Photographer Sarah Bahbah’s Debut Book, “Dear Love”

30 years of work and 600 images chronicle a journey of healing

When Palestinian Australian photographer Sarah Bahbah released her breakout photo series, Sex and Takeout, in 2014, she quickly won the hearts of many with her saturated, dreamy style, unabashed empowerment of women and the ways she deftly illuminated their psyche. Since then, the artist has gone on to carve out her film-reminiscent signature style that combines still imagery with subtitles. Revealing glimpses of difficult conversations, sex, toxic relationships and what is left unsaid, Bahbah’s work revels in vulnerability. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her debut book, Dear Love. Releasing 14 February, the compendium spans 30 years of her work and 600 images that together depict a journey of healing.

Part photography book and part autobiography, the book is divided into four chapters that correlate with Bahbah’s life and career. “The first being ‘Dear Heart’ which is about my youth, coming of age, innocence and getting my heart broken for the first time—the real early stages of my 20s,” the artist tells COOL HUNTING. “Then ‘Dear Darkness’ is the next chapter and that really dives into my childhood traumas, processing through grief and acceptance and coming to reconcile with myself for the first time without numbing. Then ‘Dear Light’ is kind of coming out of that cave, re-centering myself and learning to love life again. ‘Dear Love’ is coming back to my core.”

The first chapter captures the origins of Bahbah’s style, which she conceived in 2015 when she decided to fuse imagery and words. “I wanted to challenge the Instagram platform in a way that I hadn’t seen done before, so I thought it would be really cool to create a photo series that looks like it was film, but they were all actually just stills with subtitles on them. I would release them one a day on Instagram for a period of like four to six weeks depending on how big the series was. I wanted each image to stand alone for the viewer and they could experience it on their own, but when you brought all the images together, it was my story,” she says.

“I wanted to prove to people that there didn’t have to be motion in order for a full story that felt like a film,” she continues. With the subtitles’ emphasis on narrative, the still images gained a sense of movement both on an emotional level and in terms of plot.

After “Dear Heart,” the themes within the work get heavier as Bahbah had begun to reflect on her experiences in surviving sexual abuse as a child. “As you go through the pages, you really see a change in the art. It gets darker, it gets deeper and the themes are a lot more heavy. When it comes to the final chapter, ‘Dear Love,’ it’s a celebration. And even though the topics discussed in ‘Dear Love’ might hold some weight, it’s the self-awareness around the themes that really make it a true ending,” explains the artist.

Bahbah’s unflinching gaze toward painful moments, conveyed succinctly, make each photo series compelling on their own, but put together, their intensity is magnified. Composing them into a book served as another emotional journey for the the photographer who spent six months editing and formatting the images before venturing into longer forms of writing.

“Because I don’t usually do such long-form writing, I really did have to find a new medium to express myself. I’m really great at short-form. I’m really great at one-liners. To have to sit with this book and and do long-form was quite challenging,” says Bahbah. “I contextualize a lot of the series in a way that I never had before, and I do dive deeper into my experiences.”

The book is available on a sliding scale, a method that Bahbah began implementing in her work during the pandemic. She tells us, “A lot of us weren’t working. I really wanted to make art that was more accessible.” As such, the book is offered in a range of prices, from $60 to $300. “As I always said to my collectors prior to this, if you have the means to pay the most pay the most because you’re supporting me as an artist. If you have the means to pay only the minimum that’s OK, too. I really wanted to create a judgment-free zone because I really want anyone to have access to collecting art,” says Bahbah.

More than an artist’s anthology, Dear Love is also a moving journey of one person’s quest to heal and find peace. With this, Bahbah illuminates a path through which others may follow. If there’s one key takeaway from her book, she tells us, it’s this: “My biggest learning in the process of creating the book is vulnerability is a superpower. The more open you are to diving in it, the more you allow yourself to feel your emotions, the more you’re able to release the hurt and the darkness. Allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling in order to truly release.”

All images courtesy of the artist