Art & Photography Events Interviews Iran & the World: CAFAM Craft and Folk Art Museum exhibitions exhibits Exploring the Other Iason Athanasiadis Iran Iranians Photography photojournalism
by Pars Arts
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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.
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.