WWhen I first met her, the photographer was singing. It was at a late-night afterparty for the Tbilisi Photo Festival, on the hillside patio of mutual friends. While everyone else quietly drank their Kakheti wine and coughed their smokers’ coughs, Newsha Tavakolian sat at the table and belted out a Persian love song, clear and strong and more than a little mournful.
Tavakolian is one of Iran’s most acclaimed young photographers, a finalist for Magnum’s Inge Morath award who has exhibited around the world and worked for everyone from Time Magazine to Le Figaro to National Geographic. Her work moves from journalism to art and back again, but always it carries a bit of that mournful singing with it. This is especially true of her latest exhibition, LOOK, which opened December 14 at Aaran Gallery in Tehran. I caught up with her recently by Skype to talk about art, sanctions and censorship.
Roads & Kingdoms: Tell me a bit about the exhibition.
Newsha Tavakolian: LOOK centers on the view from my bedroom window. It symbolizes the feelings of those living in metropolises and in Iran: uncertainty, fear, suspicion, loneliness, and so on.
Instead of making a brochure, I made a two-minute teaser film which I spread through Facebook. In the gallery space there were ten large portraits 110 x 150 cm. At the centre of the gallery stood a 2 x 4 meter installation of the buildings I view from my bedroom—the central idea of the exhibition. From ten windows in the picture, connected by wires, are ten video screens shorting short slow-motion movies of the subjects on the portraits. They’re all neighbors with a connection to the buildings, but not the exact people in the exact apartments.
R&K: LOOK seems to be more art than journalism. Is this a break for you?
NT: In Iran too many people are having trouble on how to label me or my work, but for me it is not really important ‘what’ I am. What really matters to me is telling stories. How I tell them doesn’t really matter (I hope).
R&K: You told Leica’s blog that you were “not allowed to think freely” in the documentary or news realm in Iran.
NT: Naturally in Iran it is more complicated to tell certain stories. Still, if you find the right way of telling them, it is possible. In 2009, following the protests, it became harder to work as a news photographer and I spent six months in my house depressed. After that I started to try new ways—new for me that is—of discussing social issues. Like making installations, photographs and sounds, but still very close to a real (not abstract) subject. I have been doing portraits for a long time, but now I try to connect the portraits so that as a whole they create a story (again in combination with installations, videos and sounds).