Sarah Bahbah, a 26-year-old Australian-born, Palestinian artist famous for her emotionally-provocative, subtitled photos on Instagram, made headlines for two reasons last week: 1. She debuted her first solo show in London following the release of her new series of work, I Could Not Protect Her and 2. The very loud murmurs that Selena Gomez copied Bahbah’s artistic style in her music video “Back to You”.

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In a statement to ELLE.com, Bahbah responded directly to the claim Gomez stole her style.

For years, I have been very vocal about the inspiration behind adding subtitles on series. I don’t claim to own the use of subtitles on images, but it’s definitely a signature of my work that has established me in this industry.

My recognizable style of work has allowed me to collaborate with music labels, media publications, fashion brands, and celebrities—all of which were interested in working with me because of my photography style, use of subtitles and raw story telling. It’s become somewhat of an industry standard that I am the “go-to” for this type of style.

That being said, as she sees it, she’d rather shift the discussion to child sexual abuse:

My focus right now is bringing light to a very important issue to me–the taboos that need to be broken around child sexual abuse. See my most recent series (I Could Not Protect Her) as well as my interview with Teen Vogue that dives into the issue. Unfortunately recent events have overshadowed this message.

I’m flattered that so many have referenced me in Selena’s latest work, and would love to collaborate with Gomez on a special project in the future.

Bahbah is a survivor of abuse and in her Teen Vogue interview, opened up about her experience coping as a child and young adult. Bahbah also shared a raw, personal poem she wrote and read live to her followers at the conclusion of her I Could Not Protect Her series.

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The reaction to her going public about her experience has made the vulnerability worth it, Bahbah told ELLE.com. “Having my head and heart so exposed is definitely scary, but the way it is being received tells me that I am made the right decision,” she said. “The publicity of my childhood sexual abuse has helped other survivors come to terms with their experience, and in some cases other survivors have also vocalized their pain. This solidarity gives me strength and has helped me to find some sort of worth in my story.”

Here, Bahbah discusses how she hopes her work inspires others, how she heals from her art, and what’s next.

How do you hope your work inspires people?

I am really explicit about my intentions for transparency—but not just transparency in our words but also in our actions and our emotions. I hope my work inspires people to engage more with their heart and to find strength in vulnerability. I especially want to support women in taking pride over our emotions and pleasure. I want to see women feeling comfortable in owning their desires and indulgences. Simply put, I hope my work inspires emotional freedom.

A portrait of Bahbah.

Sarah Bahbah

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How has your art helped you personally heal?

Each series encapsulates my experiences with specific traumas and trouble. The things that I discuss in my art do not happen at random. The things that I discuss in my art are issues that I have been working through. By presenting it so neatly and romantically, it helps me clarify and recognize what I have experienced. It helps me come to terms with the course of my life.

Sarah Bahbah

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Where do you find your inspiration for themes?

The themes that I work with are inspired from a real place, learnt on the back of living. After a lifetime of dissociation, I have learnt to completely immerse myself in whatever situation I am experiencing, be it good or bad. This could look like attaching myself to people who I know won’t be good for me, experiencing great highs, knowing very well that with it will also bring deep lows. I can’t romanticize logic, and subjectivity helps me create. It sounds tragic and romantic, but I feel more inspired when I am wholeheartedly experiencing everything this world has to offer. And in doing so, this stimulates my conceptualization.

Sarah Bahbah

It’s not just the emotionally provocative images that make your work so moving. It’s the power and simplicity of the dialogue you use on your photos, too. How do you settle on the words you ultimately choose?

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I put a lot of my energy in being aware and experiencing my emotions. I take all of this in until I have the space to completely reflect on everything. Once I am in this space, my creative hits me all at once. So I guess, the production of my art comes from quite a concentrated place. I will sit for hours and days, just conceptualizing and writing. Line after line, I release all the energy that I had been nursing. The words I settle on are matched to the mood of each photo and the narrative of the whole series. They sort of just jump out to me, seeming to make the most sense. Although choosing the words comes easy, the entire experience of creation is not.

Sarah Bahbah

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You opened your first solo show in London last Thursday. How did that come about?

The last time I was in London I exhibited at Saatchi Gallery, which was a goal for me. Late last year I decided represent myself as an artist. This meant leaving behind my gallery representatives and taking charge of my own direction. This decision has led me to take on my solo shows, and last year I exhibited my first solo show through Art Basel Miami, LA, and NY. It has all been a super surreal experience. Listening to my intuition has led me out of America and into the UK and Europe! There is something really exciting about putting my faith in the uncertain.

Sarah Bahbah

How has your life changed as you’ve become more Instagram-famous?

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I am truly blessed to make a living from creating. Being able to create art full time has made my life more fluid. It is more fitting to my true state of self. I don’t really associate my happiness to my success on Instagram. I have spent the past two years in serious introspective healing and establishing positive routines, and my art has helped me through that. Instagram is the platform in which I present my work and express myself, but Instagram in itself is not my world.

Sarah Bahbah

People take inspiration from your artistic style on their own Instagrams. How do you feel about the imitation?

Most of the time I receive acknowledgements and shout-outs for inspiring other people’s work. And sometimes I don’t. Either way, I think it is flattering.

Sarah Bahbah

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What legacy do you hope your work sets for art presented on Instagram?

It would be cool to see artists reimagining the way art is presented on Instagram—going beyond the content of art itself and playing with the way the art is presented. Instagram can be really energy-consuming, but it also lends itself to being a really dynamic way of engaging with the audience. On the other end, I hope the audience can continue to respect the art that is presented on Instagram. The ease of accessing constant content can be quite desensitizing, but we should all actively try give credit where credit is due.

Sarah Bahbah

Is there anything you can tease about the next series you’re planning and the themes you plan to explore?

It’s not photos, let’s just say that.

You can follow Bahbah’s work at @sarahbahbah on Instagram and learn more about purchasing prints and her next exhibits on her site.



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