Coming in June – Document: Iranian-Americans in Los Angeles

Maryam Mottahedeh, poet (photo by Arash Saedinia)

Poet Maryam Mottahedeh, photographed by Arash Saedinia

Opening June 6 at UCLA’s Fowler Museum, “Document: Iranian-Americans in Los Angeles” is the first big photo project documenting L.A.’s Iranian-Americans since Irangeles (which is an amazing book, but nearly 20 years old and no longer in print, time for an update!). The exhibit, produced/curated by Amy Malek, will show the work of four Iranian-American photographers who shot a very diverse list of hamvatans – doctors and engineers, natch, but also poets, artists, cops, and moms – which should make for a super-cool show.

From the release:

“In cultivating this collaborative project,” said guest curator Amy Malek, “I wanted to examine documentation as a representational process by offering four Iranian American photographers’ perspectives on who we are, stressing the importance of including multiple voices in documenting our own Los Angeles communities.”
Sounds pretty awesome, right? The Fowler is also putting together some really interesting opening day stuff that sounds like it will provide some helpful context for these images. Details:
Sunday, June 6, noon–6 p.m.
Opening Day Programs
“Document: Iranian-Americans in Los Angeles”
A panel of scholars will discuss issues relating to the Iranian diaspora and visual anthropology. Next, exhibition curator Amy Malek will be joined by the four documentary photographers whose work is featured in the exhibition — Farhad Parsa, Arash Saedinia, Parisa Taghizadeh and Ramin Talaie — who will discuss their experiences documenting the everyday lives of second-generation Iranian Americans in Los Angeles. A gallery tour with Malek and a reception follow. Please check for a detailed schedule.
The photos will be on display at the Fowler through August 22 – don’t miss them!

More details:  ‘Document: Iranian-Americans in Los Angeles’ opens June 6 at Fowler Museum at UCLA

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.

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


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)

Vice on an Iranian Wedding


Vice magazine has a freaky photo essay of an Iranian wedding, shot two years ago by sister-of-the-bride Sanna Sjöswärd. One of the photos is above. Sjöswärd was born in Iran, placed in an orphanage by her parents, and adopted by Swedes when she was four. She just came out with a book called “Roots” that is about going back to Iran to find her biological family. I haven’t seen it, but I want to.

Most people have seen photos of lavish Iranian weddings. Striking about this wedding album, though, is that the people are very poor and very religious. There’s a grotesque quality about the pictures – maybe it’s the garish makeup. The spellings of some of the names are a little off: “Sedighre,” “Mehti”?

If you’ve looked at Vice (not safe for work) before, you know their deal is seedy = hip. Their print issues are free (at least, they were when I read them in college) but it just gets a little exhausting after a while to look at, it’s so hipstery and disengaged. Still, an interesting representation of Iranian life here. What do you make of these photos?

Original Pars Arts Photos by Lizzie Leitzell


I’m excited to announce the first Pars Arts-commissioned photography, featured in our homepage sidebar. Refresh the page, and each time you’ll see one of eight beautifully shot pictures of Persian artifacts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The photos we had there before were almost all pulled from the web, so it’s great to have some beautiful original shots to take their place.

Many thanks go to New York-based freelance photographer Elizabeth Leitzell. Lizzie is a really talented artist (and a member of the Pars Arts Facebook group), and I’m honored that she agreed to take on this project. Thank you, Lizzie!

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

View from Iran, View from Here

View from Iran header
Esther and Keivan, the once-pseudonymous couple behind the blog View from Iran, are now living outside Iran and have just revealed their offline identities. Esther is Tori Egherman and Keivan is Kamran Ashtary; together they’ve published a book of photos and essays, Iran: View from Here, which can be previewed on their site. It looks fascinating and frankly it’s good to finally see the publication of a nonfiction book about Iran that’s not strictly about politics or, even worse, a straight memoir.

You can read more about Tori and Kamran on the Ashtary Design bio page.

[Image: View from Iran]

Persian Visions: Contemporary Photography from Iran

Image: Image of Imagination 5, by Bahman Jalali

International Arts & Artists (IA&A) has funded a traveling exhibit of Iranian photography that started making the rounds in late 2005 and looks like it will continue on through 2008 or 2009. Co-curated by Gary Hallman of the University of Minnesota and Hamid Severi of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, Persian Visions includes the work of twenty renowned Iranian photographers (unfortunately, just two are women) and, according to the IA&A, will represent a photographic departure from “the way many foreign photographers use the medium–which is to represent Iran and its people as purely exotic.” There’s a cool sampling of some of the exhibit’s images available online.

A list of booked museums is available on the IA&A website’s exhibit details page. It’s interesting to note that we first read about this on USINFO, which is a service of the U.S. State Department. Yes, you read that right, and it’s particularly interesting in light of the exhibit’s expressed aim of de-mystifying Iran to Americans, which doesn’t seem a particularly high priority for the State Department. We’re interested in seeing this exhibit ourselves; have any Pars Arts readers seen it? If so, please let us know what you thought!

Urban Chaharshanbe Soori: or, "Why are we jumping over tealights?"

Photo: Sina Araghi

Like most young people in New York who don’t have trust funds and aren’t investment bankers, I live in an insanely small room in an apartment I share with a roommate that I found on the Internet. We have a tiny courtyard, but I’m not even on the lease so starting a bonfire to jump over it for good luck on Chaharshanbe Soori would surely get me shot by the old-school Italian landlord. Similarly, the tiny living room space I share is not conducive to a full-blown haft seen. Add to that the fact that I’m living nearly 3,000 miles away from my family for the first time ever, and the idea of Norooz this year made me incredibly homesick and sad.

This year I found myself at an Irish bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with some friends on the night of Chaharshanbe Soori, which is the one tradition I take more seriously than any other in my life. Even as a kid, it was more magical to me than my birthday, maybe because it always involved elements of danger (jumping over massive fires) and lawlessness (the fire department is on high alert and usually shuts us down or makes us do the fire-jumping in designated areas) in addition to the usual community and family elements of all holidays. Because I wasn’t at home in LA this year, I had put a few tealight candles in my pockets and when we were all ready to leave the bar, I lit the candles outside and we all took turns jumping over the tiny flames. My friends are good sports, though I’m sure they thought I was making the whole thing up, and I feel a little better embarking on a new year having said the yellowness-redness chant as I hopped over each little candle. I’ve made up some of my own traditions, too, like making a wish as I do this and lining up three candles. So I guess some of it is made up, after all.

The next morning I woke up to find the awesome photo above in my inbox. It’s of fire-jumping at Dockweiler Beach in Los Angeles and it was taken by LA-based photographer Sina Araghi (who I met a few weeks ago in New York and who I’ll post about again soon). The photo reminds me of freaking out as a little kid by the thought of jumping over fires, and of the uncle or friend’s older brother who always jumped first, showing off as the flames appeared to engulf him. I was always convinced someone would be hospitalized before the night was through, but no one ever got burned. There were always baby-fires off to the side for the old ladies and little kids, and that’s where I’d be except when the aforementioned uncle would grab me by the armpits and swing me over the big fire himself. Even good luck requires a little risk. I like to think there’s no shame in tealights or baby-fires, but then I remember all the Iranian moms and dads that I’ve seen jump over fires with their squirming toddlers, and I realize I’m pretty much a wuss.

In any case, the whole night made me think a lot about assimilation and the different ways in which Iranians, particularly second-generation diaspora Iranians, preserve or reinterpret old traditions. I wonder what Iranians in other parts of the world are doing on these 13 days of Norooz, and I hope everyone had a great Chaharshanbe Soori, whether you were the big-fire bad-ass on a beach with lots of Iranians or the homesick wuss hopping over tealights on a city sidewalk with confused, good-humored Americans.