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The unflinching work of Iranian female photographers

Posted on 27 Jun 2023

We sit down with Anahita Ghabaian Etehadieh, founder of Iran's groundbreaking Silk Road Gallery, to explore her new book 'Breathing Space', an extraordinary look at Iran through the lenses of twenty-three female photographers.

Thames & Hudson: Your new book Breathing Space is devoted to the work of 23 Iranian women photographers, at a moment when women in Iran are courageously fighting for their freedom. Why was it important to you to put together this book?

Anahita Ghabaian Etehadieh: The answer to this question has multiple facets. It is indeed a historic moment for Iranian women. This is meaningful for me in my own way, and is also important for Iranian photography. There are many new voices and perspectives in the field. A new generation of young female photographers are expressing their views through the camera.

These images create a conversation, not only between artist and audience but also between all the generations of photographers. I wanted to show the links between these generations, and their connections to photography in Iran. They provide an artistic and cultural commentary on this important social moment.

When we look at the global situation, we can see that there is now much greater awareness about gender issues. There is a realization that women have – willingly or by force – been excluded for centuries. Clearly, there is no real reason to think that women are inferior.

The same phenomenon also existed in the world of photography. Honestly, I had doubts about the reception of this book. But I am very pleasantly surprised by the success it has had in France and other French-speaking countries.

© Shadi Ghadirian. From the series Like Every Day, 2000- 2001.

T&H: For decades, the daily lives of Iranian women have been marked by a tension between tradition and modernity. How does this tension play out in the photographs featured in the book?

A.G.E.: You can see these contradictions in many of the artists in the book. Shadi Ghadirian, who is one of the most influential photographers at present, continually highlights these tensions. In one series, she uses modern domestic objects, such as kitchen implements, to register a voice of protest. In a different series, she uses traditional costumes and modern objects, to emphasise these contradictions faced by women every day between old and new, tradition and modernity. By spotlighting these pressures, she reveals an intense female objectification. The traditional roles of women in the family are questioned very directly.

Other photographers, for example, take a more indirect critical route. They are constantly talking about the historical weight of oppression. Maryam Firuzi’s series Reading for Tehran Streets talks about the thirst for knowledge among young women, and their boldness in simply being present while reading in the streets. Simple daily acts become acts of resistance.

Newsha Tavakolian seeks to explore symbols of modernity through a series of fictional album covers. Women are not permitted to sing solo tracks in Iran, but she places them in positions of defiance – both on stage and in the streets.

© Maryam Firuzi. From the series Reading for Tehran Streets, 2014-2016.

© Newsha Tavakolian. Imaginary CD Covers, from the series Listen, 2010.

T&H: Can you tell us a bit about the experience of putting together this book? How did you select the photographers to be featured?

A.G.E.: I’ve wanted to put together this book for a long time. I knew we had something to tell – a history of contemporary Iranian photography across three generations of female artists. By presenting these images side-by-side, I hope to tell my version of this history. The book is not ordered chronologically or thematically, and this was an important choice for me. It’s more about ‘going back and forth’ between generations, but also between themes and styles. This format offers great freedom to the reader, who can stroll through these different viewpoints and styles. These are all accompanied by accessible explanatory texts to situate the reader in the cultural and social contexts.

I wanted to combine documentary and staged artistic photography, to give multiple perspectives on the complex voices and views of Iran’s recent history. These artists come from a wide range of backgrounds and professional experience, so a reader can see these many faces of female expression.

T&H: You mention in your introduction that younger generations of Iranian women are using photography to tackle taboo subjects like intimacy and the body. What makes photography such a powerful social tool?

A.G.E.: Photography has the power to be incredibly direct. It gives female photographers a tool to show their experiences of social oppression clearly and directly, without abstraction. By comparison, painting and literature are more heavily mediated, and reach their audiences in different ways. Photography can be immediate, and spread quickly,  so it responds directly and strongly to cultural trends and social changes. It also offers a level of intimacy with the subjects – this is something that people can relate to. The power of vulnerability is highlighted by several artists in this book.

Tahmineh Monzavi, for example, takes a very non-traditional approach to her subject matter. She explores the margins of society, including working in poor social areas. One series in particular focuses on vulnerable women, such as prostitutes, addicts, and transgender individuals. Her work therefore goes beyond artistic representation, and opens a discussion about different social and gender issues.

Ghazaleh Hedayat, on the other hand, portrays the female body as a site of destruction and oppression. She scratches out her own images to the point of invisibility. These acts of symbolic self-destruction serve as a protest, as well as a reminder of how women are treated in a patriarchal society.

© Tahmineh Monzavi. From the series The Brides of Mokhber al-Dowleh, 2007-2010.

T&H: Iranian cinema has found popularity in the West, and you mention that Iranian photography is taking the same path. What do you envision for the future of Iranian photography, both in the country and globally?

A.G.E.: I have seen photography in general progress slowly but surely over the 22 years that I’ve been running Silk Road Gallery. There have been many developments internationally in this time. In Iran, however, there is no institutional support. Despite this, photography has become a much more respected and dynamic artform – one which reaches younger audiences as well as the established art world.

There is a lively interaction between cinema and photography in the contemporary Iranian art scene. For example, Gelareh Kiazand collaborated with Kiarostami in reversing the cinematic lens back onto the audience, capturing female actors in close-up as they viewed the film Shirin.

Obviously, I cannot predict the future. What I can say, though, is that the power of photography allows Iranian artists to address various subjects with a clear, critical, and immediate gaze. I am confident that it will continue to find its place and its audiences across the international art world.

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Breathing Space

Iranian Women Photographers Anahita Ghabaian