The subject sits in a bathtub looking at his partner lovingly and longingly. She is just out of frame. Golden light beams in through the window, but the character’s face reads melancholic. The subtitle states: “Not to scare you but I think I’m in love with you.”
This may sound like the climax of a romantic foreign film, but it is in fact a photograph from 29-year-old artist Sarah Bahbah’s latest series, “Fool Me Twice.” The series, which has been published piecemeal on Instagram this spring, stars teen heartthrob Noah Centineo of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and actress Alisha Boe of 13 Reasons Why. (Previous series have featured stars like Dylan Sprouse, of the Disney channel series The Suite Life of Zack & Cody.) Bahbah recruits well-known celebs for her series via personal connections or simply by shooting them direct messages on Instagram.
Bahbah—who also runs a creative agency, Possy, through which she has directed music videos for Kygo and created ad campaigns for Gucci perfume—may not be a familiar name to many in the traditional art world. But she’s carving out her own devoted fan base (and a canny direct-to-consumer business) on social media, where her audience rivals some of the world’s largest museums. She boasts 1.1 million followers on Instagram alone.
Bahbah was born to Palestinian parents and raised in Australia before moving to Los Angeles. A self-taught artist, she first started releasing what she describes as narrative style photography—a sequence of photographs narrated with subtitles—on Instagram in 2015. That year, her series “Sex and Takeout,” a cheeky play on the “food porn” trend, went viral. The series, featuring attractive young lovers in hotel rooms nude, obscuring parts of their bodies with takeout containers, was shared millions of times. Since then, her following on Instagram has ballooned.
“The [narrative photography] concept was initially birthed from my desire to challenge the Instagram platform in a unique and innovative way by creating cinematic subtitled stills to appear as though they are from a film,” Bahbah told Artnet News, “when in actual fact they are a series of photographs that tell a story stemmed from my personal experiences.”
Her latest series, also based on her personal life, explores the intricacies of a relationship composed of an avoidant and an anxious partner. Bahbah approached it the same way she does all of her projects. At the end of last year, she started by writing the dialogue. What began as a “happy story” took a turn in December, when her own relationship dissolved and Bahbah entered a grieving period.
Then came casting. Bahbah knew she wanted Centineo and Boe for this project, and they were eager to join. Her previous series had been self funded, but “Fool Me Twice” was backed by WePresent, the creative arm of the WeTransfer file-sharing service. (WePresent included exclusive insights from Bahbah and select images on its site and Instagram.)
The photos were shot over the course of one day in January. After that, Bahbah printed everything out and matched up the dialogue and images to create an order that best reflected her personal experiences.
Bahbah has shown her work in traditional galleries and organized displays during major art-world events, like a self-funded solo exhibition during Miami Art Basel Beach at the W and Sixty Hotel in 2017.
She committed to officially operating outside the gallery system in 2018, embracing a more democratic, direct-to-consumer model. “I think it’s catered for the top one percent and it doesn’t allow any art works to be accessible to the general public and I don’t think that’s fair,” she said of the gallery system.
Starting in April, Bahbah began posting the 60-some odd photos from the “Fool Me Twice” to her Instagram page and was shocked by the amount of feedback. Followers were almost instantaneously commenting and direct messaging her about similar relationships they’d had with a distant or anxiously attached partner.
“At the end of the day, I want people to interpret it based on their own experiences,” Bahbah said. “I want them to read the words and see the visuals and feel something based on what they’ve been through and what their relationships are like.”
Some fans also sought to acquire prints of their own. Bahbah now offers them on her website on a sliding scale between $50 and $300. Customers are encouraged to pay what they can. Select prints from each series are sold as a limited run, each signed by Bahbah. To date, she has sold over 10,000 prints.
“I did it because I wanted people to still be able to collect in the midst of a pandemic,” Bahbah said. “I recognize that most people were unemployed and I knew people wouldn’t be able to afford the usual price points.”
Despite the demand, Bahbah has no intention to stop posting her content online for free or deleting or charging for access to her archive. “It gives voice to all of us who are going through a sense of heartbreak and healing,” she said.
When asked what’s next, Bahbah laughed. “I’m always creating,” she said. She does have one big goal for the year: to develop a television show she’s currently got in the works. Besides that, she plans to continue creating art out of her own experiences. “While it’s for me,” she said, “it’s also for everyone who will benefit from it.”