You first studied cinema, what brought you to photography?
Becoming a photographer was the last thing on my mind. Though I had to develop and expose photos for my student projects, my main practice at the university was writing and filmmaking. The idea of my first photo series, Reading for Tehran Streets, came to my mind when I was working on my thesis Self-reflexivity in Cinema. I was then fascinated by self-reflexive theory as a narration device to convey ideas. Based on this, I started to develop them in a series of eight photos, and during a year I shot them separately. It was like making eight short films – each in one frame. Since then, I have become deeply interested and dedicated to conceptual art and staged photography.
Painting, writing, calligraphy, film-making… How do those different mediums influence your photographic work?
My father pushed me to start calligraphy at the age of seven, and, after a decade of practicing, I achieved a Master’s degree from the Calligraphy Society of Iran. The many rules of Iranian calligraphy seemed exhausting to me, as a young girl. During those years, painting became a sort of shelter – for as much as the limitations of calligraphy bothered me, painting was liberating. When I entered film school, I quit them both. Cinema helped me reach new levels of creativity, combining many different forms.
In my opinion, all artistic mediums are intertwined. My photographic works have been influenced by each of these forms in different terms: calligraphy taught me discipline and self-dedication, painting taught me freedom of expression, literature taught me how to develop ideas and articulate them in an art form.
Culture and tradition are ongoing themes in your work. Can you tell us about the relation between your Iranian upbringing and your work?
I grew up in a middle-class and cultural family. I had a very fortunate childhood, especially in a time of war and political crisis in my country. One of the characteristics of upbringing in Iran is that most children receive two different and contradictory educations at the same time. The values learnt at home are different from the values taught at school. Even the country’s recent history is told differently in both places. It is like two different worlds moving in parallel with one another.
With my parents’ guidance, I was again fortunate to see this contradictory upbringing as an opportunity. An opportunity not to believe in everything which is given to me, to look at the right place, and ask the right question at the right time. The concepts and themes I explore in my work are approached through the eyes of a little girl asking her teacher a forbidden question – a question about a subject that is freely discussed in her home. I hope that, with every artwork I make, I can crack the wall which stands between these two worlds.
How do you choose to portray heritage?
Heritage is so deeply rooted in me that I do not consciously try to portray it in order to preserve it. For example, the greatest Iranian heritage is poetry. Classical poetry is still there in our lives, no matter our education. Persian poetry is well known for being multi-layered and multi-meaningful. Such semiology, symbolism, and aesthetics are great sources of inspiration, while its artistic elements can be adapted to different mediums.
On the other hand, when I refer to a contemporary issue in my country, I try to study it from a different perspective. I believe that I can only be a great admirer of my Iranian heritage if I can also be its harshest critic.
You’ve worked with hair and the concealing of women’s bodies. Is being a woman at the center of your work?
The issue of gender has always been present in my work. Sometimes it is at the core of my concept, like the Concealment and Good series, and sometimes it remains in the background, like in Reading for Tehran streets or even in my short films. In my country, where gender is always a deeply sensitive issue in every aspect of society, is it even possible not to think about being a woman in everything that you do? Gender’s presence fills up my life so much that I often feel forced to think like a woman and create bodies of work that are related to women only. Nevertheless I still do not know myself as a woman, because I was never allowed to express what I am. So, gender is still one of the questions I address in my work.
Have you ever suffered from prejudice because of your choice of subjects?
Of course, over and over, in various kinds and scales. Even winning an international award has raised prejudice against me and brought up discussions about the subject of my work – which has been intentionally misinterpreted. Though all my photos have been exhibited in Iran, the fear my subjects bring has made me limit myself to avoid any kind of restriction. I also believe that censorship is another face of prejudice. For my generation, it has been a great problem, though as it requires more effort for the artists to create, it might lead to a more creative and unique way of expressing feelings and ideas.
Would you say gender is an important subject for contemporary female middle-eastern artists?
A Middle Eastern woman has to break countless barriers to become an artist. Some of these barriers are related to gender, to patriarchy. No matter how cliché this sentence sounds, it does not make it any less true. I believe that art is born out of human suffering. So, it is not surprising that the place of women is an important issue for Middle Eastern women artists.