Images of Iran: Aiding the Stereotypes

November 2004 -

The Iranian photojournalist Newsha Tavakolian pleads for more originality in Iranian art and asks the West to look beyond the 'celebrity' names.

The first photo camera in Iran was a gift from a foreigner to Mohammad Shah, Qajar king from 1834 to1848. Before that moment in time Iranian art was practically untouched by foreign influences. It was purely ‘original’. As relations with the West grew closer, the Iranian cultural elite saw that art in the West was much more progressive.

Other than European artists, their Iranian colleagues were restricted in their cultural movements by the Islam faith. They were not expected to show reality, so surrealism became their way of expressing themselves in the arts. While Iran modernized in the 20th century, the artists stuck to their way of working.

Historically, Iranian artists belong to the elite of the country. This created a culture in which ordinary people did not feel represented in the arts. As the country changed, the artists fell out of grace with the rulers, whereas the people still considered them to be superior. For this reason, Iranian artists look towards the western world for recognition and support because it has a popular arts culture, more money and more stages, galleries and museums to show their work.

This situation causes a problem in the artists’ native country. Mainstream artists are working to please the western public. Photographers in Iran emphasize the ‘chador’, the long black veil which became famous after the 1979 Islamic revolution. Film makers shoot their films in villages where donkeys roam and villagers collect wood for their furnaces. In Iran these films have hardly any impact because the country has changed into an urban society where the chador is on its way out and where people drive the latest models of cars. In the West, however, these pictures and films are shown by western cinemas and galleries and so they confirm the popular ‘backward’ image of Iran.

Encouraged by their success, the artists continue to work in the same circle, teaching their students the trick of the trade. Some Iranian galleries only accept art work that will sell well in the West; different points of view are not welcome. Art is about money in Iran nowadays, rather than about pushing the limits of social boundaries.

What can be done? Iranian artists should be original and not produce art only with the aim of pleasing western audiences. Art lovers and development organizations in the West should take more daring steps in promoting Iranian art. They should look beyond famous names and good reputations, and pay attention to the thousands of young artists who are ready to show their point of view. Give them the freedom to be as original as they can be. Try it. You might be surprised.

Newsha Tavakolian (23) was born in Iran and is based in Tehran. She is a photojournalist working for the US agency Polaris Images. She worked for several reformist newspapers and covered the Iraq war. She frequently works for international magazines and newspapers such as Time, Newsweek, Colors magazine, US News and World report, Der Spiegel, Stern, New York Times, Le Figaro, Le Monde and NRC Handelsblad.