Newsha Tavakolian: Trying to Unfold Layers and Delve Deeper

Newsha Tavakolian is a sensitive photographer based in Tehran, Iran. In the course of the interview, besides talking about “Life in Death,” the series presented here, she gives us insight into her beginnings and how her photographic practice has modified through time, what inspires her, the subjects she’s interested in today and her method.

For Italian readers, Newsha Tavakolian took part in a recent publication, “Contatti. Provini d’autore” (Postcart, 2012). She and sixty other international photographers comment on their own contact-sheets and the ways in which they choose their best photographs.

Q: In your personal website, you wrote that you started working as a professional photographer at the age of sixteen. What brought you to photography at that time?

A: I didn’t like my school and I couldn’t stand being in a classroom. So, I decided to leave school when I was sixteen. For a month, I did nothing. But, I was determined to do something with my life so I wouldn’t be a financial burden on my family. We had a family camera in the house, so I registered to attend a photography course. I then started to work for a newspaper, although it was very difficult to get in as I was very young and had no experience. My life in photography began that way.

Q: Since then, what kind of references structured your photographic gaze?

A: I love old paintings and I tend to observe them a lot, especially portraits and those belonging to the Gothic era. I particularly love Edvard Munch and am a big fan of German Expressionism. I think it seems close in mood to what we are going through now in Iran.

I also love film; the subject and story of a film is important, but I am obsessed with watching how a film begins and ends. The images and structures that are used in starting a film and ending it attract me a lot. I think the way you tell a story is so much more important than the story itself and, therefore, I pay attention to how things are being said and done. I also look at the work of other photographers, both Iranian and international.

Q: Let’s talk about the body of work displayed here: “Life in Death.” Can you give some indications about this title? What urged you to work on the different traditions to commemorate the death of Imam Hussein (680 A.D.), in your words, one of Iranians’ most loved saints?

A: The name refers to how I see Ashura as a ceremony. It is a ceremony that is supposedly a commemoration of death, when Imam Hussein died, but somehow is also a very lively event in Iran. We don’t have many public ceremonies and festivals in Iran, but Ashura is definitely one that emits the most energy and grabs the most attention from the public. Ashura is a sort of religious Iranian carnival and people spend the whole year organizing and preparing it. Unfortunately, many focus on showing the vulgar side of the tradition, like the beheading of the sheep or how people use chains to beat themselves. Generally, there is a negative reference toward it. I find all these images a bit trivial in that they lack sensitivity and understanding. I wanted to show a different side to this very significant Shi’a event. Many ordinary Iranians feel strongly about it and I wanted to get closer to them – to understand and document things differently.

Q: For this work, you traveled extensively across the country. Can you briefly recount your photographic experience? Would you also like to comment some photographs of your choice from this series?

A: For this project, I used a new camera: a Hasselblad with a 50mm lens, which was a totally new experience for me. I had always worked with a wide-angle lens before, so I had to constantly keep my distance from people and subjects. Places were full of other photographers and it was very crowded. I discovered that I couldn’t seem to take photographs among other photographers comfortably. I couldn’t find a way to get close to the subjects because of the crowd. Everyone was taking pictures of the same things, and this was quite strange because I had done a lot of journalistic photography before! But, a fantastic thing about photography in Iran, is that people generally love to be photographed. It is as if they all have hidden tendencies to be models and actors. They feel comfortable in front of a camera and this helps a lot. They enjoy it and so do I.

I like this image because of this boy’s face. I find something extremely innocent in his face but, at the same time, I know how little he knows about the fierce ritual in which he is taking place. Another point is his costume: pink is normally a girly colour, but this boy wears it. His hat is even a little too big for his head. There is a sense of clumsiness about this boy which reminds me of the real sense of childhood and the fact that people inherit tradition from a very young age.

It was sheer accident that this man happened to be in my frame! I was chasing the women in this image and wanted to capture their presence in the ceremony and, suddenly, this man came into my frame with a unique outfit and act. This brought something different from the blackness of what women were presenting. Also, knowing he was acting as saint in a very normal context was funny for me. I always imagined a saint to be someone very holy and special and suddenly I see a saint who is walking and acting like all of us. This gave a sense of humour to my mental framework.

Q: Spiritual life and its traditions seem to be a subject on which you work intensely (you tackle it in “Life, in Death” as well as in the series “Haj) You also have tackled women’s issues in your work (“May your wish come true,” ”The day I became a woman,” ”Mother of Martyrs,” and “Maria). From your point of view, what could be the common element(s) which link all of your work? What are you looking for, through and with photography?

A: I don’t know. I generally enjoy social subjects, but what I choose as my projects or themes is something that comes to me randomly. I don’t strictly think about anything in particular to delve into in relation to my career.

Women’s issues are attractive because I am a woman and, as a woman, subjects that deal with women’s issues come to me naturally. It is as if I am discovering things about myself through my female subjects. As I get older, I have more and more questions about being a woman and it is as if subjects that directly or indirectly deal with women, allow me to understand myself better.

Q: What kind of support is the best for displaying your work?

A: To be able to work without needing to censor myself would be very beneficial to me as an artist. In my opinion, an artist is someone who doesn’t censor him or herself and I sometimes wonder if I am one. From the beginning, when a thought comes to my head for new work, I find myself censoring it. Sometimes I have no choice, but I always wonder how my work would be and where it would go if I didn’t have to censor myself so much. The best support I can think of would be a free space to realize whatever I want as an artist.

Q: Still on your website, I’ve read that you see your photographic approach between art and documentary . . .

A: I got to a stage in my career where news photography became almost impossible for me. I always give this example: when they keep you from breathing through your nose, you open your mouth to breathe. For me, art photography was necessary to be able to breathe again. I am passionate about documentary and news photography, but I was not allowed to think freely in that realm. So, I decided to do something else and I don’t complain. I developed a love for art photography too. Tehran is perfect because it is full of untouched subjects. There is a story you could be telling everywhere, although I try not to have a touristy look at my own country. Instead, I try to unfold layers and layers and delve deeper. Tehran is a very unique place.

Q: What kind of photographic equipment do you use?

A: I have two Mamiya 7 cameras because I love them so much. I wouldn’t want to be without one! I also own two Canons – one is a 5D and the other is 5D mark II – and a digital Hasselblad. I have a lot of accessories and equipment that I have acquired within the past fourteen years that I also use depending on what I am doing.

Q: What are your next projects?

A: I have begun a new project some months ago, it is still developing but it is another social subject: it is about finding love in Tehran and would eventually consist of a series of photographs and a video.

Thanks, Newsha!

-Leica Internet Team

To learn more about Newsha Tavakolian and view her work, visit her website: www.newshatavakolian.com.