Two photo portfolios

Unveiling Iran

In 1978 and 1979, life in Iran drastically changed. This was especially true for women and girls, who once again found themselves and their bodies the focus of revolutionary change. Decades earlier they'd been forced to give up the veil in the name of modernity. Now they were forced to put it back on. They could no longer sing or dance in public. Iranian photographers Newsha Tavakolian and Kamran Asthary use their work to respond to a world fundamentally changed.

Kam­ran Ashtary — Chador

New­sha Tava­ko­lian — Listen

Text by Tori Egher­man, Guest Curator

Dear View­ers,

Some days ago, I lis­tened to the Dutch chief of police dis­cuss the pro­po­sed ban on the burka. Would police arrest women who covered up? he was asked. It depends, he ans­we­red, explai­ning that the police rarely stop­ped people who weren’t car­ry­ing iden­ti­fi­ca­ti­ons, so why should they stop women in bur­kas? It seems the battle for change is waged on the body of women, whe­ther it’s in the Nether­lands or Iran.

Kam­ran Ashtary’s series Cha­dor was crea­ted as a way for him to make sense of a world fore­ver chan­ged by revo­lu­tion and exile. He was a teen­ager during the revo­lu­tion against the rule of the Shah in Iran. When Isla­mists gai­ned the upper hand, his sis­ters were forced to wear veils. Fri­ends were arres­ted. Rela­ti­ves and acquain­tan­ces disap­peared, some were exe­cu­ted, some never heard of again. Kam­ran left Iran in the early 80s and found refuge in the Nether­lands. The pho­to­graphs taken for Cha­dor are part of a lar­ger series exami­ning exile, sepa­ra­tion, and the photographer’s rela­ti­onship to home and family. In Cha­dor, which begins with an image of his own mother, Kam­ran pho­to­gra­phed men and woman wea­ring the veil. He con­trasts these images with objects: a rock, a knife, a whip.

With the excep­tion of his mother, none of those pho­to­gra­phed had ever worn a veil. He pho­to­gra­phed each per­son as though they were a mem­ber of his own family fac­ing the unfa­mi­liar for the first time. The results were sur­pri­sing. The por­traits show a range of emo­ti­ons from fear and sad­ness to amu­se­ment and frailty.

New­sha Tavakolian’s series Lis­ten visua­li­zes the silen­cing of women’s sin­ging voices through a series of por­traits of Ira­nian sin­gers and ima­gi­ned CD covers. The images for those CD covers fea­ture a young woman in a veil in a variety of situa­ti­ons and cha­rac­ters. She’s a boxer and a prin­cess, caged and cosmo­po­li­tan. She is deman­ding and con­fron­ta­tio­nal and deci­dedly not to be pitied.

More than ten years sepa­ra­tes the work of New­sha Tava­ko­lian and Kam­ran Ashtary. Newsha’s series is recent. Kamran’s was done in the late 1990s. Kam­ran grew up wit­hout ever see­ing his sis­ters in a cha­dor until forced after Isla­mic law became the rule in Iran. New­sha was born after the revo­lu­tion. Her rela­ti­onship to the veil is dif­fe­rent. It’s taken for gran­ted, even fashion. Older women in Iran often speak of the veil as a kind of humi­lia­tion. (Youn­ger women rarely if ever speak of the veil in those terms.)

When I look at Kamran’s mother, with her direct gaze and the gra­phic line of the cha­dor cut­ting across her lined face, I see the same strength as when I look at Newsha’s boxer, with her over­si­zed red gloves, and her insis­tence on clai­ming her space. One stands in the middle of the road, ready for anything, deman­ding to be seen. The other meets our gaze, fully aware of the image she pres­ents the viewer.

I love the pho­tos of these two pho­to­graph­ers. I love the chal­lenge they pre­sent, the dar­ing of the two series of images. I hope you enjoy them too.

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