To her 559K Instagram followers, Sarah Bahbah needs no introduction; her dreamy cinematic stills, overlaid with pithy subtitles, have been peppering our feeds for as long as they’ve existed. “You’ve probably seen my art on someone else’s account,” reads her social media bio. But Bahbah is more than just a viral Instagram sensation — she’s an artist — one who melds photography and prose to explore the intricacies of the millennial female psyche.
Though her photographs are often isolated, plucked out of context by Instagram algorithms that defy comprehension, Bahbah’s images are sequential narratives that traverse the realities and fantasies of girl- and womanhood. From lighthearted lusting over chocolate and sex to tongue-in-cheek quips about fuckboys and feelings, Bahbah’s film-still storylines encapsulate life’s everyday moments, for better or worse. Many of them hint at the darker side of existence, with Bahbah drawing on her own personal struggles to speak about inadequacy, anxiety and loneliness. She’s recently opened up to Teen Vogue about surviving childhood abuse, and she’s been vocal about her battles with mental health in a bid to empower others and shed light on the darkness. It’s what makes her work so irrevocably resonant — funny, sexy and sad in equal measure, Bahbah’s wistful images combine the romance of foreign cinema with the tribulations of modern life to visceral effect.
Amid a minor media storm surrounding Selena Gomez’s alleged plagiarism of Bahbah’s work in her latest music video — a topic Bahbah is reluctant to talk about — and the opening of her first UK solo show at London’s Lawrence Alkin gallery, we catch up with the 26-year-old artist to talk about life, love and turning anguish into art.
Tell me about the work in ‘Splash’
The work focuses on my inner dialogue and what it means to be transparent within myself and my emotions. When you look at themes of the work you notice an inconsistency between wanting to be loved and fearing being loved, I do play a lot with the ambivalence of that. I also focus on heartbreak, love, pain and suffering and coming of age so all these you see across the work.
Where did the aesthetic come from — were you a Tumblr girl back in the day?
I’d say it was a combination of the things that were catching my attention on Instagram. A lot of that was the screenshots that were coming from film, foreign film especially. That’s also where the subtitles come from on Tumblr too. I was like ‘how can I challenge Instagram, how can I utilise the Instagram platform to curate a story that isn’t motion?’ and so I created a body of cinematic stills that appeared as though they came from film but weren’t, they were purely photographs. I wanted to be able to have one stand-alone piece that if people viewed it they would be able to associate it with their own experiences but then when you bring the body of work together, there’s a bigger story to tell. In motion we rely on watching the movement in order to tell the story but it’s the gap between each photo which allows the viewer to create their own ideas about what the work was about, and that was my signature. I am glad that I got to establish a style in that way.
So the fact that they’re often taken out of context — even just through Instagram’s algorithm — doesn’t bother you?
No, absolutely not. My intent is just to express, and if I am expressing myself and others are reading it and it is helping them express themselves then like all of this is good.
I think that’s why they’re so interesting and resonant, because they take on a new meaning within the context of the viewer’s own personal narrative.
The women in your images are beautiful and often vulnerable, but ultimately strong. How do you achieve this mood on set?
Everything is focussed on the energy of the shot, so the most important thing to me is that the woman profiled is feeling liberated and safe.
Your photography is obviously cinematic in essence or evocation, are you inspired by cinema directly?
I’m not so much a cinema person, actually, but I do appreciate and adore the works of the Cohen brothers. I’ve said this multiple times but The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men are visually so important for me — they’re so good.
Your work is often described as being brave — the themes of love and heartbreak to anxiety and mental health are all really brave things to talk about. Why has this been so central to your practice?
For so long I didn’t realise the power of vocalising your emotions. Growing up I was constantly dismissed for having any sense of emotion, whether it was positive or negative, and when I was experiencing my traumas I wasn’t necessarily heard. There was a lot of disassociation. By the time I reached adulthood, I had learned to be quite apathetic. And the thing with apathy is not that you don’t have emotions…
You’re not in touch with them…
Exactly, and you’re constantly dismissing them. Eventually it gets too much and you feel everything at once. It’s that feeling that’s inspired a lot of my work — when I was overwhelmed I started writing and then by writing I was creating and then by creating I was healing. By expressing myself through art I was giving myself a voice, and I think it’s important to do that because hopefully it empowers others to do the same.
Was it difficult for you to do that initially?
I think it came over time. If you look at my first series, which I started in 2015, you’ll notice that the works are a lot more innocent, and the themes are a lot more youthful and young essentially, and then as you move through the series through the years, the themes become a lot more intense and the emotions being expressed are a lot more serious.
Do you think that’s come with your own healing?
Yeah, definitely. I’ve spent the past two years trying to rewire the way my brain works, the way I eat and breathe. It’s been a long journey to healing, but also it’s been a wonderful one, and one that I’ve truly embraced. I do feel like I have come over a lot and I’m quite grateful for it.
What made you want to do the Teen Vogue article?
Staying silent about child sexual abuse is not doing society any favours. It’s a conversation that needs to be addressed more often — there are so many taboos around it and people are so uncomfortable talking about it. We’re all talking about the #MeToo movement, about adults and teenagers, but what about the kids? What about the kids who do not have a voice and do not know that they can talk about these things? I think it’s really important that these conversations are had, more than ever, and there are a lot of children that can be saved through that.
Yeah, definitely. Teen Vogue is moving in a great direction I just have to say.
Incredible, I’m so happy I got to do the feature, I couldn’t think of a better platform.
You said in the article that you schedule time to put your phone on airplane mode and be offline which is interesting since a big part of your practice exists online. Why has that been important to you? Do you think that Instagram and social media is breeding a generation of people which is more anxious or less attentive?
I think social media is essentially another way of us distracting ourselves from reality, so when I put my phone on airplane mode it’s so I can check in with myself and bring myself back to my surroundings. Because people are constantly using their phones as a mode of escape and not actually being with themselves and they’re not giving themselves time to feel what they’re feeling. It’s essentially disassociating in the same way we binge-watch television shows, or drink alcohol or do drugs. I think our phones are no different from that — it’s just another way to disassociate from reality. My intent behind airplane mode is to sleep peacefully and not have distractions when I wake up.
Other than ‘Splash’, what projects have you been working on?
Well, I’m currently writing a TV show. I’ve been working on it for a year now — I can’t really talk about the details too much. I don’t just do photography, I create in general, I see myself as a creative, so I think this TV show is just another layer of expressing myself. And, though for now we’re just focussing on Splash in London, we may potentially bring it to Milan, Berlin and Amsterdam but that’s yet to be decided.
Bring it to Berlin, that’s where we’re based.
Okay, I will work on that, I love Berlin so much.
Sarah Bahbah’s ‘Splash’ is on display at Lawrence Alkin Gallery, Mayfair until 22nd June.