Images of Iran: Aiding the Stereotypes
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
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
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
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.