On a Friday night in New York City's Lower East Side, Castle Fitzjohns Gallery was packed with cliques of young women. Each huddled together with their smartphones in tow as they stood in front of separate photographs by Sarah Bahbah for her latest exhibition "Fuck Me, Fuck You." The series is displayed as perfectly framed, square-shaped images of up-and-coming models Adesuwa Aighewi, Julia Morrison and Sonia Ben Ammar, set in cinematic-style scenes — a night out, at home — complete with a subtitle of dialogue. Chances are, those who were taking photos of Bahbah's work have seen it before, most likely on Instagram, and chances are they've already posted more of it on that very same platform.
"Each series I do focuses on capturing my internal dialogue, which is essentially my overthinking brain," says Bahbah, who's based in Los Angeles by way of Australia. "I have a problem with ambivalence. I'm constantly hot and cold with my relationships. And that kind of dialogue inside of my brain is what you see in the art. Adding the dialogue onto the photos is me capturing the things I wish I said or I actually said to a significant other."
And while Bahbah's signature style is a meme-worthy medium for the internet-addicted era, it's her provocative-yet-personal material that strikes a chord with her viewers. Haven't you sung Rihanna lyrics in the mirror before? Or shared love advice with your best girlfriend? How about having to sit through a "bullshit conversation"? "I don't really have a direct inspiration," says Bahbah. "I just use my experiences and what I'm going through to create the work."
Although Bahbah has been shooting photography for the past decade, her creative career actually started in advertising. While she was working for ad agencies, she maintained a blog called Raise By the Wolves, starting with documenting music festivals on film. Eventually, she ended up garnering clients and pursued photography full-time, as well as swapping her film camera for digital in order to keep up with so many deadlines. Since 2015, her photography has been on display at galleries and art fairs around the world.
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While her exhibition is on view in New York (with a few stops in Europe to come), we chatted with Bahbah over the phone about collaborating with fashion brands, her creative process and personal style, and who she'd love to work with next.
You recently did an online campaign for Gucci's Guilty Absolute fragrance. What was that like?
That was the first time I actually attached my art to a fashion brand. The reason why I was so willing to do so is because I really respect what Alessandro [Michele] and the Gucci team are doing. They're constantly willing to work with young artists. They're really breaking down the rules in the fashion world and I think that's highly commendable.
Are you planning to do more collaborations with fashion brands in the future?
The reason why I've become more open to the fashion side of things — I've been to a few fashion weeks in Milan, Paris and New York — is because fashion has such a strong influence. I've been reached out by a lot of brands to do collaborations, and my attendance at fashion week is how I gauge which brands I want to work with or which ones I want to put on my goal list to collaborate with. I have a really small goal list right now and I'm so glad I got to work with Gucci because they were on the top of that list. In the past, I haven't really been open to [collaborations] because I didn't want to compromise with a brand's needs but I think collaborating now is actually helping expand the messages I'm trying to portray in my work, so I'm much more open to it now than I've ever been.
How would you describe your personal style? What brands are you into right now?
When I look at my wardrobe, it's predominantly vintage designer pieces. I'm not really into fast fashion because of the environmental effects it has, so I steer clear of that. I'm obsessed with Squaresville in Los Feliz. It's a vintage store, but they have designer consignment and I found this beautiful Valentino dress and a YSL button-up. Every time I walk in there, I'll always find something different. I've collected so much over the years just going to that store. I guess that’s my personal style. I just like to collect vintage pieces, and if they're designer it’s a bonus.
But I really do love Valentino and Gucci. I have a handful of Gucci bags and Chanel and I really like Burberry. I think Coach is making a huge comeback right now. I was just at their office in New York and the pieces for the next season are incredible and I cannot wait to get my hands on a few of those dresses.
Your artwork has a very fashion-adjacent aesthetic to it. What's the creative process behind who you shoot and the styling?
I pick my talent based on who I've been stalking on Instagram for a while or who's reached out to me and been like, "Hey, we should work together." That's how I came across Adesuwa [Aighewi] and Julia [Morrison], who are in "For Arabella." I usually meet up with the talent prior to shooting just to see if we have a connection and I'll tell them the story I'm working on and see if they can resonate. I don't really look at them as models. I look at them as people who play the characters that I have mind. Julia, for instance, she's an actor, so she really channels Arabella the way I was seeing her. I think "For Arabella" is my strongest series.
In terms of styling, fashion plays a huge role in capturing an era that I wish to express. I'm constantly inspired by pieces that are timeless and I really like to channel the Parisian-chic look or Kate-Moss-in-the-'90s vibe. So you can never quite put a finger on the decade it was shot. I like that about it. I like that my series feel timeless and people can resonate with them no matter what year it is.
So who are you following on Instagram now that you really hope to work with one day?
At the moment, I really like Imaan Hammam. She's a Middle-Eastern model and I'm dying to work with her. I also really fuck with Zoë Kravitz. I think she's amazing. And I would love to shoot a series with Millie Bobby Brown. I just think she's adorable and I love how you're really seeing her blossom as a young woman. It's beautiful. And I really love Issa Rae from "Insecure." Her writing inspires me like crazy. In terms of males I really want to work with, Rami Malek; he doesn't really use Instagram but I love his work in "Mr. Robot." I think he’d be great to create a character around. And obviously, Rihanna. She's on the top of my list.
Your work is so popular on social media. I've seen "Sex and Takeout" pop up on my Instagram feed plenty of times. What are your thoughts on how your work is shared and viewed online?
In the early days of my career, I didn't take too kindly to people posting [my work] without credit, but then I had to let it go because whether my name was attached to it or not, my work was being spread like wildfire. At the end of the day, those who knew it was my work would credit me and so people would come back to me regardless. But the thing that I'm not quite happy with is Instagram literally says in its guidelines that you can't share images without the artist's or creator's permission, and if you do, it can suspend your account if it's reported. And so the fact that literally 99 percent of Instagram is sharing other people's work without credit or permission, you're still breaking those guidelines. So I think [Instagram] needs to change the guidelines or a movement needs to happen where people become aware that they're actually breaking copyright by sharing other images.
But again, that's something that I completely stepped away from caring about just because having my work out there and constantly going viral, it's working in my favor so much. If anything, I'm flattered that people connect with what I put out there and it just makes me want to keep going.
"Fuck Me, Fuck You" is on view at Castle Fitzjohns Gallery in New York until Sunday, April 8.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.