Newsha Tavakolian (b. 1981) is a photojournalist and social documentary photographer. She began her career working for an Iranian women’s daily newspaper titled Zan, documenting the student uprising in 1999 at aged 18. She went on to work for other reformist newspapers and then the photographic agency Polaris. In 2009 after being forced to stop her photographic work, she began documenting the social sphere of Iran.
For Tavakolian photojournalism as vital to the process of democracy; witnessing events that other people may not be able to see, and delivering images to people who are not pre- sent at the scene. “While it may seem like a cliché,” she says, “Photojournalism is about truth. It’s an eye opener to what’s happening in the world.”
In 2002 Tavakolian began covering the Iraq war. Her images of conflict have been featured in Time magazine, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and National Geographic amongst others. While she is dedicated to the commu- nication of her images, she doesn’t deny that being a photojournalist is a dangerous job: “Working as a photojournalist in the Iraq war, people were shot and killed in front of me. My friend stepped on a mine and died in the next hour. During those times, my emotions took over and I sometimes thought, ‘I don’t know if I can do this’.”
That’s why, even in an era of citizen journalism, Tavakolian takes her training and experience very seriously, “It’s all about experience, when you have more experience you don’t take unnecessary risks. It took me 15-16 years to become an experienced photojournalist.” Yet she doesn’t see people with phone cameras as a threat to her trade, “I think it is the most democratic time in the whole history of photography. It has become like writing, everyone has a pen, but then, how many great writers do we have in the world? Although many people have an iPhone and can take pictures, how many good thoughtful, layered works are we seeing?”
It was this status of the camera, as a democratic object, that made Tavakolian herself into a political target. Reporting the presidential election demonstrations in Tehran in 2009, during which two to three million protestors took to the streets following disputes over the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to office, her camera became a piece of spy equipment. The police began confiscating and stopping cars to search for films because photographs had become identifiers for incriminating the protestors.
One of her photographs from the demonstration shows two men covering their faces from the lens. The main protagonist is framed by a billowing of black smoke behind him, both of his hands are held up in a defensive stance against the camera, with visible tension in his shoulders. The subject of this photograph became, not the protest, but the censorship and corruptness of the militia; it was no longer about the election, it was about the fear of identification. This was the last image Tavakolian took before she received a message from the authorities banning her from working as a photojournalist. Her press card was expired and she was forbidden from leaving the house with a camera.
Confined to her apartment building, she decided to work on a project closer to home. She began documenting the social sphere around her and taking photographs in a new way. While this pathway was unexpected she found the process beneficial to her practice: “I used art photography to find a new, creative way to tell my story” she says. “It helped me to think differently.”
“When you grow up in the Middle East, everyone who wants a better life for women is a feminist.”
Her first project titled Listen looked at female singers in Iran. Women are not allowed to sing solo in public or on the radio or television in Iran. She photographed professional singers sing ing, the sound muted by the stillness of the frame. She followed up the project by creating a series of imaginary CD cover designs.
The portraits capture a powerful and beautiful moment of human expression. While the work could be read as feminist, Tavakolian identifies more with being Iranian, “I don’t really see myself as having a gender,” she says, “when you grow up in the Middle East, everyone who wants a better life for women is a feminist, but I don’t label myself.” The series acts as a reminder and a celebration of women’s voices.
For Tavakolian, there is little distinction between her work as a photographer and a photojournalist. Her subjects have always remained real people who she has wanted to document. She said, “They are two different worlds, but for me the content of those worlds are the same. For me it’s about being objective, to show other people something and make them think in a new way.”
Newsha Tavakolian was selected as the fifth laureate of the Carmignac award in 2014. Her work has been displayed at the V&A, LACMA and the British Museum.