Society

Iran: A Personal View

Newsha Tavakolian paints a broad picture of her home country

Newsha Tavakolian

Newsha Tavakolian Pier-Cary village on the way to Shoushtar City. The residents used to have a nomadic life but after time they decided to live in a house and stay. The rain was the first one there after almost 20 y (...)

Magnum photographer, Newsha Tavakolian has been photographing her homecountry of Iran for more than two decades. Her nuanced work in the country culminates to provide a broad, authored perspective on everyday life. Here, to accompany the following edit of her work made in the nation, Tavakolian discusses the changes she has observed over time, which have influenced and inspired her work.

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
Newsha Tavakolian Iranian families and youths play around at a snow-covered field between the Shemshak and Dizin resorts, high up in the majestic Alborz mountain range, just above the capital Tehran. Shemshak. Iran. (...)

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. Humanity in its essence remains the same, regardless of one’s place of birth, skin color, or social class. But of course, Iran is my country, where I have lived all my life; where I continue to live. So I am inevitably documenting my own story too. But how much this personal perspective impacts my work varies, and it oscillates between objective and subjective dispositions.

Being a photographer in a complex country places you in a sensitive position. In a world where people are constantly divided between binaries of black and white, I would rather explore grey areas.

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
Newsha Tavakolian The project Listen focuses on women singers who are not allowed to perform solo or produce their own CDs due to Islamic regulations in effect since the 1979 revolution. The photos are taken of the (...)

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

In my 20th year photographing Iran I had a solo show in Tehran, 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 Iranian paramilitary Baseej forces reenact the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) in the south of Tehran. Iran. 2015. © Newsha Tavakolian | Magnum Photos
Newsha Tavakolian The Valley of the Stars in the Persian Gulf island of Qeshm is said to be 2 million years old, its landscape is shaped by wind, rain, and water, giving the area a moonlike appearance. Gheshm Island (...)
Newsha Tavakolian A group of retirees from the city of Tabriz wades in Lake Urmia’s salty water. As the lake dries, vacationers find fewer places to congregate. Iran. 2016. © 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. (...)