by MFA student Marta Gaia Zanchi.
Iran is changing. Rapidly, in ways Western television screens rarely attempt to illustrate, preferring to deal with issues that actually make headlines: political revolutions, economic downturns and disastrous wars. However behind the curtain of these historical events, potentially even more radical transformations are at play in youth culture, sexuality, consumerism and the role of women in society.
These transformations would go almost undocumented, if not for the work of emerging contemporary photographers who, with their variety of aesthetics and approach, reveal to us this unspoken side of Iran. Of the many, the evolving role of women in society could be argued as the most radical and the root of all the others, or at the very least, one of their most prominent manifestations.Documenting it are emerging, contemporary Iranian photographers including Katayoun Karami, Gohar Dashti, Shadi Ghadirian, and Newsha Tavakolian.
“These images speak a common language in the place where I live. Portraits of my generation, our common experiences and challenges in life. A generation that has experienced revolution, war, immigration and more. Experiences, any one of which are said to be sufficient to turn a boy into a man, but which are apparently assumed to leave the other sex wholly untouched. In my own small, personal voice I say: Not so. Instead, it’s hard, sad and often unbearable.”—Katayoun Karami
In her 2005 Stamp (Me and My Mother), Karami examines the history of the chador--that contrary to Western’s belief, is not imposed to Iranian women as a requirement. Karami juxtaposes images of her mother wearing full chador, taken in pre-revolutionary days, with self-portraits in keeping with postrevolutionary dress. Both images are distressed and resemble passport photographs. Despite the image of Karami’s mother largely predates her daughter’s, it is Karami’s that seems dated, challenging Western’s preconceptions and inviting to contemplate the change.
“I wanted to bring to life the story of a nation of middle-class youths who are constantly battling with themselves, their isolated conformed society, their lack of hope for the future and each of their individual stories,” —Newsha Tavakolian
Meanwhile Newsha Tavakolian and Gohar Dashti work at the intersection of documentation, narrative and expression, using fine art photography to recreate women’s real-life situations and experiences. Tavakolian’s series Listen (2010) portrays professional women singers who, in light of their gender, are forbidden by Islamic tenets to perform in public. Through staged documentaries, Dashti’s Today’s Life and War (2008), brings our attention to the tension between man and woman as they pursue domestic activities, interrupted by symbols of wars that, in the words of Karami, are absurdly “said to be sufficient to turn a boy into a man, but which are apparently assumed to leave the other sex wholly untouched.”
My pictures became a mirror reflecting how I felt: we are stuck between tradition and modernity."—Shadi Ghadirian
In Shadi Ghadirian’s work, this tension is explored even further and in new directions. Ghadirian has produced nine photographic series to date, titled Miss Butterfly, Nil, Nil, Be Colourful, Like EveryDay, Qajar, Ctrl+Alt+Delete, My Press Photo, Out of Focus, and West by East. Each one addresses the issues that women face living in contemporary Iran, as agents of transformation stuck in a past that’s part Iran’s heritage, part Western’s expectation.
Defying all, her images describe a positive and holistic female identity, against traditional roles by which Iranian women have been defined.
The work of these four female artists reminds us how photography, often in opposition to political and media-inspired bombast, has a power of truth and of critical thoughts. Despite all the frequent debate about the pureness of intent (or lack thereof) by documentary photography, the medium still retains its ability to challenge expectations, illustrate important local issues in ways others fail to accomplish, and find its place in a part of history that can move very large audiences to contemplation and action.