Photographer, filmographer and painter Shaun Rabah is a wandering soul who seems to be on some perpetual journey to find……. something. It does not always seem clear what this ‘something’ is he is searching for. One gets the sense that even if he does find ‘it’ he will be immediately on the search for something else. There is an innate curiosity that is palpable.
In that pursuit of ‘it’ the Maltese native embarked on his photographic and filmed project U Beneath The Mask to document micro-expressions. It is an intimate and thought provoking exploration into human emotion and facial expressions: It is instinctively interesting.
As is the case for many, covid impacted Shaun Rabah and his project. The use of masks forming a veil to those important facial expressions. Three years on and his project continues with vigour providing at times a catharsis for those caught on film and camera. But perhaps more importantly it highlights our unity – “I was happily surprised to see that our micro-expressions are uniform across.”
Childhood helps paint a picture
In my late twenties I spent a year designing a website for an online business I was developing for musicians. Due to the lack of aesthetics skills on the technical team I hired, I found I had to take the lead with design. Soon after that I noticed the way I was looking at my surroundings began to change. I became more attuned to the beauty in each environment. It is like everything around me became an aesthetic inspirational playground. I eventually decided to pick up painting to channel my creative energy and noticed that my technique began to evolve quickly.
After a year of painting, I decided to apply to an art fair. I forgot that applied. A week before the event they emailed me to let me know I had been accepted. There was only one problem. I had had only a few paintings I was happy with. I decided to cancel all I had and just paint for a week straight. This was a true deep dive into the different styles I had brewing inside me and was shocked at the positive results. I sold several paintings and there was this feeling and energy that I had not felt before.
Despite my early success painting and exhibiting was mixed. I slowed it down before deciding to leave for US and travel for a bit. This ended up being a lot longer and personally more important than I could have imagined.
Charles Darwin and expressive unity
Yes, I think it is important to add some history to the field as facial expressions have been a focus of some prominent and historical figures. The first person to do work in the area back in the late 1800’s was Charles Darwin. He was the first person to claim that the facial expressions of emotion are the same worldwide, that they are innate. However, much of the scientific community disagreed with this theory at the time and many racist viewpoints steered the science at the time. In the late 20th century Dr Paul Ekman and his team travelled the world visiting villages, to collect substantial evidence proving Charles Darwin’s theory. There are 7 universally expressed facial expressions. (Anger, Happiness, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, Contempt, Surprise). I would add that a combination of these and more subtle expressions are found around the mouth. A whole story is being told through our face and around the mouth.
Impromptu interviews and “Eureka”
The evolution of this project was the Catalyst Project, which premiered with a short motivational video. The video art work of people’s mouths filmed while thinking about their lives, evolved out of this project and it took on a new turn last year with the lockdowns and the advent of face masks. I was personally disturbed that such a crucial aspect of human expression and source of connection was being veiled. It ignited a deeper sense of importance to expose this project further.
Back in 2016 after some traveling I decided to end a chapter in the US and move. I was living in Valencia but had to return to the US (where I had been living) to settle things. It was here that I had a defining moment. It was around the Trump elections. I was unsettled by the level of polarization, blame and vitriol that was building due to these elections. It suddenly became very difficult for people to have opposing opinions and maintain cordial conversation.
I decided to take a weekend trip to Berlin in late January. It was here that I found the project as it were. I decided to randomly interview and film a Czech musician who was playing in a square with my iPhone. At one point in the interview, I instinctively zoomed in on her mouth. When I went through the footage of my phone and finally came to the segment of the mouth close up. I was feeling so much move through my body. The following months found me filming anyone I could as I travelled across different parts of Europe. I had ideas on how to present this as art, but it did not come to full realization till a year and a half later.
Covid provides some macabre good fortune
Yes, for sure it has added a whole new important dimension, now that a vital and primal aspect of human expression is being veiled. As I mentioned so much is communicated around the mouth, yet it is done in such an intuitively understandable way. In a world facing so many different collective challenges and heightened polarization, finding or refocusing on aspects of our selves we have in common has served as a bridge of understanding and unity amongst us.
I am personally concerned that facemasks may become a lasting feature from this time. A new normal of humans being more separated is certainly not one I hope for. I believe that now more than ever people are feeling very isolated, frustrated, and missing vital forms of connectivity. I hope this project can serve as a medium for people to express themselves from across the world while managing the current pandemic.
Discuss the “separation between the concept of you and I”
When I first created the prints for this project and exhibited them at the end of my art residency in Malaga, the name of the series was Wahid, which means ‘one’ in Arabic.
As I started to work on the most recent video (at the time I was in Bulgaria) it was near the beginning of the pandemic. I felt that Wahid and the message had changed. The focus this whole time was on unity, a focus on our similarities not our differences.
I have been able to notice many similarities and nuances between different individuals and they are not that far off. Most often, a triggering though would cause the lip to curl or twitch, usually associated with an uncomfortable memory. Anger would often be expressed as a tightening of the jaw line, particularly in men.
When we attempt to connect with others it is often through dialogue, a linear string of words exchanged with one another. These words often represent a fraction of what the person feels. In addition, people view others through their own sets of views and beliefs. We tend to connect with each other over the concept of thoughts and ideas which are vast and changing. So, I ask the question in the project, instead of connecting with others on thought, how about connecting with emotion. This can be done just by viewing a person’s mouth.
In this project I ask people to sit and think about their life, first by focusing on the bad in their life for two minutes, then by focusing on the good for another two. You essentially get their life story and how they feel about it in 4 minutes. People came out of the exercise appreciative and many times it is a cathartic experience bringing a new appreciation for their life. This exercise is truly a life story being told without a word being said.