The LA-based, Perth-born artist Sarah Bahbah has built a career on provocation. At 32, she’s won worldwide attention and acclaim for her striking print and digital images, becoming a go-to photographer for major magazines, global brands and high-profile artists while remaining dedicated to expanding her personal portfolio. She just released Dear Love, her first autobiography and fine art tome—it weighs in at seven pounds—showcasing more than 600 photos from her near-decade working as a photographer.
Again, Bahbah is only 32.
From a hotel room in Miami, she tells me that what people are craving most right now is something that feels real and tangible because we’re all so consumed by our digital world. Most of us spend five hours a day staring at a phone or a computer screen, but those things don’t give us the same satisfaction as a beautiful book. And Dear Love, she points out, is extremely beautiful.
“It’s heavy, it feels so good in your hands,” she explains. “Now is the perfect time to release it because physically, it feels good to touch, and in it, I touch on vulnerability and rawness of emotions, and I hope that the book evokes that reminder in people to stay in the moment and get off their fucking phones.”
Dear Love is first and foremost a collection of beautifully composed, distinctively lit images that speak the language of fashion campaigns and advertising. Boldly hued, glossy and utterly gorgeous, they are the intense and professional-grade selfies we only wish we were taking. Her interest in multimedia and the combination of commerce and art led her to study creative advertising while in university, but her passions tended toward music and photography. While still studying, she began photographing music festivals, falling in love with the transient nature of live performances and the immense power of capturing an irreproducible moment.
Her original experimentations 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 Ones, illustrated Bahbah’s burgeoning desire to capture the exceptional in the ordinariness of festivals. Rather than photographing the stage, she pointed her camera toward the unusual, idiosyncratic, bold and expressive attendees, capturing moments of unrestrained joy or intimate embraces between couples and friends who were oblivious to the camera.
In 2016, Bahbah—named Nylon and Elite Daily’s “best Instagrammer of the Year”—undertook a collaboration with Butter, a fried chicken joint in Sydney, where she exhibited her images of nude women both in the restaurant and on the restaurant’s website. Nudity, sex, food, guilt, bodies and the expectations (and restrictions) put on women’s appetites have been central themes in her work ever since.
Two years earlier, Bahbah’s eye for intimate moments, transitory beauty and the inextricable interwovenness of commerce and art led her to create Sex and Takeout, a playful take on the idea of indulgence, excess and guileless enjoyment. Seeing an image of a naked woman, her legs entangled as she sprawls over an enormous bed, a pizza takeout box by her hip and an oversized slice of pizza dangling from her fingers was thrilling to me, as a woman myself. Imagine feeling so immensely satisfied. Imagine feeling so free to lounge around naked and eat a big, greasy, delicious pizza all by yourself.
Or to do other things by yourself. In her series Summer Without A Pool, one image depicts a woman with her hand snaking under the belt of her jeans, her pelvis tilted just so. The caption reads “No one else will.”
Becoming her own subject
Bahbah created a major stir in the Middle East when she began to put herself front and center in selfies and self-portraits in media, along with captions about sexual desire and liberation written in Arabic and English. Now Hollywood-based, she’s worked on music videos for Kygo and campaigns with Gucci and Vogue, and been featured in the New York Times and Forbes.
Her transformation from eye behind the camera to the subject of her work has been an organic one, and with the publication of Dear Love, Bahbah has created not just a compendium of her work to date but also the most comprehensive album of her own personal and creative maturation. Yes, it’s visually pleasing, but it is decidedly not the type of book one flicks idly through. Bahbah’s work confronts sexual desire, repression and rejection just as readily as it depicts her own lived experiences of sexual abuse and trauma.
More than just another photography book
For an art book, Dear Love is surprisingly text-heavy, written in a mix of English and Arabic.
“I always begin with the words,” Bahbah explains. “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’m having an anxiety or OCD spiral, it’s the words that come out of my brain one by one while I’m in the process of worrying about my danger or my supply of stability. My art is a manifestation of coping, I guess.”
Bahbah began curating images and composing text while in Australia’s mandatory quarantine program in Perth at the end of 2021. The concept for the book had long existed in her mind, but the enforced isolation provided the space to begin 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. “Mandatory quarantine required me to stay in a hotel for two weeks, which was really lonely and anxiety-producing. I needed to give myself projects to stay distracted.”
Those two weeks gave her an opportunity to go through every hard drive she’d ever used, but another year passed before she completed 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 memoir and then working with a graphic designer [Italian-born, UK-based Raissa Pardini] on the cover and to solidify the layout,” she explains. “Then I had to go through legal to make sure I had clearance for all my creative talent, and that everyone got paid. My deadline was before my November birthday and I made that deadline, but I was burnt out and totally exhausted. Now I’m on tour, and I’m still in recovery.”
The artist’s journey from Australia to California
“I was born and raised in Perth, then at 21 I got a work promotion in advertising and moved to Melbourne and lived there for four years before I moved to LA,” she says, like an international move fresh out of university is no big deal.
She won the green card lottery, then waited a year for confirmation—in “limbo”—but is now an official U.S. resident.
“I moved on intuition,” she muses, recalling that there was nothing specific about the City of Angels that she connected 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’.”
Learning to navigate LA’s unique culture took time—specifically the contrast between Australia’s tight-knit community, where dropping in on friends daily is typical, and LA’s business-first mentality. She eventually built herself 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 a thing to see your friends every few days. In Australia, we were hanging out, cooking together, and I wanted to create that for myself in LA.”
Of course, the variations in culture between the U.S. and Australia are small compared to the cultural differences between both nations and the Middle East. Bahbah’s Arab roots are not a subject she’s shied away from boldly exploring, though she admits that living in America and Australia grants her the privilege of protection and that being a creator in the Middle East would be a very different story. That doesn’t mean, however, that her work on women’s sexuality and empowerment doesn’t stem from her roots—and carry risk.
“I created a series in 2020 called 3ieb! which means ‘shame’,” she explains. “3eib! in our culture is a word used to silence us and restrict our freedom as women. Every Arab girl has heard that. It trains us to be submissive, good Arab girls, but that was not working for me. I was raised in the Western world and I was torn between my culture and Western culture. At home I wasn’t Arab enough for my family, and at school I wasn’t Western enough for my peers. When I created ‘3eib’, I knew there was a risk. If it went viral in the Middle East, I might not be allowed in the region.”
She says Dear Love has been rejected at a few customs checkpoints in the Middle East.
“It was called pornography, which is crazy to me,” Bahbah says. “It is so tasteful and celebratory of women’s bodies. The system is run by a misogynist patriarchy, so I want to use my art to give voice to us, to raise awareness of our repression, so that one day, we can be free.”