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