Barely two weeks after the Covid-19 pandemic emerged, Lebanese-born American photographer Rania Matar began contemplating how this new, universal human reality might be viewed through a photographic lens. The resulting series, On Either Side of the Window: Portraits During Covid-19, will be exhibited at Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Florida from 16 January. 

What began as a series of the artist’s friends at home soon became a community-wide project in which Matar captured portraits of more than 100 people in Massachusetts who agreed to pose for her. She photographed figures behind doors and windows, capturing the intimacy, beauty, anxiety and rhythm of daily life in quarantine. It’s a series of conflicting themes: interior and exterior; solitude and community; reality and artificiality; uncertainty and monotony. 

 Portraits During Covid-19
Rania Matar, Minty, Kayla, Leyah, Layla, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2020. Image courtesy of the Artist

Matar’s work delves into the duality of personal and shared identity. These themes are often transported through powerful photographs of female adolescence and womanhood, both in the United States where she is based and in her native Middle East.

The exhibition brings together a selection of 27 new works, each narrating a nuanced story of individuality, collectivity and connectivity during extraordinary times. 

Rania Matar, Cyrus, Brookline, Massachusetts, 2020
Rania Matar, Cyrus, Brookline, Massachusetts, 2020. ’Cyrus identifies as non-binary, Queer and Persian-American. I loved how he stood in his red shirt that matched the red flowers outside. He had balloons inside celebrating his birthday and Pride week,’ says Matar. Image Courtesy of the Artist

‘It feels as if the news is always dividing us as “them v/s us”, and now here we are a “we”: all in this together, in the same boat, with life at a standstill and reduced to the confinement of home,’ says Matar. ‘This virus is such an equaliser, making us all re-evaluate our shared humanity, our fragility, and our priorities.’

Matar’s series captures an era in which our domestic spaces have become both sanctuary and prison. Her subjects, like many of us, are existing on the periphery of a world – one to look at, but not to touch. Symbolism is carried through the window itself: a transparent barrier that protects and inhibits; a tool to frame, reflect and shield. Most poignantly, the series captures the striking variety that can emerge from a universally lived experience. §

 Portraits During Covid-19,
Rania Matar, Lucy, Boston, Massachusetts, 2020. ’Kids were all home during the early days of Covid-19 and the lockdown. Families were at home together, with kids being homeschooled and parents working from home and playing teachers, Matar explains. ’It was important for me in this project to include families, kids, and a variety of age groups as we were all in this together’. Image Courtesy of the Artist.
 Portraits During Covid-19
Rania Matar, Linda, Watertown, Massachusetts, 2020. Image courtesy of the Artist