. Known for her fearless photography style, she’s in London on account of the Saatchi Gallery’s START Fair, where her work is being displayed until Sunday. Running her own creative ad agency, she projects her vision beyond the world of art and won’t let an opportunity to spread her message slip through; hence our semi-impromptu chat.
Earlier in the day, she tells me, she was “writing empowering words” over some snaps for a Topshop campaign, elsewhere while in town the LA-based Australian native has squeezed some LFW shows in, to “hang out with friends” before flying to Rome next week. At 25, the photographer has not only gathered a cult-like Insta following – 294k and counting – but is making a serious stride in the art world with three upcoming exhibitions set for autumn 2017 alone.
Amongst her muses – which she finds through her favourite social media platform – are Neels Visser and Adesuwa AIghewi, plus Wonderbabe Cailin Russo, who features in This Is Not For You. Five years on since Sex and Takeout catapulted her into the limelight, Sarah’s art has matured into an equally thought-provoking conversation about women’s sexuality and self-censorship. Her most recent series, portraits of women indulging in food, alcohol and sex, include witty captions and dialogue that leaves the viewer to wonder whether they are screenshots from an indie feminist film or Riri’s latest video clip. Although anxious about “talking too much”, Sarah’s conversation is such that finding out about her art feels like chatting with my gals about boys and horoscopes.
How did you first get into photography?
My background is actually creative advertising. I was doing art as a subject in school and I used my sister’s professional camera to photograph the subjects that I was going to paint. Even though I enjoyed my school work, I realised I wanted to capture moments faster. So I got into film photography and started a blog called Raised By The Wolves. I photographed my friends for fun and it started picking up. People told me “Can I pay you to do this shit?”. So I got into music photography and went to festivals, either with a band or as Raised By The Wolves; I was trying to catch people having fun.
And how has your style evolved since you started shooting? How did you find your signature?
I started shooting film for the fun side of things. I never took it to festivals. I had a Pentax K1000, I think. But then in 2009, when I realised it wasn’t convenient, I thought of how to maintain that style and crafted my own aesthetic and signature. I want people to be able to tell “that’s Sarah Bahbah’s photo” so I always try and maintain that film style but in terms of convenience I only shoot digital these days. It’s all post-production.
You mentioned Raised By The Wolves. Why the name change?
I didn’t really want to be referred to as a blogger anymore. I wanted to be referred to as an artist! So the second I gave up the music photography and started to do more refined projects it didn’t make sense to be Raised By The Wolves.
Like many of your fans, I found you on Instagram. What’s your relationship with Instagram?
I worked for social media agencies for five years before starting my own agency. During that time I was doing social media for 7-Eleven and Slurpee. Working with such brands, I really learned how to speak to audiences of 13 to 17 years-old and make viral content for them; that really influenced my technique subconsciously.
Social media, more generally, has definitely influenced my execution. I came up with the captions series after seeing people post screenshots of films on Tumblr. I thought “What if I could express myself strongly through a body of work that looks like a film but stands alone as a photo series?”. People call my series “classy memes”. It’s hilarious. At first I thought “fuck you” but then I realised they’re right.
Your series frequently have a strong cinematic feel to them – they seem to have distinct characters and a strong story line. What’s the process behind creating a new series?
I started the series in 2015 with Summer Without a Pool. I kept internalizing moments with significant others and it’s the unspoken dialogue that became a part of the art.
If I was mad at someone or walked away regretting something, I’d sit there in my bed or in the shower pondering over the things I could have said or I wish I had said. Over a period of six months or a year, I accumulated these thoughts in my phone’s notes. I don’t even have a lock on my phone so if anyone found this they’d be like “this bitch is crazy!”.
How do you match words and images? Do you shoot or do you write the storyline first?
Before shooting, I’ll know the scenes that I want and I kind of have an idea of the words but I won’t really know which photos and lines I’m matching until the final moment. My process is to have the lines on my phone first. Some lines, not all. Then I do the shoot, kind of knowing where I’m going. I pick my favourite pics from the shoot, I print them out. I lay them out. I write the words on a separate stream and use Blu Tack to match them to the photos. And then I move everything around until it makes sense. So things are quite unpredictable.
I thought I love you me neither was going to be a positive series about a girl falling in love and it working out really well. But then in the mood that I was in – it ended up being about a girl who was confused and needy. She has someone in her life. They’re not giving her what she wants but they’re still keeping her close enough. So she’s confused. She’s like “What am I doing wrong?”. The feeling of wanting to be with someone but not being given enough. That’s the mood I was in when creating.
Your work centres around very intimate moments. How can other people relate to these?
I don’t create with the direct intent to be relatable. I think I just try to stay honest with myself and my emotions and I say the things we all wish we could say but never do. Everyone is sitting in their room over-thinking. Everyone is wallowing over someone. I just put it up there. Why stay quiet about this? Transparency is the key to emotional freedom. If you’re transparent with yourself and explain your feelings to other people then you’re free because you’re being as real and true to yourself as possible. That’s what I try to do with my work and I encourage other people to do it too with their life. Most of us will rather sit on our insecurities and eat our fucking minds out than say what we feel, what we really feel.
Strong minded female characters come up a lot. Can you tell me more about the message you’re trying to get across with these?
There are three things I like to focus on. The first is empowering women to not have self-censorship. If there is something you want to do, do it. My work is about being outspoken about feelings that society ignores or silences. In my work, I say things like “I just want to lay here and cry while someone fucks me.” If a woman says that to a man, then she’s “crazy”. In For Arabella, the heroine says “I’m your beauty queen, you’re just my dick.” These aren’t things women typically say but they should be able to if they want to. And it’s not that I’m encouraging women to be rude or disrespectful, I’m simply saying it’s absolutely ok to say what you want.
The second thing is I want women to be able to indulge. Indulging in food, indulging in their bodies, indulging in sex and life.
The third thing, as we spoke about, is transparency. Being true to your emotions.
I grew up in Australia but I’m Palestinian and I was brought up in a very traditional Middle-Eastern family. My parents were strict. When they see my work they cry and say “You’re not my daughter”. It goes against how they raised me. I think because I grew up with all these limitations I just want to say “fuck your rules!”. Your traditions cannot tame me. That’s not right. I think it’s all suppressed anger or something, I can’t figure it out. I love my parents though.
How do you deal with your parents not liking your work?
We’ve come to the agreement that if we want our moments to be affectionate and loving, then we do not speak about my work – because they will never agree to it. We agree to disagree.
There are some references to Rihanna in your work. Is she a source of inspiration?
She’s my idol! I don’t have any role models except Rihanna. And Grace Jones, she’s incredible. And Kendrick Lamar.. And Issa Rae. What inspiring humans.
Is there anyone you’d dream of shooting?
Riri. She’s on my list. There’s people I want to work with. I wouldn’t mind doing a video for Kendrick Lamar. I direct commercials sometimes.
Your work is on display at START this weekend. What’s different about sharing art on Instagram and exhibiting in a gallery?
In exhibitions I stand on the sidelines and get to hear the “comments” in real life. People don’t know what I look like, so they never expect me to interject when they are making their comments. It’s fun.
And so finally, what’s coming up next?
I’m writing two TV shows and one book. The book is about human connection and the people I’ve met in LA. It’s basically a guide to identifying the type of relationships you’re in. I’ve figured out this whole thing but I don’t want to go too much into it! I will get it finished soon, maybe towards the end of the year. I also have a new photos series with Dylan Sprouse coming out soon!
Wanna see it for yourself? START Art Fair is on until Sunday; full ticket details here.