Art & Photography Culture Iran & the World: art installations photo exhibits Pictures of You: Images from Iran Tom Loughlin
by Pars Arts
Tom Loughlin is a Colorado-based artist whose portraits of Iranians in Iran are being shown in a groundbreaking and thought-provoking installation across the United States. We asked Tom how his show, Pictures of You: Images from Iran, came about, how people have reacted so far, and where the show is going.
Pars Arts: In your artist’s statement, you write that the idea for Pictures of You started when you were taking photos in Isfahan. What drew you to Iran in the first place?
Tom Loughlin: The first time I heard of Iran was in 1979, when I was in middle school in St. Louis, Missouri. I clearly remember an intense mood of anger and disbelief about the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Every night on the network news, we would be reminded of how many days the “hostage crisis” had gone on. I don’t recall hearing anything about the history of U.S./Iranian relations, and the only explanation offered for the actions of the Iranian hostage takers was that they were religious fundamentalists who hated the United States.
The whole thing made quite an impression on me, and as I grew older, I couldn’t stop wondering what had motivated those Iranian university students. In high school, I was lucky enough to be able to take a course on Middle Eastern history, which helped me understand the roots of the Iranian revolution, and put Iranian concerns about U.S. intervention in a new light.
Although my history class helped to explain what had happened in Iran in 1979, it raised important questions for me about the United States. For example, our government’s participation in the 1953 coup was not part of our national conversation about Iran in 1979. What does that say about our own representative democracy? How can citizens engage in informed debate about foreign policy decisions if they lack the most basic historical facts?
Western demonization of Iran is not a new phenomenon – it dates back to the time of Herodotus. What’s fascinating to me is that we in the United States can’t seem to move away from that narrative. Of course there are many, many Americans who understand the world in a more nuanced way, but the puzzle for me is why with all of our prosperity, freedom, and commitment to education, so many of us have a simplistic, polarized view of U.S./Iranian relations.
PA: How did you find your subjects for the portraits in the installation? How did they react to the project?
TL: The show has evolved fairly rapidly over the past two years. When I first traveled to Iran in October 2006, the project didn’t even really exist. My main interest was in seeing Iran with my own eyes, and finding out what life was like for people in Iran. Not surprisingly, I was welcomed with Iran’s legendary hospitality, and I quickly came to believe that the United States would be a better place if all Americans could see the humanity of the citizens of Iran.
On my most recent trip to Iran, I was able to show renderings of what the completed installation would look like, and talk in some detail about where the work would be shown. Everyone I spoke to about the project seemed to understand it right away – both my desire to show Iran to Americans, and the variety of responses that we were likely to get in the United States. I found people to be very supportive, and quite interested to see how Americans would respond.
PA: The photos in Pictures of You are printed on translucent silk. You’ve written that the silk is intended to allow viewers to see each other as well as the photographs, and to remind them that “something beautiful is in jeopardy.” How have viewers reacted to Pictures of You?
TL: There have been a wide variety of reactions. In fact, the one commonality seems to be that no one is indifferent. Everyone seems to have a powerful response to the show.
So far, the overwhelming majority of responses have been positive. Viewers thank us for putting a human face on Iran, and many of them have powerful emotional responses. It’s quite amazing for me as an artist to see people emerging from the installation in tears, or emptying their pockets into our donation boxes because they want to see the show travel to other venues.
We have had a variety of negative responses as well. At our installation in Denver, we were picketed by a Christian group that wanted to express the view that Muslims were going to hell. Interestingly, they all agreed that the subjects of my photographs looked like very nice people. At the same installation, we had a visitor tell us that he wanted to go and get dynamite and destroy the artwork. One of our staff members engaged him in conversation about the show, and within ten minutes he had changed his mind completely! He told us he supported what we were doing, and thanked us for being there.
A lot of the negative responses have appeared on weblogs and news sites. Several bloggers came through our installation without sharing their opinions with anyone staffing the show, but went home and posted their negative feelings on their websites. In some cases, those posts drew hundreds and hundreds of comments within a day of being posted. There was also extensive commentary in response to mainstream online newspaper coverage of the show – frequently quite negative.
It’s fascinating to see how people make use of the new media that are available today. In this case, online forums have allowed debate about the show (and about U.S./Iranian relations) among people from very different backgrounds and points of view. Of course, we have also seen person-to-person debate and dialog happening at the show, too.
PA: Your website notes Pictures of You will be traveling throughout the U.S. in 2008/2009. Where have you shown thus far, and where are you headed?
TL: So far we have shown the work in my hometown of Crested Butte, Colorado, and at the Democratic National Convention. My wife and I agreed that we would build the installation and show it at those venues so that people could see what it looked like and how it worked. Let’s face it: this is a project that’s difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t seen it. Now that we’ve shown it a couple of times, and people have begun to talk about their experience of seeing the show, we think it will be easier for people to understand what we’re trying to do.
We are currently in a period of fundraising. It’s not a cheap show to put on, and we are absolutely committed to the idea that it has to be free for people to come see it. We want as many people as possible to have a chance to walk through the installation, so we feel the need to travel with it and to keep admission free.
We’ve put together a list of venues – we’ve narrowed it down to fifteen places we would like to travel to – beginning in Los Angeles this spring. But it’s all contingent on financial support. We’d be interested in hearing from your readers about where they would like to see the show, and whether they would be interested in supporting our fundraising efforts. [Ed. note: see the end of this post for tentative cities/dates.]
PA: Were you able to show this installation at the DNC and RNC? How did viewers at each convention react?
TL: In some ways, the most interesting responses we got were from the Democratic and Republican National Committees that put on the conventions. The DNC had a designated “free speech” zone in a beautiful city park right in the heart of downtown Denver. The DNC helped groups who wanted to put on a display in the park, or march from the park to the auditorium where the convention was being held. We had a rather large, unorthodox installation to put on, but with help from the DNC and officials working for the City of Denver, we were able to pull it off.
We had a different experience with the folks planning the Republican National Convention. We applied to put on our installation in their designated free speech zone – a large, grassy island across the Mississippi River from the convention site. After we submitted our application, we were told that our installation couldn’t go in the free speech zone, so we had to start over again. After months of going back and forth, we were offered a spot just a few weeks before the convention. The proposed location was under a bridge next to a highway, and had no parking lot and no way for pedestrians to cross the highway. We elected not to put on the installation there.
Draw your own conclusions about what those distinctions might mean.
PA: What are your future plans for Pictures of You?
TL: We want to travel broadly with the installation, and we want to record how Americans respond to it. I think the variety and the intensity of viewers’ responses to the show present an opportunity to document where we are as a nation right now. We’ve made a short film about the first two installations, and it’s been a great way to illustrate how people respond to the artwork [Ed. note: see top of this post for the video]. We would like to do a longer film about the reception we get as we travel across the United States. But, as I mentioned, this is all dependent on financial support.
Pictures of You will have tentative showings in the following cities in 2009:
- Los Angeles, early April
- Las Vegas, mid April
- St. George, UT, mid/late April
- Phoenix, early May
- Santa Fe, early/mid May
- Colorado Springs, mid/late May
- St. Louis, 4th of July
- Cheyenne, WY, mid July
- Chicago, mid August
- Minnesota State Fair, late August
- Kansas State Fair, mid September
- Texas State Fair, late September/early October
- Oxford, MS, mid October
- Oklahoma City, mid/late October
- Louisiana State Fair, late October/early November
- East Coast trip starting Spring 2010