Brain Pickings

A Girl and Her Room: Portraits of Teenage Girls’ Inner Worlds Through Their Bedroom Interiors


“I was discovering a person on the cusp on becoming an adult, but desperately holding on to the child she barely outgrew, a person on the edge between two worlds.”

We’ve already seen the striking spectrum of where children sleep around the world and how a child’s bedroom both reflects and reinforces society’s gender norms. In A Girl and Her Room, photographer Rania Matar takes this direction of curiosity a step further and explores the inner lives of teenage girls through the interiors of their bedrooms. From upperclass mansions to displaced person camps to college dorm rooms, and just about every bedroom variety in between, Matar’s tender yet powerful portraits capture the private spaces of these wildly diverse young souls — punk rockers, peace activist, valedictorians, teen moms, refugees, dog-lovers, cat-lovers.

Matar, herself the mother of a teenage daughter, focuses on the two worlds most familiar and formative to her own teenage years and young adulthood — America and the Middle East. She reflects on the project’s process:

I was discovering a person on the cusp on becoming an adult, but desperately holding on to the child she barely outgrew, a person on the edge between two worlds, trying to come to terms with this transitional time in her life and adjust to the person she is turning into. Posters of rock stars, political leaders or top models were displayed above a bed covered with stuffed animals; mirrors were an important part of the room, a reflection of the girls’ image to the world; personal objects, photos, clothes everywhere, chaotic jumbles of pink and black make-up and just stuff, seemed to give a sense of security and warmth to the room like a womb within the outside world.

Andrea, Beirut, Lebanon 2010

© Rania Matar |

Emma S, Cambridge, MA 2009

© Rania Matar |

Jess, Jamaica Plain, MA 2010

© Rania Matar |

Shannon 21, Boston MA, 2010

© Rania Matar |

Amal, Shatila Palestinian Refugee Camp, Beirut, Lebanon 2010

© Rania Matar |

Ellice, Jamaica Plain, MA 2010

© Rania Matar |

Zahra, Beirut, Lebanon 2010

© Rania Matar |

Dima, Beirut, Lebanon 2010

© Rania Matar |

Ai, Boston, MA 2009

© Rania Matar |

Shifa'a, Jerusalem, West Bank 2009

© Rania Matar |

Georgina, Roxbury, MA 2010

© Rania Matar |

Tori, Exeter, NH 2010

© Rania Matar |

Hollie, Harrisville, RI 2010

© Rania Matar |

Ariel, Winchester, MA 2009

© Rania Matar |

Sarah 17, Shatila Palestinian Refugee Camp Beirut, 2010

© Rania Matar |

Both visually stunning and culturally captivating, A Girl and Her Room offers a rare vista into one piece of what it means to grow up as a girl and to metamorphose into a woman, with all her obsessions, convictions, and fascinations, prompting us to find the parallels and universals amidst the differences and contrasts.

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Color Harmony: An Animated Explanation of How Color Vision Works circa 1938


Vintage black-and-white film explains the wonders of color vision.

Human vision is one of the most remarkable capacities of our bodies, its precise mechanism the subject of much fascination, from gorgeous vintage illustrations to cutting-edge modern science to Sesame Street stop-motion. In 1938, The Handy (Jam) Organization — the same folks who brought us an homage to makers and hands-on creativity, an animated explanation of how radio broadcasting works, a visual tour of mid-century design, the original Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer animation, and a primer on ultraviolet light — produced Color Harmony: a fantastic animated explanation of how color vision works, how other animals use their eyes, and how the human eye functions to see colors both separately and in combination.

The irony, of course, is that on the timeline of film innovation, color didn’t permeate Hollywood until the 1950s — mainstream film technology in 1938 was confined to black-and-white, so all the live footage is devoid of color, complemented instead by hand-drawn color animation.

We are able to see mixtures of two-color rays as one color. We don’t need green light in order to see green, and we don’t need orange light to make us see orange. Mixtures of blue and yellow light and yellow and red light will create green and orange for us. To make the eyes see all color, then, only the three primaries — red, yellow, and blue — need be used. From these primaries, a complete color circle can be created. That is why it is possible to reproduce the brilliant colors of nature, faithfully, with just three primary colors in modern color reproducing processes.


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Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet


What undersea cables have to do with Brooklyn squirrels.

Do you ever stop to think what happens when a web page, like this one, manifests as digital text and image on your screen to transmit ideas between someone else’s brain and your own across time and space — and how it all works, in practical terms? The very thought of this physical underbelly of our information ecosystem feels strange and uncomfortable, as if betraying our dichotomous culture of “virtual” vs. “real,” cyberspace vs. physical space. And yet, while we may ponder its cultural impact, its biases, and its economics, the internet — despite our metaphors of clouds and information superhighways, and our concept of a “wireless” web — is a thoroughly physical thing. That’s precisely the unsettling realization at which Andrew Blum arrived after a squirrel in his Brooklyn backyard nibbled through the cable connection of his internet, the internet, causing it to falter. Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet records Blum’s quest to uncover what few of us consider and even fewer understand — the jarringly tactile, material nuts and bolts of an intricate architectural system we tend to see as an abstract, amorphous blob.

If you have received an email or loaded a web page already today — indeed, if you are receiving an email or loading a web page (or a book) right now — I can guarantee that you are touching these very real places. I can admit that the Internet is a strange landscape, but I insist that it is a landscape nonetheless… For all the breathless talk of the supreme placelessness of our new digital age, when you pull back the curtain, the networks of the Internet are as fixed in real, physical places as any railroad or telephone system ever was.

From the vast data warehouses of major tech companies and giant labyrinths of undersea cables that bridge continents to the nano scale of optical switches and fine fiberglass, Blum reveals an internet that has “a seemingly infinite number of edges, but a shockingly small number of centers.”

Submarine cable map by TeleGeography, depicting more than 150 cable systems that connect the world.

He writes in the introduction:

This is a book about real places on the map: their sounds and smells, their storied pasts, their physical details, and the people who live there. To stitch together two halves of a broken world — to put the physical and the virtual back in the same place — I’ve stopped looking at web ‘sites’ and ‘addresses’ and instead sought out real sites and addresses, and the humming machines they house. I’ve stepped away from my keyboard, and with it the mirror-world of Google, Wikipedia, and blogs, and boarded planes and trains. I’ve driven on empty stretches of highway and to the edges of continents. In visiting the Internet, I’ve tried to strip away my individual experience of it — as that thing manifest on the screen — to reveal its underlying mass. My search for ‘the Internet’ has therefore been a search for reality, or really a specific breed of reality: the hard truths of geography.

What emerges is Blum’s three-way Venn diagram of understanding:

The networks that compose the Internet could be imagined as existing in three overlapping realms: logically, meaning the magical and (for most of us) opaque way the electronic signals travel; physically, meaning the machines and wires those signals run through; and geographically, meaning the places those signals reach. The logical realm inevitably requires quite a lot of specialized knowledge to get at; most of us leave the that to the coders and engineers. But the second two realms — the physical and geographic — are fully a part of our familiar world. They are accessible to the senses. But they are mostly hidden from view. In fact, trying to see them disturbed the way I imagined the interstices of the physical and electronic world.

Still, we seem drawn to the spatial and physical mystery of the internet, often visualizing it with the same egocentrism with which medieval man visualized the universe. Blum points to The Internet Mapping Project, in which Kevin Kelly asked ordinary people to sketch how they conceive of the internet, constructing a kind of “folk cartography” and exposing the internet as what Blum calls “a landscape of the mind.”

An entry from Kevin Kelly's Internet Mapping Project, soliciting hand-drawn depictions of the internet.

Blum, in fact, dedicates an entire chapter to maps — a treat for a cartographically compulsive map-lover like myself. In it, he recounts the story of a Milwaukee printer that runs into technical difficulties in printing TeleGeography’s annual map of the global internet. Blum observes:

The networked world claims to be frictionless — to allow for things to be anywhere. Transferring the map’s electronic file to Milwaukee was as effortless as sending an email. Yet the map itself wasn’t a JPEG, PDF, or scalable Google map, but something fixed and lasting — printed on a synthetic paper called Yupo, updated once a year, sold for $250, packaged in cardboard tubes, and shipped around the world. [This] map of the physical infrastructure of the Internet was itself the physical world. It may have represented the Internet, but inevitably it came from somewhere — specifically, North Eighty-Seventh Street in Milwaukee, a place that knew a little something about how the world was made.

To go in search of the physical Internet was to go in search of the gaps between fluid and fixed. To ask, what could happen anywhere? And, what had to happen here?

But Tubes is far more than a technical anatomy, revealing instead the broader implications of this seemingly ubiquitous parallel world that two billion of us inhabit, in one form or another, on any given day. In the epilogue, Blum transcends the physicality of his quest to ponder the philosophical:

As everyone from Odysseus on down has pointed out, a journey is really understood upon arriving home. […] What I understood when I arrived home was that the Internet wasn’t a physical world or a virtual world, but a human world. The Internet’s physical infrastructure has many centers, but from a certain vantage point there is really only one: You. Me. The lowercase i. Wherever I am, and wherever you are.

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