Interview with photographer Keymea Yazdanian on her documentation of Iranian culture and the journeys of her work in Iran.
Words and Interview by Keanoush Da Rosa
Iran is a country with an air of mystery about it. What has been said about the country has often been shrouded in inconspicuous lights. Very little is known about the heart of Iran, Iranian culture or the people. Keymea Yazdanian is a 28 year old London-based Iranian photographer who is delving deep into Iran and what it truly represents to the people whom call it home. Her images give us a reading of Iran that is very rarely brought to light. Through them we see that underneath all the stigma, Iran remains a beautiful country with a highly sophisticated society and admirable people.
What is the driving force behind your work?
Keymea:“The most important force and the initial one behind my work, is my love for Iran. Even though I grew up in England I never felt any less Iranian. I was raised in an Iranian way and as I got older and continued through school, I became passionate about my roots. For example, with ancient Persian culture, I used to draw little ‘Zoroastrian’ symbols in all my paintings when I was doing my A-Levels. I have always been interested in identity, which has been a reoccurring theme since my foundation and undergraduate degrees. It always goes back to Iran because at foremost I’m expressing my love for the country, the people and the culture.”
“As I become older and more politically and socially engaged with my surroundings and the bigger world, I see the importance in the message I am trying to convey about Iran as part of our global narratives. I aim for my work to be part of a broader cultural narrative. As part of a community of Iranian artists and photographers as well as an authentic voice that is expressing information about Iran that parts from the norm. An alternative to the constant strain of negativity that seems to dominate mainstream media.”
What limitations as an Iranian photographer have you experienced in the making of your work?
Keymea: “My biggest limitations of course is the physical distance between me and Iran. I go back there once or twice every two years and I get a short amount of time there between seeing all my family and then finding time to do all my own things. That, I find a bit harder as I am not afforded my own sense of time in Iran, especially because I am a female and didn’t grow up in the city. This often limits me in terms of how freely i can travel around and explore independently.”
“Taking photos in public can often be tricky, depending on the location and situation i have found that at times there can be quiet a lot of hostility towards me as a photographer. I often have someone come with me who can help me out in those sorts of situations. Most the time it is tame but there are times when I feel intimidated and nervous. The majority of the time i get consumed in the beauty, movements and moments that surround me. I get lost in the process of framing a certain part of my immediate environment and out of those moments I rarely experience the hostility I mentioned before.”
“There is also the difficulty of photographing women. A big part of my work is photographing women in private spaces. They are very intimate and personal images and it takes a lot of time to build relationships and confidence with these individuals, but I continue despite the struggles because I think they are brilliant and I want their stories to be told to the world; it is always a very long process though”.
A lot of young Iranians consider themselves as Persian instead of Iranian. Why do you think that is, and is this a complex that you go through yourself?
Keymea: “I wouldn’t call it a ‘complex’ as such, I think everyone interprets it differently for themselves and has their own reasons because there is no concrete answer to that. Persia existed over 2,000 years ago, it has been Iran for a long time, it has been an Islamic country for a long time. The only way that I feel about and the reasons that I call myself Persian is because it is a point of pride. Iran has a very complex and interesting history, one that’s quite different to its surrounding neighbours in the Middle East. When there was the Arab invasion over 2000 years ago, all the countries around Iran adopted Islam, whereas Iran was ‘Zoroastrain’ and not Islamic (although it didn’t remain that way for long). Iran was one of the only countries who refused to change its race, language and culture. Throughout history, people burned books, killed and executed people, and they wanted nothing left of Persia .They wanted Islam to rule (which it has done in the grand scheme of things). But what I find interesting is that Persia has stayed to this day ingrained in the culture, hearts and everyday talk through word of mouth, whether it be a mother telling her daughter or son that ‘we are Persian, we come from Persian culture, we come from Persian kings and we come from the first civilisation, and where the first declaration of human rights was written.”
“It is their absolute love and passion for that part of their history which has been passed down through family history. People have been rewriting the books, even after countless times of the historic books being burnt, it didn’t stop anyone. It is a point of pride that this ancient culture is so strong in peoples hearts, despite everything that’s been thrown in the way to try and destroy it and try to make Islam rule. Islam is very ingrained in Iranian culture today, there are a lot of things that we do and say (such as our poetry and habits) that are ingrained in Islam. However, there’s still Persia there.”
I feel a lot of western online and televised media views on Iran are largely negative. What are your thoughts on that?
Keymea: “That it’s annoying! It is largely negative. I think it is getting better recently because the media has slightly changed. I don’t know if that is how I’ve used the media, because people are interested in different things, but I will always find interesting things that are happening. Also on a mass scale, yes mass media, I don’t even like to look or hear what they say as I am not interested in those completely fabricated and manipulated truths. It is sad because it does strike fear in peoples hearts and that’s exactly what they want to do. They want people to live in fear of people that are different.; not just of Iranians in the middle east, but anyone that is different. That’s what mass media does, they want everything to keep the same and to be controlled in their tight remit.”
“On a more forward note, I really believe art has the power to change. Not just art as in an image or paintings but the arts such as anything cultural – music, film, literature. A few years ago I used to think that the young people of Iran need to take to the streets of Iran with guns and rifles and throw down the clerics, and now I absolutely disagree with myself. I think Iran could not support that right now. What it needs is this revolution that is happening from within their own regime via the internet. As far as the western media is concerned, it hasn’t done us any huge favours. Although where I can see, it has really progressed and helped culture. What I do find fantastic are blogs such as ‘The Tehran Times’. It is run by a guy who shows what young people in ‘real Iran’ are doing – what they are wearing, what they are eating, where they are going. who inspires them, art, music, theatre, writing, etc When you start thinking for yourself you start finding other places to source information. – and much more interesting information at that.”
Just to end on, when you said ‘real Iran’ in your previous answer, what did you mean by that?
Keymea: “I meant the Iran that exists that has nothing to do with the fabricated vision of Iran by outside sources. We have all read the news, and if you speak to the standard person and tell them about Iran, all they will say is ‘Why do you go to a scary place, don’t you have to cover up and you aren’t even allowed to drink there.’ Then I respond with ‘Why are you only concentrating on these boring irrelevant details? Iran now isn’t somewhere horrible extremists chant aggressive things about their religion and everyone walks around with a veil and just lives in mud-huts. It is the complete opposite.’ First of all, it is so sophisticated and beautiful, the people are very intelligent and globally aware. Yes, there are certain things said about the government, but since when does a government judge an impression of an entire nation?Why do people do that specifically with middle eastern countries? I have not met a single person who embodies the same logic and thought as the government, but they still get on with their lives. A ‘real Iran’ does exist underneath the shadow of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
“The Iranian government in no way represents the diversity and beauty of the whole nation. Iran is a vast country with vast landscape, abundant in poetry and art, old traditions and heroic tales. it is fiery and passionate and kind and humble, to name a few things… its time that all these other aspects of the country started to show.”