Saturday, December 10, 2022

Whenever I reach the end, I start from scratch

Newsha Tavakolian, a self-taught photographer, says her success has no bearing on her gender.

Newsha Tavakolian, an established photojournalist and art photographer, started her experimental career at 16. After a while she pursued it professionally in Iranian and foreign media. Two decades on, her social recognition and awareness has catapulted her into the ranks of the outstanding photographers.

She was named the fifth laureate of the 2014 Carmignac Gestion photojournalism Award, but returned the €50,000 prize money in protest at insistence by Edouard Carmignac – the French investment banker and head of the Carmignac Foundation – on editing her images, changing her texts and titling the project.

Zanan-e Emrooz magazine released an interview with Newsha in its 7th issue (December 2014) about her career and life. The following is a partial translation of the interview:

Why did you pick photography? Was anybody in your family who did photography?

At first I knew nothing about photojournalism. I did it for money. My parents were in Germany for my dad’s surgery, and my siblings and I were in Iran. Apart from financial problems, I found the education system annoying. Later I learned that I was suffering from Dyslexia¹ at school but nobody knew about it. Back then I didn’t want to rebel; it was just a normal reaction to the tough conditions of the time…. after dropping out of school, I took photography at my mom’s suggestion and used everything as a subject for photography. […]

Once you said you always wanted to narrate the story of your subjects. Are your recent collections your narration of the characters? […]

My first work was Mothers of the Martyrs Collection: photos of mothers whose sons had been martyred. The undeniable resemblance between mothers and sons was interesting. […] Two reverse trends: a son who has remained in his youth with a cheerful face and a mom who looks emaciated because of the loss of her son. I just selected the backgrounds for the pictures and there was no other intervention on my part. […]

I just show part of their lives and leave the remainder to the imagination of the audience. I like to see viewers get involved in the story of my photos, not just their beauties. None of my photos has a strange surreal atmosphere. They feature the familiar scenes we pass by each day, but we now pause to watch the photos and they make us think.

For instance, the visitors of the Look Collection (2011) told me they felt as if they were watching themselves in those photos. This shows that I have successfully represented a typical character type in the photos. Drawing on my experiences in photojournalism and social documentaries, I’ve reached this point. My photos feature the middle class; that’s why more people identify with the characters in my work. […]

What would have you done if you weren’t a photographer? 

I would’ve been a Flamingo [a 1940 popular song and jazz standard] singer because of its somber grief. Just now I try to sing through my photos. I think grief is the strangest and deepest feeling in the world. […]

The media, especially foreign media, have written a lot about you. The fact that you are a woman and an Iranian has been the reason why they focus on you. How do you think these two features have affected your current image?

I had to fight against the clichés. First I had to prove myself in Iran and then go beyond the cliché phrase of ‘exotic Iranian women’. It was a prolonged fight with no instantaneous rebellion. My male colleagues would tie my success to my gender. That was an insult – I don’t deny the role of gender, though – but my strenuous efforts shouldn’t be ignored.

You are first introduced with the very exotic, attractive components, but a feature that goes beyond gender shows itself after a while, something which is evident in your works.

Those who use new exploitation methods play up your works by the definitions they offer. You need to be smart enough not to be misused by anybody even if their attention may earn you global fame.

I’m an Iranian woman, but never have I focused on it. If others magnify these aspects of my life, it’s not because of my insistence. I’ve never been allured by the temptation of advancing my agenda based on my femininity, but the fact is that women are less involved in photography than men! […]

As a photojournalist, you not only covered the news on Iran but also news stories in the region, including the Iran-Iraq war. How was it like?

Back then I was 21. In Iraq I was accompanied by two American women. When we left Iraq after the war, they had other projects to work on and show themselves, but I came across closure of newspapers [in Iran] and a stagnant situation in which you would be consumed by inaction.

After one and a half years I realized that I’d spent too much time on something which I couldn’t change. I admitted that I was living in this country with all limitations and I needed to redouble my efforts to work here. […]

I refocused my efforts on upgrading my works. You cannot believe how terrible I was in photography and how much I worked on it. I’m the harshest critic of myself. I relentlessly review my works in order not to let others find any faults with them; I don’t let anybody undermine my self-confidence either. I constantly evaluate and challenge my works, and I think this is a forwarding method.

At the time of war, I was among the first photographers who were in Iraq. I sent my photos through my agency to Time and Newsweek magazines. They didn’t know I was a girl. Well, this heartened me because my works were put above my gender.


Where do you think the world is heading with too many photos available? Today mobiles and tablets don’t miss even one single moment.  ….

I don’t walk down this path. I don’t produce a big volume of photos. I’m stingy in photography. I feel responsible for taking any photo.

I’m stingy even in sending the feed to my eyes and mind. I wouldn’t look at just any video or photo because I wanted to train my eyes.

You are not supposed to watch anything just to spend time or relieve tiredness; otherwise your sight will get sick, just like you don’t eat anything just to fill your stomach. Perhaps these photos are helpful for future historians not to encounter any ambiguity […]

As a professional photographer, is your life affected by news? Is news still tragic for you?

Pieces of bad news send chills down my spine. I’m still involved in photojournalism. It is a labor of love. Let me give you an example. After a tough period of hard work – a four-month trip to 13 countries for filming and photography for an educational project – and facing problems with the Carmignac Foundation, I was in the Netherlands where I decided to go to the beach and have a rest. It coincided with the crash of a Malaysian airliner in Ukraine. The families of the Dutch nationals who were onboard the [doomed] plane went to the airport to ask about their loved ones.

I rushed to the airport when I heard the news. I was unaware that I had no camera, so I collected one at the airport and started to take photos. Nobody was waiting for my photos.

About one month ago I went to Iraq for a personal project. I didn’t snap the most important photo I could take and wrote it instead*.

You’ve travelled to many countries. Have you ever thought about migration given that your husband is not Iranian?

I’m still in Iran because it is the only place where I can use all my senses: anger, happiness, concerns, etc. My Iran photos are the strongest. It’s hard for me to let go of what I’ve developed an interest in. Luckily my husband is interested in Iran too.

I like Iran despite its shortcomings to which I don’t turn a blind eye. This society’s problems bother me and I cannot remain indifferent to them. If I live here and like it, I should do whatever I can for it. […]

Tell us about what you’ve changed in yourself through your own constructive criticism.

Whenever I hold a camera, I imagine it’s my first time. […] Each day I try to gain new things. It all started when I returned from Iraq. I could either suffer from postwar depression or forget whatever I had experienced in order to return to normal life. I chose the intentional forgetfulness in order not to be entrapped by sentimentalism, and not to regret the past. Never do I think about the past. I face the future. Each time I reach the end, I start from scratch.

1. Dyslexia or developmental reading disorder is characterized by difficulty with learning to read. This includes difficulty with phonological awareness and decoding, orthographic coding, auditory short-term memory, language skills/verbal comprehension, and rapid naming.
* A Thousand Words for a Picture That I Never Took, Newsha Tavakolian, Sharq newspaper.
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