Interview with Iason Athanasiadis: Exploring the Other

Exploring the Other - Iason Athanasiadis

Photojournalist, writer, producer, and 2008 Nieman Fellow Iason Athanasiadis has spent years covering the Middle East, and he’ll be showing his work at the Craft and Folk Art Museum (CAFAM) in Los Angeles from January 25 through March 29 in an exhibition entitled “Exploring the Other.” We asked Iason about his experience working as a journalist in Iran.

Pars Arts: An exhibit of your photographs of Iran and its people, “Exploring the Other,” is opening at CAFAM shortly. When/why/how did you become interested in Iran?
Iason Athanasiadis: In the 2004 Olympics, I was working for BBC World in Greece after having spent years in the Arab Middle East, including covering the US invasion of Iraq for al-Jazeera. After the spotlights went out over the stadiums and the large BBC Olympics team disappeared back to London, I wanted to take a year off and go back to university. Serendipity knocked when an Iranian friend of mine told me about an MA program being offered by an Iranian university that would also mean moving to Iran. I jumped at the chance. It was one of the best decisions I made in my life.

PA: You’ve spent quite a bit of time living in and reporting from Iran. What do you think is the biggest challenge for foreign journalists in Iran?
IA: Several issues, chief of which is how to reconcile on-the-ground narratives that are more conflicting and widely-dispersed than from almost any other place that I’ve reported on. It’s very difficult to do fact-checking when the narratives are sometimes diametrically opposed, the government bureaucracy unresponsive and the craft of ‘foreign correspondent’ is synonymous with ‘foreign intelligence operative’ in the minds of many.

Paperwork is required to work anywhere in the country, minders are ever-present, and official permits never arrive or come long after the news deadline has elapsed, However, Iran is also by far the most fascinating country to work on off-the-radar stories about society that break the dominance on the news agenda of stories about the nuclear program, human rights abuses and purported Iranian designs on the region. And however often we in the West say that the Iranians are paranoid and see conspiracy everywhere, my stay in the country often proved to me that “just because one is paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get him.” This recently-published story demonstrates the truth of this, I think: Revolutionary Inroads.

By far the best journalist writing from Iran these days is Thomas Erdbrink. His wife, Newsha Tavakolian, is one of the most talented of the next generation of photographers.

PA: The exhibit’s press release notes that your work “challenges visitors to question how media information is presented (and filtered).” As an experienced journalist, can you briefly explain this filtering process?
IA: The blame lies both on the side of editors suffering from an anti-Iran bias or not enough knowledge of the country, and on the side of a government that refuses access and hinders coverage of the country.

PA: As a photojournalist and non-Iranian yourself, what makes the images of Iran you’ve taken different from those your fellow journalists are creating? In other words, how do these images sidestep filtering, or make the filtering process more transparent?
IA: As a non-Iranian I see the country with a freshness that, unfortunately, I lack in covering my own country, Greece.

We always see the new through a different perspective than the one with which we view the familiar. Excellent work from Iran has been created by several photojournalists; the majority of them more talented and senior than me. Some of these are Reza Deghati, Majid Saeedi, Kaveh Golestan, Bahman Jalali, Paolo Woods, Mohammad Farnood, Jamshid Bayrami, Gilles Peress, Nasrollah Kasraian.

If we want to talk about sidestepping filtering, it’s easy to do this if the primary place where the filtering happens is in the head. I made sure to learn the language, read as much as I could about Iran and speak to those who could enlighten me about the true nature of the country. As for the second main place where filtering happens, the editor’s desk, as a freelancer I have the great luxury to choose not to work again with editors whose handling of my work I have issues with.

PA: You’ve had numerous photo exhibits around the world, including in Iran. How have Iranians in Iran reacted to images of themselves?
IA: I made a point of turning up to my Tehran shows every day of their duration and engaging with visitors on their perceptions of the images. I learned a lot of interesting things from these encounters.

For example, one visitor was pleasantly surprised to see the picture of the man with weighing-scales that he had passed by every day since he was a child in Hamedan’s main square, hanging on the wall; Iranians in Greece and the US have enjoyed seeing images of a homeland they have not seen since leaving it before or after the Revolution. Many of them express surprise, sadness, joy or melancholy at how their country looks today. Often these images do not jive with their own narratives.

I learned much from the criticism that visitors – thankfully Iranians are not shy about their emotions – expressed about my work, and tried to use it as a spur to improve my perspective.

Most memorable was the comment a Tehrani journalism made about my work. Of all the people depicted, she said, the majority look sad, disconnected. Why did I portray them like that? What was it in my own psychosynthesis that prompted me to click the shutter on these moments?

The comment stuck with me because it was true, and I questioned myself over it. Even in my current show, one of the rare images of people laughing is on the ski lifts in Shemshak, a place that at the time the image was taken effectively lay outside the orbit of public morality.

Maybe it has to do with me. Maybe it has to do with the way in which the citizens of the Islamic Republic present themselves in public.

Hossein Derakhshan Arrested

This is old news that was reported by an Iranian source a few weeks ago but not confirmed elsewhere. Today Iranian blogger Khorshid Khanoom/Lady Sun writes that she has word that Hossein Derakhshan, aka Hoder, was indeed arrested in Iran on November 1. From her English-language blog, Lady Sun:

I am quoting this news from Nazli Kamvari, a friend of Hossein Derakhshan and an Iranian blogger living in Toronto, who has been directly in touch with Hossein’s sister and just wrote about this news in her Persian blog.

My understanding is that Hossein’s family has been under pressure from the authorities not to talk about Hossein’s arrest and not to get a lawyer for him. So, it is understandable that they are not talking to the media. But we at least can assure both the Persian and global blogosphere, who were previously in doubts about Hossein’s arrest, that he’s really arrested.

Pictures of You: Images from Iran

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

Love Sent to Iran

Bri Olson in Meydaneh Azadi

 

Bri Olson in Tehran - photo by Michael Pope

 

Bri Olson is an American artist who wrote about her project, Send Love to Iran, on Pars Arts several months ago. She was recently able to achieve her goal of visiting and seeing the real Iran. Here’s what she saw:

After a year or so of saving up and several months biting my finger nails while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs considered my visa request, I flew, arm-in-arm with my better half, to Tehran to experience Iran firsthand. Having only a general idea of what to expect, Michael and I felt a bit like we were exploring uncharted territory when we stepped off our Emirates plane at Imam Khomeini International Airport.

Two years ago, I never would have considered that Tehran might have a contemporary art scene worth mentioning, until my new Iranian friend Raam (of rock band Hypernova) started to tell me stories of the “real” Iran: Basement shows, desert festivals, and private parties that gave artists and socialites outlets to express themselves. Cut to: Me; covered in hijab, guidebook in hand and ready to see for myself a world whose media and images are filtered by both U.S. and Iranian governments. 

Owing to Persian hospitality and our unique foreign status, we were given the diplomatic treatment for the entirety of our stay. Though our time was limited, I’m particularly pleased with the spectrum of artists and curators we were able to meet and the ground we were able to cover. For the sake of brevity, I’ll give you the short short-list. 

The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art
The Tehran MoCA is definitively an “institution,” therefore subject to governmental supervision (after the revolution, Dali, Picasso, Warhol and others where relegated to the basement) and bureaucracy. That said, it’s always telling to see what sort of creative things the humans on the inside can do to keep people in their wings. When we went to meet with the International Director, they were showing works from instructors at Tehran’s art schools. The place was full, a testament to how much art education is happening in the city. After touring the museum, my favorite find was actually a Magritte’s Le Therapeute, a sculpture from their permanent collection – ironically, it’s neither Iranian nor contemporary. 
 
Vahid Sharifian, Art Star
I first saw Vahid at an opening at Artist’s Forum (Khaneh-ye honarmandan). He and his posse, looked like they were lifted right out of the streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn (is there such thing as Iranian Apparel?) and I tried to sneak a candid picture of them (unsuccessfully, when I reviewed the snapshot – it was clear they were all posing for me). The next time we ran into him was at Silk Road Gallery – a worth-the-search photography gallery in North Tehran – and from there we spent over an hour in a taxi to see his current solo exhibition at Ave Gallery. The show, entitled “My father is a democrat and through his chimney there are always hearts flying to the sky,” was a collection of holographic prints, an unveiled Sophia Loren in a series of instructional cooking poses. He even showed us the two prints the gallery wouldn’t hang (showing too much sternum), and I delighted in how tame they seemed compared to most things I’d find in a Manhattan gallery. Vahid is so clearly Lower East Side material but for now can’t leave the country, owing to his refusal to serve in the military. 

Pariyoush Ganji, Painter and Lecturer, Tehran University
Whereas Vahid is very much “new school,” Pariyoush is clearly “old school.” The instant I stepped into her home studio was the first time I truly relaxed while in Tehran, and in no other meeting did I feel the power of the moment so intimately. At 63, her matriarchal presence was soothing and we sipped tea surrounded by the traded works of her contemporaries. 


Guts // Pariyoush in Tehran from brianna olson on Vimeo.

Pariyoush studied painting in Tehran and across Europe in the 1960s, where students witnessed Che Guevara’s revolution, resisted the Shah, and constantly debated and studied political ideas. It was no wonder then, that she expressed concern to me that her students at Tehran University today are void of philosophy, and saw that lack in the exhibitions they held. We discussed the absolute importance of my generation and she lauded me for my willingness to take risks and “move through narrow doors.” By the end of our lunch, it was clear that I had made almost as much of an impression on her as she had on me – score one for an American girl in Tehran.

Amirali Ghasemi, Curator, Biennial Tehran
Amirali Ghasemi founded the 1st International Roaming Biennial of Tehran with Serhat Koksal because, he says, “It seems impossible to have a proper Tehran biennial in Tehran,” and with so much talent (their roster includes something like 300+ artists) it’s no wonder Ghasemi wants to take his exhibition on the road. Their first stop (opening late last May) was Istanbul, and they are slated to open in Berlin this November and continue through 2010 [Ed. note: Bri was invited to be part of the Berlin show!]. His concept of an “independent, low-budget, traveling exhibition” able to be carried “on any cheap flight” makes him the winner of my admiration and someone you should keep an eye on as a defining member of Tehran’s contemporary art scene.

More about Bri’s trip:

Esha Momeni, Iranian-American Activist

MobLogic covers the arrest of Iranian-American women’s rights activist Esha Momeni (click her name for ways to help her). She was working on her graduate thesis in Iran and got pulled over and taken to prison when she was driving alone in Tehran.

Hooman Majd on The Daily Show

Journalist and author Hooman Majd on The Daily Show, discussing nuclear enrichment, Iranian sentiments towards the U.S., and etc. with Jon Stewart. His book is The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran.

Iranian Sex History

A Social History of Sexual Relations in Iran

A Social History of Sexual Relations in Iran

Mage Publishers is releasing their sexiest title yet: Willem Floor’s A Social History of Sexual Relations in Iran is out this month, and it covers everything from marriage to divorce, sigheh (temporary marriage) to STDs. Get it from Mage, where you can also peek at the contents, or from Amazon (list price is $50 but you can get it for $35 at Amazon).

Update: Iranian.com has an excerpt.

Ahmadinejad at Columbia

ahmadinejadcolumbia.jpg

Are you in New York? Go up to Columbia to see the madness as Ahmadinejad is giving a speech there today. Here’s an AP report of his arrival by Nahal Toosi. A friend at Columbia’s graduate school let me know they are covering the event really comprehensively today. If there are any Iranians in New York reading this who want to speak to her, please email me at editorATparsarts.com and I’ll put you in touch.

The Columbia Spectator’s site has a special web feature including an “Ahmadineblog” and will have a ton of live coverage.

Update: The event is over and here’s another live-blog that covered the speech and subsequent questions. Also see Nahal Toosi’s AP article on the Houston Chronicle about the content of the speech.

Arash Shiva’s Iran Photos

Arash Shiva Tehran photo

Seattle-based designer/photographer Arash Shiva just sent a link to photos he took in Iran within the last month (see Iran one and Iran two on his site). I apologize because I cropped the one above to better fit this page; the original is here, on his photoblog Gentle Sea. The haze over the city makes it look like a very intricate drawing. My favorite of Shiva’s photos is the one below (also cropped, sorry!), of a little boy selling fruit – I love the expression on his face, and the odd position of his legs, and the fact that his hand is up his shirt. It reminds me of this photo by Diane Arbus.

Boy Selling Fruit by Arash Shiva