The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Feb 13, 2009

Newsha Tavakolian

Growing up in Teheran, Newsha Tavakolian at first wanted to be a singer. She has a bright, slightly husky voice that showed great promise. Then she attended a photography course, people appreciated her photographs, and she decided she had found her metier. At the age of 16, she started knocking on door of a local newspaper, asking for a job. They sent her away, but she persisted for a month, going to the offices every day, until finally they gave in and made her the telephone operator. 1

Months later, they told me that I'd done very well but that my voice was too young. From that moment, I worked as the newspaper's photographer.

But it wasn't as easy as all that. Of the five photographers on the staff, she was the only woman. Her editor wouldn't send her to trouble spots, being protective of her. One day none of the men was available for an assignment, so she had to go. When the picture she took was published the next day, her colleagues were angry and wanted her to stay out of it. But she was very proud. 2

Over the ensuing 12 years, she has developed an impressive portfolio and considerable experience in photography of power and delicacy. Her oeuvre has extended from coverage of the Iraq war to the depredations of the floods of the river Kosi to the aftermath of the earthquake in Kashmir.

She is one of the youngest professional photographers in Iran, and is widely regarded as a role model for girls in that country. A BBC programme on life in Teheran focussed on the work and achievements of three women; she is one of them.

In a field dominated by men, she finds it easy to get stories and pictures that would be denied to them. Because women open up to her, she can enter their lives easily, unobtrusively.

Newsha points out that, historically, ever since Iranians realised that the West was more progressive than their own country, they have changed their art-forms to suit Western approval. She does not like this because it means that Iranian art becomes less relevant to Iranians, and contributes to stereotypical views among the foreigners. This is an argument that has increasing resonance in most of the developing world. As art becomes a commodity, only what makes money is considered valuable. Newsha would like Iranians to push social boundaries and extend beyond Western appreciation 3.

Currently, there is an exhibition of her works at the
Side Gallery in Newcastle. It's called Sisters in Chanel and Chador, which is less evocative of her sense of irony than demonstrative of a fundamental aspect of life in Iran. In the same family, there can be a member who wears western couture and another who revels in the traditional. Newsha's own family has this dichotomy: her father's side is conservative, while her mother's is liberal, but there is no tension between them, and they get along very well. 4

Thirty years after the Islamic Revolution that brought power to the clerics, Iranian society has not remained static and cowed. It is not rare any longer to see men with long hair and body piercing in the posher parts of the capital. The culture is changing, says Newsha. If her brother had studded his lips like this a few years ago, her father would have thrown him out of the house (here she makes a fluid kicking motion which is as funny as it is cute). But not any longer.

Of course, there are still restrictions on individual freedoms. There are unwritten red lines, censorship rules that cannot be crossed. The extent of hair exposed by women under their scarves is a function of the diligence of the clerical vigilantes. For all the claims of a moral state, there is rampant drug abuse and prostitution and sundered families. For every few steps that society makes towards hope, there are severe pull-backs. But the Iranian loves Iran, flaws and all, and strives to improve it. The Iranian doesn't hate the West, and would like, more than anything, to have cordial relations with those suspicious people in Europe and America.

One of the great advantages that have accrued to women after the clerical takeover is that Ayatollah Khomeini, staunch conservative in almost every other way, was also a literal reader of the holy book. Nowhere did it say that women should not work outside the home, he declared. The Prophet may have stopped his wives from employment, but he did not say that others should do so. And therefore from 1978 women have been entering the public scene in manifold ways - education, scientific research, and business. As long as they remain 'modest', there is little opposition to their presence in public.

Of course, as in any conservative society, there is a wide difference between the exterior and the interior. As the children of the Revolution grow into adulthood and take up their place as drivers of the Iranian economy, these differences begin to narrow, and the private and the public meld more and more. Newsha documents this change with an unerring eye.

Further reading

1. Patricia Simón,
Newsha Tavakolian, Iran's inside story, Sep 13, 2006.

2. Loolwa Khazoom, A Witness to History,, Sep 2005.

3. Newsha Tavakolian,
Images of Iran: Aiding the Stereotypes, Nov 2004.

4. Barbara Hodgson,
Iran in Focus, The Journal, Jan 14, 2009.

And check out some of Newsha's spectacular work


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