Iran: A Personal View • Newsha Tavakolian • Magnum Photos

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Iran: A Personal View

Newsha Tavakolian paints a broad picture of her home country

Newsha Tavakolian

Newsha Tavakolian Young Iranian girl taking pictures of Milad Tower in Tehran. Tehran, Iran. 2015. © Newsha Tavakolian | Magnum Photos

On May 19, 2017, citizens of one of the world’s youngest countries, Iran, will vote in the presidential election. Moderate current President Hassan Rouhani, who has sought to pull Iran out of global isolation, is challenged by hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi. With two diametrically opposed views on  Iran’s policy of engagement with the West and the wider world, the outcome of the election is set to shape Iran’s approach to domestic policy and its international relations.

Magnum nominee, Iranian Newsha Tavakolian has been photographing her home country for two decades. Her nuanced work in the country culminates to provide a broad, authored perspective on everyday life in the country. To accompany her edit of her recent Iranian work, Tavakolian discusses the changes she has observed, which have inspired her work over the past two decades.

Newsha Tavakolian Street scenes on Tehran squares days before the vote. Tehran, Iran. 2015. © Newsha Tavakolian | Magnum Photos

You are Iranian by birth; when did you start photographing Iran? Can you describe the political situation at the time?

I was 16 and it was the first term of reformist president Mohammad Khatami. Dozens of new newspaper titles were opened up, and after some persistence I found a job at a one of the newspapers. It was a time a time of openness, with many social changes. For photography it was the first time since revolution and war that once again became important in society.

Newsha Tavakolian Girls smoking in the hallway of university during a break. Tehran, Iran. 2014. © Newsha Tavakolian | Magnum Photos
Newsha Tavakolian Mahud, climbing the wall of the abandoned empty swimming pool, which is the only quiet place he can find to practice his singing. Tehran, Iran. 2014. © Newsha Tavakolian | Magnum Photos

How has Iran – its society, its politics – changed in the time you have been photographing it?

Over the past 20 years Iran’s society has changed enormously. When I started working Iran was a very isolated country. When we got a president who promoted a dialogue with other countries, Iran opened up a bit. After that we got satellite television, and of course the internet. Iran, being one of the youngest countries in the world, and with a high number of educated youths, change was unstoppable.

Newsha Tavakolian Iranian paramilitary Baseej forces reenact the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) in the south of Tehran. © Newsha Tavakolian | Magnum Photos

"Iran, being one of the youngest countries in the world, and with a high number of educated youths, change was unstoppable."

- Newsha Tavakolian
Newsha Tavakolian Salar Bil a fashion designer here is surrounded by his models on a Friday right before a show. Bil is one of Tehran's upcoming young designers. Recently the Ministry of Guidance and Culture allowed (...)
Newsha Tavakolian Arash Fazeli in the pool of the Royal Oxygen sports club. Fazeli is a body building champion and works out here most of the time. © Newsha Tavakolian | Magnum Photos
Newsha Tavakolian Portrait of Sanaz in front of her apartment block in Ekbatan. Tehran, Iran. 2012. © Newsha Tavakolian | Magnum Photos
Newsha Tavakolian Two young men in a restaurant in Western Tehran, with footage of the Islamic Revolution being shown on national TV. Tehran, Iran. 2014. © Newsha Tavakolian | Magnum Photos

You make work all over the world. Is it different photographing in Iran and why?

Yes, and no. For example, when I work outside of Iran, somehow I always imagine subjects to be my family members, I don’t feel a distance between us. In the end we are all humans. When I’m photographing in Kenya, taking pictures of a young boy, a refugee, who lost his parents in Somalia, I imagine he could be my nephew. I do not want to be sentimental about it, this is how I feel. But in Iran, the feelings of people are so familiar for me, that I think I’m taking pictures of myself, an autobiography.

Newsha Tavakolian A sculpture of the head of a woman in a sculpting workshop. Tehran, Iran. 2014. © Newsha Tavakolian | Magnum Photos
Newsha Tavakolian Iranians celebrate on the streets of Tehran and other cities following the announcement of the historical nuclear deal in Vienna. Tehran, Iran. July 14, 2015. © Newsha Tavakolian | Magnum Photos
Newsha Tavakolian A wedding party in an illegal - but tolerated - wedding hall in Karaj, a satellite town of the capital. © Newsha Tavakolian | Magnum Photos

What do you think of the upcoming elections?

As photographer who lives in a complex country, in a sensitive position, I like to stay neutral. So normally I do not talk about politics. I let those looking at my images make up their own minds. In a polarized society, like Iran, I do not want to box myself in.

Newsha Tavakolian A worker drilling the wall to fix a vent in the campus of Art of the University of Tehran. Tehran, Iran. 2014. © Newsha Tavakolian | Magnum Photos

Which images, from the work you have done in Iran over the past few years, are most important to you and why?

This is my 20th year photographing Iran. I have a solo show in Tehran’s Ab Anbar gallery, curated by Vali Mahlouji, called ‘I know why the Rebel sings’. I wanted to do this in order to show my work to an Iranian audience, which is very important to me: they know and understand this culture, history and society. In Iran people mostly know my photojournalism work, that I started my career with, and my staged work, that showed in two solo shows in 2010 and 2012. With those two shows, called ‘Listen’ and ‘Look’, I feel I managed to change my outlook to my work and uplift me as a photographer. Having those shows on display for a home audience broke my fear of judgment.  Perhaps it is not my best work, but its the most important to me. My pictures were always about others, by doing these projects I learned to transfer what is inside me to my work. I found a new balance.

Newsha Tavakolian © Newsha Tavakolian | Magnum Photos
Newsha Tavakolian © Newsha Tavakolian | Magnum Photos
Newsha Tavakolian © Newsha Tavakolian | Magnum Photos
Newsha Tavakolian © Newsha Tavakolian | Magnum Photos
Newsha Tavakolian Iranian skiers and snowboarders enjoying their weekend in the mountains.Dizin ski resort is one of the largest Iranian ski resorts and is located in the Alborz mountains. Alborz Province, Iran. (...)