Art & Photography Culture Internet Interviews: Azad interviews with young Iranians Iran Life Goes on in Tehran Photography
by Pars Arts
The photo blog Life Goes on in Tehran highlights ordinary Tehran life in an effort to dispel Western myths and poorly slanted media coverage about Iran. It has a very insider quality that makes you feel like you’re on your own Tehran visit. The man behind the site, 28-year-old Azad (last name withheld for reasons outlined below), documents his life there on a camera phone and updates the site with new pictures and captions each month. We sent him some questions by email, and here’s what he had to say.
Pars Arts: You are anonymous on your photo blog; without revealing your name/identity, can you tell us more about who you are and where you grew up? Can you also talk about why you’ve decided to be anonymous?
Azad: I was born and raised in Tehran and then moved to the Los Angeles area when I was 14. Following the awkward assimilation period of high school, I attended USC where I got my BA in Cinema-Television in 2001. After graduation I paid my bills doing web design, while affording myself the opportunity to make short films and travel for months at a time.
There are multiple reasons for wanting to stay anonymous. For one, I don’t want the website to become about me. I like it as it is; Tehran from the point of view of a former Los Angeles resident, regardless of who that resident is. Plus, I often point my camera at unsuspecting friends and family members at private gatherings and parties. In order to hide their identities, I feel like I should first hide mine. A more dramatic reason would be staying away from either Evin prison in Tehran or a secret CIA prison somewhere in Eastern Europe! But really, if someone tried hard enough, they could find out who is behind the photo blog. So what it comes down to is me trying to stay out of Tehran’s spotlight.
PA: Why did you move (back?) to Iran?
Azad: Ironically, I moved (back) to Tehran to jump-start my film career. Most people go to Los Angeles to do this; I left. I think the Hollywood film scene is for when you’ve already made it. You don’t fare well in Hollywood as a struggling filmmaker. In order to meet my personal goal of making my first feature-length film before I’m 30, I weighed my options and felt that I would be more likely to do so if I were to move to Tehran. Plus, if I get started here, I will always have a base to come back to.
PA: What’s been the biggest surprise about living in Tehran for you? What’s been the most difficult part of adjusting to life in Iran? What do you miss most about your LA life?
Azad: I tested the waters with a couple of short-term stays before finally making the big move. So I had an idea about what life in Tehran might have in store for me and I can’t say there were any surprises. If anything, the fact that it’s similar to living in LA, for the most part, is a surprise in and of itself. It’s more about moving from one big city to another. I have, however, narrowed down the differences to three main things, the absence of which makes life in Tehran a tad more difficult: respect, trust and freedom to choose. Most everything that might annoy someone who has lived abroad fits in one or all of the above categories.
This is not to say that Iranians are disrespectful or untrustworthy. On the contrary, in personal interactions and relationships with people you know they’re perhaps more respectful, kind and trustworthy [than people in Los Angeles]. But when it comes to dealing with “them,” things get shady. And the place where this is most apparent is the relationship the government has with its people. All three are missing in that particular marriage. Needless to say, the three things I miss most about LA are: respect, trust and freedom to choose. I won’t get into specifics, but if I have done my job right, you’ll see examples of this on my site.
PA: I’ve frequently wondered whether being Iranian-American (or any other sort of Iranian hyphenate) is a barrier or instead lends a certain cachet to those that grew up abroad and then move back to Iran for work/to live. Any first-hand observations/thoughts on this? Is there a sizable community of people who have moved back to Iran?
Azad: It’s definitely not a barrier. For some reason, people here take Iranians coming from the U.S. very seriously. Perhaps too seriously. This is surprising considering the type of junk-TV a handful of Iranians in Los Angeles beam to their living rooms. If my only image of Iranian-Americans were those of the LA pop stars and TV anchors as seen on satellite TV, I would question anyone who associated with anything American. But fortunately most everyone — at least among the middle-class Iranians — has a relative in the U.S. Because of these relatives, lines of communication are always open and the general public is aware of what life in the US can be like. So there’s this thought process of “Oh you lived in the US? Lucky you! Want to run my company? You single?!”
I am sure a medical degree from Harvard deserves the type of respect here as it does anywhere else in the world, but as for my own degree, well, my film degree means nothing to me or to anyone in Hollywood. But here, they introduce me as “So and so, who studied film in the US.” Before I have a chance to discredit my degree, they already take me for some genius that I am not. This I find amusing. Some people use this to their advantage. I’ve run into folks who have taken courses at Santa Monica City College who consider themselves “U.S. educated,” and you’ll be surprised to see how it opens doors for them. This is not to bash on SMC or any other community college, for that matter, but it perfectly demonstrates the type of weight being Iranian-hyphen-anything carries.
I have also decided to keep my U.S. citizenship a secret. What is shadier than being taken more seriously at what you do because of some U.S. education is finding yourself in a relationship with someone who likes you for your passport! Luckily I haven’t experienced this, but I am told to be cautious. It would be really sad to have that be a qualification (but unfortunately some fellow Iranian-Americans do).
PA: Several of your images capture and comment on Iranian media consumption (satellite dishes, newspapers, film, art). Are the art, culture, and media produced in Iran – and the various means of consumption that defy censorship – vastly different from what you thought they would be?
Azad: This is too broad a topic to try and tackle with a general statement on what art/culture/media Iranians produce and consume. I personally never had any expectations or pre-conceived notions of what this may be like in Iran. But because there are many more obstacles and bans on creation and consumption in Iran, people tend to not take for granted what is readily available in the U.S. For example, in the US you can watch any movie your heart desires, have access to any website or go to any play, but you don’t necessarily take advantage of this. Because you take your freedom for granted. When you come to Iran, you start to seek that which the government wants to keep from you. Suddenly watching a banned movie or going to a blocked website becomes a more valuable (and pleasurable) experience. Then in the process you feel more “cultured.”
PA: A lot of your photos appear to be shot in northern Tehran – a more affluent part of the city. Much of the lifestyle press coverage coming from Tehran seems to be focused on this area also (or it’s very much the opposite, looking at abject poverty), but I think you do a good job pointing out the economic context of your photos in your short captions, which is where a lot of mainstream reportage about Iran fails. I assume you shoot mostly things happening around you, but do you have plans to venture further south in the city and capture a different socioeconomic scene also?
Azad: I am not a reporter and therefore I don’t go out of my way to report on life in Tehran (unfortunately many mainstream Western reporters do the same!). My main goal is show that life in general, my life in particular, goes on in Tehran. So I point the camera at my immediate surroundings, which happens to be that of the more affluent middle-class northern Tehran. There’s no shame in this. Because it is exactly this socioeconomic scene that is under-represented — by both the Iranian media as well as the Western press coverage. One could take away from this the very fact that Tehran is so large a city that you could live your whole life in one neighborhood and never cross paths with other less or more fortunate souls in other neighborhoods. Same is true with any large cities. Many Iranians living in Beverly Hills have never set foot in Compton or South Central LA, even though they’re only a few miles apart. That said, I do have a few photos from South Tehran. One in particular is of an elderly man near Khorasan Square in the south who had lived his whole life there and had never seen Pasdaran or other neighborhoods in the north.
PA: What kind of feedback have you gotten from people that follow LGOIT?
Azad: So far I’ve only received positive feedback. Many Iranians abroad write and tell me that the site brought tears to their eyes. They thank me for finally portraying life in Tehran in such a way that they can proudly share with their non-Iranian friends. I can relate to their sentiments, because I think when you live outside of Iran, the situation is such that it becomes really difficult for you to prove to your non-Iranian friends and family that Iran isn’t all that bad, that there’s more good than evil, more positive than negative, and most importantly that we are not backwards, but similar to them, that we share many of the same values and ideals.
I also get many emails from Americans and Europeans who thank me for showing a side of Iran they had no idea existed. One American visitor even joked about me receiving a Noble Peace prize for my efforts. Because he thought it would be much tougher for the Bush White House to start a war with Iran if the word on my site were to get out and more tax-paying Americans were to see it. And the word is getting out. As of this interview I have had thousands of unique visitors from 97 countries in over 1700 cities. I for one find all this very inspiring and with each new visitor I get more motivated to continue what I’m doing. What started out as a simple site to assure my friends back home that I’m safe in Tehran has gotten a life of its own. Hopefully I will one day look back at the archives of Life Goes On In Tehran and feel that I did my small part in changing world public opinions about Iran and stopping a catastrophic war.
(Photos courtesy of Life Goes on in Tehran)