LA-based, Melbourne-born artist Sarah Bahbah has built a career on provocation. At the age of 22, she received worldwide attention and praise for her striking print and digital photographs. She became a regular photographer for major magazines, international brands and high-profile artists, while remaining committed to expanding her personal portfolio. She just got released Dearest darlingher first autobiography and book on fine art – it weighs seven pounds – with more than 600 images from her nearly ten years of work as a photographer.
Again, Bahbah is only 22.
From a hotel room in Miami, she tells me that what people are most longing for right now is something that feels real and tangible, because we’re all so engrossed in our digital world. Most of us stare at a phone or computer screen for five hours a day, but those things don’t give us the same satisfaction as a good book. And Dearest darlingshe emphasizes, is extraordinarily beautiful.
“It’s heavy, it feels so good in your hands,” she explains. “This is the perfect time to let it go, because physically it feels good to touch, and in that I touch the fragility and rawness of emotions, and I hope the book evokes that memory in people to be in the moment. stay and get off their damn phones.
Dearest darling is first and foremost a collection of beautifully composed, strikingly lit images that speak the language of fashion campaigns and advertising. Boldly tinted, glossy and utterly gorgeous, they’re the intense and professional selfies we just wish we were taking. Her interest in multimedia and the combination of commerce and art led her to study creative advertising while in college, but her passions leaned towards music and photography. While in college, she began photographing music festivals, falling in love with the transience of live performance and the sheer power of capturing an irreproducible moment.
Her initial experimentation with manual techniques, including cellophane and burning the edges of photos, led her to develop Photoshop filters for entire photo albums. Those early images, including her collection The wild, illustrated Bahbah’s burgeoning desire to capture the exceptional in the everydayness of festivals. Instead of shooting the stage, she aimed her camera at the unusual, quirky, bold and expressive in attendance, capturing moments of unbridled joy or intimate embraces between couples and friends oblivious to the camera.
In 2016, Bahbah – named Nylon and Elite Daily’s “Best Instagrammer of the Year” – partnered with Butter, a fried chicken joint in Sydney, where she showcased her photos of naked women both in the restaurant and on the restaurant’s website . Nudity, sex, food, guilt, bodies, and the expectations (and limitations) placed on women’s appetites have been central themes in her work ever since.
Two years later, Bahbah’s eye for intimate moments, ephemeral beauty and the inseparable interweaving of commerce and art led her to Sex and Takeout, a playful take on the idea of indulgence, excess and guileless enjoyment. It was thrilling for me, as a woman herself, to see an image of a naked woman, her legs entangled as she sprawled across a huge bed, a takeaway pizza on her hip and an oversized slice of pizza dangling from her fingers . Imagine feeling so very satisfied. Imagine feeling so free to hang out naked and eat a big, greasy, delicious pizza all alone.
Or to do other things yourself. In her series Summer without pool, one image shows a woman with her hand squirming under the belt of her jeans, her pelvis tilted just so. The caption reads, “No one else will.”
Becoming her own subject
Bahbah caused a stir in the Middle East when she began to put herself in the spotlight in selfies and self-portraits in the media, along with captions about sexual desire and liberation in Arabic and English. She now lives in Hollywood and has worked on music videos for Kygo and campaigns for Gucci, Vogue, New York Times and Forbes.
Her transformation from eye behind the camera to the subject of her work has been organic, and with the publication of Dearest darling, Bahbah has created not only a compendium of her work to date, but also the most comprehensive album of her own personal and creative maturation. Yes, it’s visually appealing, but it’s definitely not the type of book you flip through idly. Bahbah’s work confronts sexual desire, repression and rejection as easily as it portrays her own lived experiences of sexual abuse, trauma and a childhood lost to fear and adult nurturing through visual symbolism and subtitles.
More than just a photo book
For an art book Dearest darling is a surprising amount of text, written in a mix of English and Arabic.
“I always start with the words,” explains Bahbah. “My art has become part of my therapy. I have anxiety and OCD, so my art has become a way for me to manage my emotions, and I create a sacred space for these emotions to exist. When I have an anxiety or OCD spiral, it’s the words that come out of my head one by one as I worry about my danger or my stock of stability. My art is an expression of coping, I think.”
Bahbah began composing images and composing text while she was in Australia’s mandatory quarantine program in Perth in late 2021. The concept for the book had been in her head for a long time, but the enforced isolation provided the space to start working on it.
“The National Gallery of WA invited me to exhibit [and] they negotiated with Singapore Airlines to fly me from LA to Singapore, Singapore to Perth,” she says. “Due to the mandatory quarantine, I had to stay in a hotel for two weeks, which was very lonely and scary. I had to give myself projects to stay distracted.”
Those two weeks gave her a chance to go through every hard drive she’d ever used, but another year passed before she finished the book—something Bahbah reminds me is an epic feat.
“There were seven months of editing, re-editing, sorting the order, writing forty-three pages of memoirs, and then working with a graphic designer [Italian-born, UK-based Raissa Pardini] on the cover and to reinforce the layout,” she explains. “Then I had to go through the legal process to make sure I had permission for all my creative talent and that everyone was paid. My deadline was for my birthday in November and I made it but I was burnt out and totally exhausted. Now I’m on tour and I’m still recovering.”
The artist’s journey from Australia to California
“I was born and raised in Perth, and when I was 21 I got a work promotion in advertising and moved to Melbourne and lived there for four years before moving to LA,” she says, as if an international move fresh out of college wasn’t big. agreement.
She won the green card lottery, then waited a year for confirmation – in “limbo” – but is now an official US resident.
“I went by intuition,” she muses, recalling that there was nothing specific about the City of Angels she interacted with. “But it was a calling; I knew I had to be there. I knew I had to move to America if I wanted to excel in my career. It was like ‘let’s go’.”
It took time to get used to LA’s unique culture, especially the contrast between Australia’s close-knit community, where visiting friends daily is typical, and LA’s business-first mentality. She eventually built a huge community, but it took years of being alone and lonely and pushing herself to create that consistency with friends in the form of traditions, movie nights, and Sunday brunches.
“It’s very, very rare for people to have that in LA if they’re not from there,” she muses. ‘It’s not something to see your friends every few days. In Australia we hung out, cooked together, and I wanted to create that for myself in LA.
Of course, the cultural differences between the US and Australia are small compared to the cultural differences between both countries and the Middle East. Bahbah’s Arab roots are not a topic she boldly explores, though she admits that living in America and Australia gives her the privilege of protection and being a creator in the Middle East would be a different story entirely. However, that doesn’t mean her work on sexuality and women’s empowerment doesn’t come from her roots and carry risks.
“I made a series in 2020 called 3ieb! what ‘shame’ means,” she explains. “3eib! in our culture is a word used to silence us and restrict our freedom as a woman. Every Arab girl has heard that. It trains us to be submissive, good Arab girls, but it didn’t work for me. I grew up in the Western world and was torn between my culture and Western culture. At home I was not Arabic enough for my family, and at school I was not Western enough for my peers. When I made ‘3eib’ I knew there was a risk. If it goes viral in the Middle East, I may not be allowed to enter the region.”
She says Dearest darling has been rejected at some customs checkpoints in the Middle East.
“It was called pornography, which is crazy to me,” says Bahbah. “It’s so tasteful and festive for women’s bodies. The system is run by a misogynistic patriarchy, so I want to use my art to give us a voice, to raise awareness of our oppression, so that one day we can be free.”