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Enter the Zone

Blurb: 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. Edited excerpts from the interview

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 to 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 practising 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.

Newsha Tavakolian

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. 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.

A young girl twirls in a carefree moment during laundry day at the Samburu Girls Foundation.

Your works tackle social and political issues through the very personal. How do you go about finding these stories – through the collective issues or the personal? What comes first?

I think first comes the collective issues. I am very concerned about the society I live in. This is my character since I was a child. It is not something I became because of photography. I am very concerned especially about the Iranian society where I grew up, where I live. However, always I like to find a personal touch in it, because then I am much more honest.

I fixed my camera on a tripod; in front of the window where I’d watched the same view of the city for ten years. A window that opens on to many other windows that are all closed. ‘Look’ is the story of others. I have captured moments from their stories in this room; within the frame of a window that looks upon the cold and hazy city.

Where do you find your Zen – behind the camera or anywhere else? 

I was dyslexic as a child. I quit school when I was 16 and then suffered from anxiety most of the time. 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 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. 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 out 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 question, when I take pictures, it is when I feel most silent and Zen.

Vani Sriranganayaki Vanamamalai is the Sub-editor at Arts Illustrated.

To read the full story, click here.


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