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Enter The Zone

Iranian photographer Newsha Tavakolian, born in the midst of the Iranian revolution, talks about how the photograph becomes an essential voice of protest, even while the photographer herself chooses to work from a space of silence.
Excerpts from the interview.

Newsha Tavakolian1. A young girl twirls in a carefree moment during laundry day at the Samburu Girls Foundation.All Images are Courtesy of the Photographer

Newsha Tavakolian1. A young girl twirls in a carefree moment during laundry day at the Samburu Girls Foundation.All Images are Courtesy of the Photographer.

Today, our society is more visual than ever before. In such a case, photography might as well be our salvation – the means to appropriately document and represent history. How do you view your practice within this framework?
As you know, I started as a photojournalist and I documented many things around the world and especially in the Middle East and Iran for almost 15-16 years. And most of the time I was taking pictures of drama – of dramatic events and disasters, wars – and after some time, I grew a bit tired of this kind of photography where there was no space for the viewers to think for themselves, or for me to make them think. As a photographer, I wanted to visually challenge myself with both content and form. How can I talk about things that are not visually interesting? And I start practicing and I start taking pictures and suddenly I realise that there is something inside me that is so familiar, that silence – it is like my own zone. It is something that I think I grew up with. At the end of the interview you will understand why.

Newsha Tavakolian 2. All Images are Courtesy of the Photographer.

Newsha Tavakolian 2. All Images are Courtesy of the Photographer.

Your voice, as a photographer, has been crucial in undermining all preconceived, stereotypical notions about oppressed Iranian women. Do you see your work as a means to firmly dissent the ideologies and the conceptions placed on you; or is it just a happy coincidence?
It is a coincidence. The thing is that, when you are younger, you don’t have much idea of what you are doing. I think, along the way, I learnt so many things. To be honest, when I started out, I wanted to explain Iran to outsiders. But I always felt that my work stayed on the surface and I couldn’t go deeper. Also, there weren’t many people taking pictures in Iran. And there were no mobile phones or Instagram then. It was the responsibility of people like me to show something different, as against the media that always focused on the extreme in our society. So I was quite concerned. I wanted to show something else, but then I realised that I am repeating myself all the time. So after sometime, I decided that I am not going to explain Iran or Iranian women’s situation to anyone outside of Iran. It is not my responsibility. I decided that I was going to be nearer to my society, to my own people and that is how I think I started to work and my work changed a lot. And that is why I think I am very happy that I made that decision. Though, if I hadn’t gone through that journey, I wouldn’t be where I am now. Now, in my bones, I believe in what I do, because I did so many things before. 

Newsha Tavakolian 3. From the book, Blank Pages of an Iranian Photo Album/ Tehran

Newsha Tavakolian 3. From the book, Blank Pages of an Iranian Photo Album/ Tehran.

There is also an aspect of silence that permits us and others to come forward, to go deeper into the shared experience of being oneself and of being together with others. Where do you find your Zen – behind the camera or anywhere else? 
I said during the beginning of the interview that I will tell you why I am so familiar in zone of silence. I was dyslexic as a child. I quit school when I was 16 and then suffered from anxiety most of the time. Everything and anyone who moved too fast or talked too fast, anything that was not in order would stress me out. But when you see me or if you talk to my family, they will always say I am a very calm person. As a child with dyslexia and anxiety issues, I grew this habit grew a habit of going to a place with a white cloud. It’s not in the sky or very far away, or on the ground, but just above my head, wherever I was. I go to this white cloud, I take my brain there to find quietness to find a kind of zone where I feel comfortable, where nothing can distract me, nothing can stress me our or give me anxiety. When I became a photographer, I found that I took that cloud over my head and I put it behind the camera. When I take a picture, when I find a subject and want to take their portrait, I don’t think of anything – not even the subject. It is quite difficult for me to explain, because this place, this silent zone I go to, has been a secret for a long time. In fact, this is the first time I am even talking about it. Also, I think silence is a beautiful thing, and sometimes much more powerful than shouting. So, to answer your questions, when I take pictures, it is when I feel most silent and Zen. 

Newsha Tavakolian 4.From the book, Blank Pages of an Iranian Photo Album/ Tehran.
Newsha Tavakolian 4.From the book, Blank Pages of an Iranian Photo Album/ Tehran.

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