Aug 10, 2023
How female photographers are making their voices heard in Iran
By Zoe Whitfield
On September 19, 2022, three days after Mahsa Amini died after being sent to a “re-education center” by Iran’s morality police for allegedly infringing the country’s strict dress code, photographer Yalda Moaiery was arrested, beaten and jailed.
She had been taking pictures of the resulting protests in the capital Tehran, part of a wider, women-led movement that erupted across the country following 22-year-old Amini’s death.
Moaiery was released on bail in December, reportedly pending a summons to begin a six-year prison sentence on anti-state charges. In January, a video of Moaiery was posted to her social media: dressed in an orange uniform, she sweeps the street and announces her sentence.
Photographer Yalda Moaiery captured this shot of women screaming while being arrested by Iran's morality police in 2007.
Sixteen years earlier, Moaiery had been granted permission to shadow Iranian police operations targeting women who weren’t observing the country’s compulsory hijab laws. Some of those images — of women looking fearful and angry, or shielding their faces with their hands as they’re put into police vans — appear in the timely new photography book “Breathing Space,” edited by Iranian art director and gallerist Anahita Ghabaian Etehadieh.
“The women were arrested for different reasons: a veil considered to be badly placed, make-up considered too conspicuous, or clothes deemed to be too tightly fitting,” explained Ghabaian Etehadieh of Moaiery’s photographs, which were taken in 2006 and 2007.
A 2021 photograph from the ongoing series "In the Shadows of the Silent Women."
Maryam Firuzi/Thames & Hudson
“Breathing Space,” published by Thames & Hudson, brings together the work of 23 Iranian female photographers whose work spans three decades. Exploring a range of photographic styles and genres, the book arrives at a pivotal moment in the trajectory of contemporary Iran. It has been released within weeks of the “official” redeployment of Iran’s morality police following the widespread protests spurred by Amini’s death and the subsequent arrests and executions of many young people across the country.
Photography as a means of progression
“We are living in an historic moment for Iranian women,” Ghabaian Etehadieh told CNN via email, regarding the protests. “This (time) is meaningful for me, and important for Iranian photography. When we look at the global situation, we can see that there is now much greater awareness about gender equality and other social subjects… What is important is for us to progress and move forward, both artistically and more broadly.”
An image from Mahshid Noshirvani's series "Factory Workers," 1979.
Mahshid Noshirvani/Thames & Hudson
Since 2001, Ghabaian Etehadieh has run the Tehran-based Silk Road Gallery, Iran’s first dedicated contemporary photography space, where many of the book’s contributors have previously exhibited.
“Photography was very much on the margins in 2001 — even today it is difficult to claim photography is a fully accepted part of the art scene in Iran — so initially, it had some difficulty finding its place,” she noted of the gallery. “There’s a contradiction, because in Iran there are many students studying photography, and it has a large audience.”
Internationally however, the story is different, with Iranian photographers widely recognized by established institutions: Hengameh Golestan, Newsha Tavakolian and Shadi Ghadirian, who all appear in the new book, have work featured in the collections of institutions such as the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, the V&A Museum in London and Los Angeles’ LACMA.
A 2013 shot from Gohar Dashti's series "Iran, Untitled."
“Publishing this book is more important and durable than staging any individual exhibition,” said Ghabaian Etehadieh. “I am delighted that it represents a new angle on Iranian photography and is the first to bring together a collection of female artists. These women, from a range of backgrounds and fields, have created important works telling a story about Iran and contributing to its photographic history.”
“Tahmineh Monzavi’s work goes beyond artistic representation and opens a discussion about different social and gender issues,” she said, recalling the photographer’s series “Tina,” in which Monzavi tenderly records the daily life of a transgender woman she befriended.
From Tahmineh Monzavi's series "Tina," 2010.
Shining a light on women’s everyday lives
Elsewhere, photos from Ghadirian’s “Like Every Day” series foreground criticism of the restrictions facing women in the domestic sphere, depicting subjects in patterned chadors with household objects obscuring their faces.
“Ghadirian is one of the most influential photographers at present, continually highlighting social and cultural tensions,” said Ghabaian Etehadieh. “She emphasizes contradictions faced by women every day — between old and new, tradition and modernity — and by spotlighting these pressures, reveals an intense female objectification.”
While stylistically varied, the photographers’ work is united in its rich storytelling and exploration of themes like gender equality, the environment, nostalgia, intimacy and war. The book announces its intentions as a vehicle for women’s voices early on, introduced with images from Golestan’s “Witness ’79” series of 1979’s women’s marches: shot in black and white, her photographs document the largely female crowds that marched against the then newly-imposed hijab laws.
Shadi Ghadirian's series "Like Everyday" depicts women in patterned chadors with household objects obscuring their faces.
“Aesthetically, the book is not ordered chronologically or thematically. This was a choice,” asserted Ghabaian Etehadieh. “It’s about ‘going back and forth’ between generations, but also themes and styles. This dialogue shows the artistic struggles female photographers undergo simply to express themselves, to secure a breathing space.”