In this issue of ZEKE, we present the work of five Iranian photographers who are part of a large and dynamic community of documentary photographers, film makers, and journalists largely unknown in the U.S. All the photographers in this feature article, except Azad Amin, are affiliated with the Iran Photographic Arts Federation. Amin is affiliated with the Iranian Photographer’s Society.
Sadegh Souri gives us a chilling look at Iranian girls on death row, who when they reach 18, will be executed for crimes they committed as juveniles as young as 9, the age of responsibility under Sharia law. A still photographer and documentary filmmaker, Souri is active in a number of Iranian photographic associations.
In his exhibit “The Market Is Closed,” Saeed Kiaee, a photographer, journalist, and researcher, takes us on a tour of Tehran’s fabled Grand Bazaar not as we usually see it, teeming with merchants and shoppers of all kinds, but rather when it is closed and the few remaining people appear as spirits wandering through the darkened alley ways.
Ariz Ghaderi, another award-winning Iranian documentary photographer, has focused on the crushing poverty and challenges facing the children of gypsies in Iran’s Khorasan Razavi province. Often in poor health and malnourished, they beg to survive and exist on the fringe of Iranian society.
Mehdi Nazeri, a self-trained, experimental photographer who has turned to documentary work, provides a moving examination of the have-nots who live on the scraps of the wealthy in one of Iran’s three main business hubs. Dedicated to exposing the cultures and traditions of his people, his work has been included in numerous exhibitions throughout Iran.
And finally there is the work of Azad Amin, whose project on the bond between dog owners and their dogs in a nation that forbids dog ownership, turns on its head our understanding of that relationship. Amin has been photographing professionally for the past six years, and in that time has won a number of important awards.
“At every era, [Iranians] are able to take what is in their cultural basket and rearrange it and make it into something exciting.”
—Shahla Haeri, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Boston University
When many picture Iran, they envision a bleak political landscape, riddled with conflict, poverty and discontent.
Just weeks ago, newly-appointed U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis called the Middle Eastern country the “biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world.” And President Donald Trump has already proposed banning Iranians from entering the country on a temporary basis, along with five other predominantly Muslim countries.
The U.S. and Iran have had icy relations ever since 1979 when U.S. Embassy employees in Tehran were taken hostage during the Iranian Revolution and the U.S. painted Iran as a breeding ground for extremism and attacks. But for natives, scholars and visitors of Iran, the country is something else — a hub of art, expression, and culture despite political turmoil.
A Complex Nation
Boston-based scholar and researcher Shahla Haeri has conducted research in Iran and written on religion, law and gender dynamics in the Muslim world. Haeri said there is much more to Iran than the way it is viewed in Western culture — and that the U.S.’s portrayal of it as a hub for terrorism is not accurate.
“I think it would be nice if they looked through a mirror and then make comments,” Haeri said. “How is the narrative of terror created? Who has the bully pulpit?”
In some ways, the modern Iranian government is not much different from that of the U.S., at least in its basic structure. The president is popularly elected, and there is a legislative branch in addition to a powerful judiciary. The difference is that Iran is a theocracy, heavily influenced by Sharia Law under a Supreme Leader who holds both political and theological control.
Freedom House ranks Iran a 6 in terms of freedom, political rights and civil liberties on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 being the least free. Iran does not have a free press, and some personal rights are restricted as well, such as activism or even movement between places, especially for women.
But despite these restrictions, the citizens of Iran are constantly creating as a means of coping and expressing themselves. Persian culture has been known for a millennium for its rich poetry, writing, painting and music, much of which have political themes.
“People try to make their lives meaningful — they try to engage with the structures of power that restrict their lives,” Haeri said.
Haeri said she goes to galleries and concerts every year when she visits Iran, and believes political strife is the context for the vibrant cultural expression found throughout Iran. “The restrictions are there and I don’t want to minimize them — but it’s not that people are sitting back, they’re pushing those boundaries.”
While women are more restricted in Iran than men, they are creators as well.
“These are some of the paradoxes of this country — at one point it’s being restrictive and at the same time, it’s giving opportunity to women,” Haeri said. “It sort of challenges all of the stereotypes people have — look at how many women photographers, poets, writers there are living in Iran.”
Examples of this have also been captured by Kristen Gresh, whose exhibition catalog “She Who Tells a Story” captured the work of 12 leading female photographers from Iran and elsewhere in the Arab world. The photographers’ work looks at gender stereotypes and political change amidst social stigmas against women in their cultures. The work of these photographers is just one vibrant example of the way women are creating in Iran despite gender constructs.
Vibrant Literary Culture
While the press isn’t free, Iran still has prominent news outlets of its own, in both print and online, such as Iran Daily and Tehran Times.
Iran Wire or Radio Free Europe, which broadcasts in 28 different languages. Atosa Buhlmann is an Iranian broadcast journalist who works in the Czech Republic to bring Iranians news through Radio Free Europe’s Persian broadcast.
Outlets outside of the country bring it news, such as
“As a journalist, that is where the government is looking much more closely,” Buhlmann said. “What you print on newspapers or website or blogs, that is where they are looking. This can have consequences — this means the government not only can arrest the journalist that wrote what they didn’t like, but they can close the whole website.”
Buhlmann said though owning satellite dishes and receivers in Iran is illegal, nearly every home has them. And while police periodically conduct raids, it does not stop people from going out and buying new ones after they are confiscated.
“It’s the kind of resistance that I haven’t seen it any other country,” she said.
That resistance and boundary-pushing is exactly what has continued to create change, Buhlmann said. And while pushing boundaries is dangerous, it helps normalize activities that were previously forbidden, such as women wearing sandals in public.
“Imagine in the ‘80s, it was all gray and lifeless and joyless, and then it turned a little bit more colorful and more joyful and more normal,” Buhlmann said. “That was thanks to the resistance of people who tried to push boundaries whenever they could.”
And journalism isn’t the only kind of writing occurring there.
“Iran has a long literary history. It’s poetry is world-renowned, everybody knows about that,” Haeri said.
Iran’s history gives much important context for its literature and art as well. The history that informs the expression is long and intertwined with much of the Middle East. Before its independence in 1979, Iran was known as Persia, an imperial dynasty.
“Iranians have a sense of themselves and a good sense of their identity, history and civilization,” Haeri said. “At every era, they are able to take what is in their cultural basket and rearrange it and make it into something exciting.”
The revolution seen in the modern artifacts of Iran is not only symbolic, though. It is a product of real political uprising, like the recent Green Revolution that began in 2009 after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected to a second term of office under questionable circumstances. The revolution is focused on creating a fairer democracy in Iran and furthering the rights of its people.
“There is a subculture of open-minded, mostly atheists or not deep believers,” Buhlmann said. “They are not interested in this lifestyle that is imposed on them, and that is the fight we are witnessing.”
The citizens of Iran strive to make their lives meaningful and transformative for their country, but they also simply love to have fun in any way they can, as the many parties and celebrations attest — one of the biggest being Nowruz, the celebration of the Iranian New Year on March 21.
“They love to get together at every occasion, to have fun, to read poetry, to sing and dance — as much as these are frowned upon by the Iranian government publicly, but they don’t do it in public,” Haeri said.
Though the Western world still has a long way to go in terms of understanding Iran, there are some strides being made. Despite the political control by conservatives in the U.S. pushing the ban on Iranians and others from predominantly Muslim countries, Iranian art is still being recognized as great.
Most recently, Iranian director and writer Asghar Farhadi won his second Academy Award in the category of Best Foreign Language Film for “The Salesman.” The film was a thriller about a couple seeking justice amidst violence in Tehran, after the wife is attacked in the couples’ home. Farhadi chose to boycott the awards following U.S. President Donald Trump’s first effort to ban travel from predominantly Muslim countries, including Iran.
ZEKE is published by Social Documentary Network (SDN), an organization promoting visual storytelling about global themes. Started as a website in 2008, today SDN works with more than 1,500 photographers from around around the world to tell important stories through the visual medium of photography and multimedia. Since 2008, SDN has featured more than 2,000 exhibits on its website and has had gallery exhibitions in major cities around the world. All the work featured in ZEKE first appeared on the SDN website, www.socialdocumentary.net.
Spring 2017 Vol. 3/No. 1
Executive Editor: Glenn Ruga
Editor: Barbara Ayotte
Interns: Kelly Kollias, Laney Ruckstuhl
Social Documentary Network Advisory Committee
Barbara Ayotte, Medford, MA
Senior Director of Strategic Communications
Management Sciences for Health
Lori Grinker, New York, NY
Independent Photographer and Educator
Steve Horn, Lopez Island, WA
Ed Kashi, Montclair, NJ
Member of VII photo agency
Photographer, Filmmaker, Educator
Reza, Paris, France
Photographer and Humanist
Jeffrey D. Smith, New York NY
Contact Press Images
Molly Roberts, Washington, DC
Senior Photography Editor
Steve Walker, New York, NY
Consultant and educator
Frank Ward, Williamsburg, MA
Photographer and Educator
ZEKE is published twice a year by Social Documentary Network
Copyright © 2017
Social Documentary Network
Print ISSN 2381-1390
Digital ISSN: Forthcoming
ZEKE does not accept unsolicited submissions. To be considered for publication in ZEKE, submit your work to the SDN website either as a standard exhibit or a submission to a Call for Entries. Contributing photographers can choose to pay a fee for their work to be exhibited on SDN for a year or they can choose a free trial. Free trials have the same opportunity to be published in ZEKE as paid exhibits.
Photographers and writers featured in this issue of ZEKE
Anna Akage-Kyslytska, Ukraine
Azad Amin, Iran
Sarah Blesener, United States
Emma Brown, United States
Caterina Clerici, United States and Italy
B.D. Colen, Canada
Nikki Denholm, New Zealand
Ariz Ghaderi, Iran
Saeed Kiaee, Iran
Kelly Kollias, United States
Mehdi Nazeri, Iran
Paolo Patruno, Italy
Laney Ruckstuhl, United States
Anne Sahler, Germany and Japan
Sadegh Souri, Iran
Frank Ward, United States
Cover photo by Mehdi Nazeri from Poverty in Wealth. Bandar Abbas, Iran.