Bio. Offer us a short, snappy (not-copied-from-your-website or any publication), fun biography. Who are you?
I am an Iranian-Canadian photographer based between Iran and Dubai. For most of my adult life I have been in between places, naturally drifting into different parts of the world. My photography career has taken me across the United States, Uganda, Bangladesh, Nepal, Jordan, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and now Iran, where I spend most of my time. I was born in Tehran in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war. Facing a failing economy and a growing religious conservatism, my family moved us across the world to Canada when I was eight years old. As an immigrant growing up I always felt shame and fear about being Middle Eastern. I struggled with a sense of rootlessness, of unbelonging. Photography became my way to confront displacement and isolation. Photography allowed me to look at the world through my own lens, to ask questions of it, to engage with it, to find my place in it. Photography is home in a way that neither Iran nor Canada can be.
Becoming. Can you identify when you first started calling yourself a photographer —when you felt comfortable naming yourself as such? How did you morph from someone who takes pictures to “photographer”?
I took several photography courses in Vancouver—mostly in studio lighting and commercial work—but I wanted to study photojournalism and I didn’t have the resources to move to Toronto or New York. I took a leap of faith and moved to Uganda when I was 24 years old. I was very sure of myself back then. I wanted to become a photojournalist: I knew what kind of stories I wanted to work on and the direction I wanted to go in my career.
I was fortunate to land a regular freelancing gig with a local independent newspaper in Kampala within a month. I threw myself in and worked hard. It was the first time I started making money from my photography. I had the chance to create my first body of work and to start developing my visual aesthetics. I pursued stories I was passionate about—problems of gender-based violence in the aftermath of the civil war, and the dangerous practice of female genital mutilation. I stayed in Uganda for a year, taking on assignments and trying to make a name for myself. I covered the presidential election and eventually got work with Associated Press and bigger publications. My life in photography began this way and the experience shaped me and the work I have done since.
Being. What are you working on now? Where? How? Why?
It took me twenty years to find the courage to travel back to Iran. My family’s decision to move to Canada was a permanent one. It was a dark time in Iran’s history and there was little hope that things would change for the better. There was a lot fear and mistrust and the bitter memories of the Iran-Iraq war were still fresh in our minds.
But our new life in Canada continued to be shaped by uncertainty and anxiety. In some ways, it was like we never left: the U.S. embassy hostage crisis and anti-Muslim xenophobia dominated the headlines. We were labeled inherently violent, perpetually oppressed. The stereotypical public images of us that dominated the media inevitably affected the ways we viewed ourselves. Assimilation was a survival tactic, but in this process I lost my Iranian history, culture, and identity.
My ongoing work “You Can’t Go Home Again” is my effort to understand what it means to be Iranian in a time of intense anti-Muslim and anti-Iranian sentiment. At the beginning, the work was about reconnecting with Iran. I wanted to reflect and understand where I fit in after being away for so long. Over time, the work became about absence, loss, and reconciliation. There are a lot of things I had to come to terms with—questioning why we left Iran and the consequences of that decision. As Iranians we have a problematic and unresolved relationship with our history. We are still struggling to come to terms with the revolution, the war, and the effects it still has on our lives.
Borrowing. Tell us a little about your artistic lineage. Who are the artists and/or works that influence you? Who or what inspires you and why?
Right now, I’m inspired by the works of Iranian artists inside Iran and in the diaspora who are challenging the exotic and orientalist ideas of Iran and the Middle East.
Recently, I saw the work of German-Iranian painter Shahram Karimi in Tehran. His paintings explore the connection between Iranian identity, ancient Persian history, and mythology. It was the first time in a long time that I felt deeply connected to and moved by a painting. For most of my life, I was exposed to art history books that were dominated by white culture and I never saw myself represented in them or felt there was space for me in that world.
I also find inspiration in literature. Writing doesn’t come naturally for me, but it’s becoming an important aspect in my work. I’m reading a lot and it’s helping me find my voice and shaping my artistic language. I read a lot of history and theory books. I always come back to Orientalism by Edward Said. I’m also very much inspired by Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad and Iranian-American writer Porochista Khakpour. I love Porochista’s intimate way of communicating the experience of the Iranian diaspora and the condition of displacement and exile. And of course the graphic novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. I wish this book existed when I was a child. I keep revisiting films by Abbas Kiarostami and Majid Majidi. Kiasrostami’s poetic interpretation of everyday life and his love for simple reality and Iran’s lost beauty is deeply influencing my work.
As a photographer, the work of Antoine D’agata, Sohrab Hura, Katrin Koenning and Vanessa Winship inspire me. The list goes on. All of this work helps me create a bubble around myself that helps me create the work I’m making now.
Blown-away. Show us the last image that completely took your breath away (contemporary or historical—depending on where you’ve been looking). What do you love about it?
I love this image by Abbas Attar. It’s an image of Abbas Kiarostami looking through a door which leads to nowhere on the outskirts of Tehran. I love the mood and simplicity of it. In a way, it’s a reflection of what we are going through now in Iran. The feeling of isolation and of being left behind. Always peering through a door looking at the outside world at a distance. Hoping for an escape. Hoping to find another world.
Blown-away 2. Show us an image by you that takes your breath away. What makes this image great?
I made this portrait of these two sisters on the beach of Bandar Abbas, a port city in the south of Iran. It’s a tender and honest moment. I was struck by their innocence and by what they were wearing and how free they felt.
The portrait reminds me how much Iran has changed since my childhood. In those days, rules were non-negotiable. I remember being shamed by a stranger for wearing a short dress at the age of six on the streets of Tehran. The growing religious conservatism and culture of fear and resentment taught people to constantly police each other.
Iran has changed gradually over the years, but some of those changes have been enormous and the wall that divided us before is gradually crumbling. I’m finding more moments of lightness, moments where life feels a bit more relaxed, normal, and unencumbered.
Burden. What are some of the difficulties or challenges of being a woman who photographs?
It takes years of work, patience, and failure to hone your vision and build a solid body of work. Financial security plays a central role in how long you last in this industry and how well you succeed.
I spent the first few years of my career trying to navigate this harsh and competitive industry alone without a solid foundation. I had to learn a lot of things on my own and advocate for myself in an industry historically dominated by white men. I felt for a long time that I was not being seen or heard and I think a lot of women of color can relate to this feeling.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about my journey in earlier years and how a lot of my energy was wasted just trying to survive and I think about how it didn’t need to be that way. So many of us struggle from a lack of access to formal education and professional connections—and from financial insecurity. So much of this business is based on networking and resources, especially for those who are in the early stages of their careers. The pressure to take on unpaid internships and low-paid assignments and to invest money on portfolio reviews and networking events is what keeps so many women from succeeding in this industry.
On another note: physical safety is always an issue. I usually work alone without a fixer which is not the wisest approach but I do my best to avoid getting into bad situations. But working this way over a period of time can take a toll on you. My personality has changed over the years. I’ve become more guarded and harsh to protect myself from sexual harassment.
Between. Discuss the relationship between you and your subjects (whether people, objects, land). What is the nature of your relationship with the things you photograph or film?
I feel a connection to Iran and the people I photograph in a way that I haven’t experienced anywhere else. Many of the people in my photographs were born during the Iran-Iraq war and I’m a part of that generation. We share the same individual history and trauma but I spent more than half of my life in foreign lands while they had to stay behind. I am always conscious of my privilege as a photographer in this country. I am a dual citizen and my Canadian passport has protected me from a lot of social barriers my generation has had to live with. We don’t share the same fears and disappointments.
It’s very difficult to predict what will happen in Iran and we are constantly being tossed between anxiety and hopelessness. I’m worried about how the ongoing US violence against Iran will affect the social fabric of the country long term. The international sanctions against Iran are devastating the lives of ordinary Iranians. The local currency, the Rial, lost more than 70% of its value last year. This led to massive inflation and caused the price of basic goods such as food and medicine to more than double. Many Iranians became poor overnight. I’m watching my friends struggle under severe economic pressure: it’s difficult to see your own people suffer and many of them have no way out. I’m finding ways to translate that anxiety into my work but also finding ways to include moments of lightness and joy. Despite of everything, Iranians are very resilient and resourceful people. They have a way of finding humor in the worst situations and trying to live a normal life as much as possible despite the social constraints.
Better. How do you work towards continuous improvement, on honing your craft?
I’m fortunate to have very supportive mentors and colleagues who keep me grounded. So much of my time is spent on the road alone and I’m always bouncing back from doubt and exhaustion. My mentors give generously of their time, motivating and energizing me. They are always open to looking at my work, giving feedback, challenging me and giving a fresh perspective.
I’m also one of this year’s recipients of the Women Photograph Mentorship program. It’s helping me stay focused and accountable to my goals. I’m also spending more time on the business side of things: learning to write better grant applications and learning the arts of pitching and self-promotion.
Balance. When you are not photographing, what are you doing that keeps you grounded? What (else) do you do for fun?
There is no separation between my life and work. I’ve had a hard time taking time off and in the past several years I was consumed with assignments, projects, and just trying to survive. Living and working in the Middle East isolated me geographically and I became more unreliable in my personal life, falling out of touch with friends and the community I had in Toronto and New York.
Since moving back to Iran last year, I’ve had to adapt to a different way of life. Iranians tend to make more time for friends and family. Friendships are more affectionate and people have a stronger sense of attachment to each other. This has forced me to slow down and not feel like I constantly need to be working. My weeks are filled with spontaneous house parties, road trips, picnics, hikes in the mountains, and just random wanderings with friends around the city.
I’ve been away from Iran for a long time and I’m building a life here from scratch: it feels exciting and lonely. I’m learning a new way of life and understanding how to navigate new cultural and social norms. I feel at home here despite everything.