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.

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.

Happy New Year: Iranian-Calendar Identity Crisis

Happy New Year! That’s assuming, of course, that you follow the Gregorian calendar, which has us in the year 2008 just a few hours from now. If you’re living in the West, custom dictates that you’ll be drinking champagne and wearing a funny hat tonight, pretending you know the lyrics of Auld Lang Syne as you ring in (or is that sing in?) the new year. But Azad, the man behind the photo blog Life Goes on in Tehran (here’s our interview with him) just updated with photos from the last month, with a reminder that Iran’s on a totally different calendar: the calendar in Iran (and Afghanistan), is actually a solar one called the Jalaali calendar, so our new year (aka, Norooz) is in the spring.

If you were raised outside of Iran, it gets a little tricky to remember corresponding Iranian dates for the Gregorian calendar (and vice-versa). One of Azad’s captions this month helpfully points readers to a calendar converter from the Iran Chamber Society, which notes that today, 12/31/07, is actually the tenth of Dey, 1386, in Iran… or business as usual. There’s also a great Khayam calendar here. Do you have any tips for quick, in-your-head date conversion? Please leave them in the comments below.

Interviews with Young Iranians: Azad, Life Goes on in Tehran Photo Blogger

lifegoesonintehran.jpg

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.

azadi.jpg

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.

verite.jpg

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.”

fruits2.jpg

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)

Blog Action Day: Tehran Smog

Today is Blog Action Day, when thousands blogs have committed to posting about the environment; according to a Global Voices translation, 500 of these are Iranian blogs.

Hopefully some of them are writing first-hand accounts of Tehran smog, which, according to an AFP report from January, kills 3,600 a month. That’s 120 people dying every day from respiratory problems caused by smog. 120 a day! The city is surrounded by mountains, which trap smog on days that aren’t windy, and its 3 million cars are to blame for high amounts of carbon monoxide in the air.

The Iranian government has daily air quality updates online… any word from the inside on how accurate this is?

[Photo: amirsnaps]

In the News: Haleh Esfandiari Leaves Iran

From the New York Times:

An Iranian-American academic imprisoned for months and accused of trying to create a ”soft revolution” in Iran was permitted to leave the country and rejoin her family, her lawyer and family said Monday.

Haleh Esfandiari, 67, who was released on bail in August, picked up her passport and flew late Sunday from Iran to Austria, where her sister lives, said her daughter, Haleh Bakhash.

Using Popular Discontent to Create an Unpopular Government

Reza Pahlavi
In 1979, Iran witnessed the creation of an unpopular government based purely on popular discontent. In 2007, another group of people – Solidarity Iran – are seemingly attempting to ferment similar change by using popular discontent in order to create a government in Iran based on their own wishes. Never, except for possibly once in the 1950s, has any authority in Iran come to power purely with the vision of instituting a government on the bases or desires of the Iranian people. Each has come with its own self-serving agenda in mind, which is why each has also failed to satisfy the people of Iran. The group of exiles launching the movement “Solidarity Iran” are no different. It is because almost every dissident group comes with an agenda, comes with a perceived method that places themselves in power, and comes from a perspective of egoism rather than civil service, that each inevitably fails to achieve not only the popular support of Iranians but also experiences internal conflicts.

As noted by Ahmad Ra’fat, “What Iranians outside are fighting for is quite different from what Iranians inside the country want.”

Iranians on the outside want a form-based government. They want to see a constitutional monarchy, like Reza Pahlavi’s; or they want to see a socialist government, like the MKO. They desire structures and persons. They’ve decided on their presidents and representatives, should they come into power. They are not content driven, and even if they are, the content of rights which they seek to give Iranians are overshadowed by the the form in which they wish to place those rights. Reza Pahlavi, for example, talks about content (human rights, democracy, and freedom) but will always be overshadowed by form (the creation of a monarchy). Rightfully so, we should never fully trust an individual who conflates personal interests with the interest of others – it’s like trusting a director of a corporation who is trying to persuade the rest of the board to agree to a contract with another company he owns. The conflict of interest is so large, it’s impossible to ignore. In the same way, our exiles have too many conflicts of interest to ignore. Nor should they be ignored, for to ignore them risks creating a situation dreadfully similar to 1979.

In the end, should we trust Solidarity Iran? No. We can never trust any organization which wishes to use foreign powers to accomplish its own objectives. The fact that the Solidarity Iran movement is filled with persons whose objective is coupled with how successful they are at persuading European and American powers, is all the indication we need that they cannot be trusted as actually desiring to fulfill the needs of Iranians everywhere.