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Shadi Ghadirian | Interview

Why photography?

Because it is the fastest art. You push a button and you get a result. It reflects my personality. I am always in a hurry. I think as I live. I never wanted to read books. So when I decided to go to college I chose photography because I thought I would not have to read a lot of books. My father wondered how I would earn a living and asked me if I intended to become a portrait photographer or take wedding pictures. I wasn’t sure at the time but I wanted to go to university. I acquired technical expertise and learned about the history of photography there.

One of my professors, Bahman Jallali, who had started the City photography museum, encouraged me a lot. I decided to do my thesis on Qajar photography, and as a result went through hundreds of photographs from the Qajar period. That is when I got the idea of putting consumer items such as the Pepsi can or a vacuum cleaner into the hands of Qajar-style women posing in photo studios. At first I borrowed the authentic Qajar backdrop painting from Bahman and asked my family members to pose for the photographs in Qajar costumes. Later a friend painted the backdrops of the Qajar era. Initially I had trouble getting my thesis accepted at the university and I remember that there was a big debate on the day I presented. It was so new, what I had done. But I explained that my point of departure was to introduce familiar modern objects into traditional settings.

Were you trying to project something of your own life into the

I was both objective and subjective. The viewer is part of my photograph and I am also the viewer. I think a lot before taking the photograph and then just set up the scene and click. How I live goes into what I think about the photograph. I always try to live, see around, buy bread, walk in the street and find my ideas and subject. I re-assemble what I see when I set up the photograph.

I did the Qajar series as a student in 1999 and it was picked up and exhibited by the Leighton House Museum in 2000. In the same year the series was exhibited at Berlin, Copenhagen, and Northern Ireland.

Did this instant success affect your career in any way?

Actually for me the turning point in my career was when I did my second series, Unfocused in 2000. After the first series, I did not know where I would go. I was stuck. It was like stalemate. So when I did my second series, I realized I could and that I was a real photographer. It was at the time that I understood that I could continue-and that there were many subjects that I could work on. I also did a series called, My Press Photo that year. I, think more and more visually now-even more than the past. I can see everything very deeply.

Do you think a lot before taking the photo?

Yes, sometimes for months. I enjoy thinking about the composition of my photographs when I wash the dishes or when I am in a taxi. It comes to me during my everyday life and I like it. The visualization of my ideas is not in any separate compartment of my life. I don’t think that today at four o’ clock I want to think. You have been to my atelier. I go there for appointments, and to take my shots but the most important things happen when I am lying in bed, or doing ordinary things.

Now days, very strange things happen; I sometimes think of a photograph and visualize it so completely that I feel I have taken it. I can see the image so clearly that I think I have clicked and printed it. This is dangerous because later I realise I have to still take the actual photo.

Did marriage or motherhood distract you? Has this begun to happen more since Leyla was born? Or earlier when you married Peyman?

I did not want to change but both times life changed suddenly and it changed me.

In what way?

I became worried. I have to take care of another and it is very big responsibility. She is a little girl now and cannot do anything by herself, now I should help her to eat and sleep but in the future I should help her to know about life, how she should live, how she should react, I have to show her many important things and I hope I can do it in the best way.

Do you think it will be difficult for her to grow up in Iran as a woman?

It is not harder than for men. The future is better, because we are here. For example, if you asked my mother this question when I was born, you might have had a different answer. There was no Shirin Ebadi and no Shadi Sadr.

Now we have many feminists and we know that future will be better.

But many feminists are put into jail, what about that? How is that safe for your daughter?

This is normal; when something has to change. It happens in all countries.

There is another theme which is overarching in your work and that is the issue of censorship of women in Iran. In West By East you have photographs of women with areas of skin painted in black, paying homage to the imported western magazine. In the Qajar series, the women are in traditional dress passively holding consumer objects; in Like Everyday, women in flowered chadors have their faces obliterated by objects of utility; in Control, Atl, Delete, there are no faces at all, just computer graphics, in the Unfocused series, you show a woman in black and white, in a black dress, with her head held back, letting her black hair fall down around her shoulders. In Be Colourful, the picture is unfocused and the image is half seen. It uses the unseen as the prevailing symbol of the Iranian woman and the hazing technique operates as a comment on censorship itself. Why this preoccupation? Is it because you are a woman?

It just happened. I did not plan it consciously, though I think a lot before I take a series of pictures, sometimes for a month. This is what I see around me.

A woman in a black chador or the beard is the central iconic image of Iranian nationality. Does your work re-inforce or break the image?

Not really. In fact, it evades that image. You do not see a Chadori woman in my photographs except in Like Everyday and even then she is defiant-she has a pot, a pan, a kitchen utensil instead of her face. She is speaking, she is saying something. I am trying to say that we have been given the benefits of modern technology, now we want the benefits of modern values. We are modern women who are defying the image of the medieval, timeless Middle East, by the very act of taking a photograph, by showing our dichotomies, by the very act of proving our defiance, our independence.

Your photographs have so many paradoxes. It seems you see both an ‘Orientalist’ and ‘Occidentalist’ world around you? Do you see the history of your time as this conflict and strain between the Orientalist and Occidentalist viewpoint?

Most of my photographs are like this. The result is up to the viewer. A key Orientalist viewpoint is that the East is timeless and unchanging. A key Occidentalist viewpoint is that the West has a primacy of materialism. As a woman and as an Iranian, I find that we are changing-we are not timeless. We too are part of a consumer culture-we drink Pepsi and use vacuum cleaners. Though, I must add that Tehran is very different from our towns and villages but we are not frozen in time and nor are we moving into some pre-modern era. We are part of some societal exchange. There is change which we may or may not accept.

You have incorporated Western-themed objects in your photographs but the objects have never truly been used by your models. In the Qajar series you hold a Pepsi can and it seems as if your hand is almost weighed down by the can. In Like Everyday, you show women in flowered and coloured chadors with household implements like brooms, teapots and steam irons in place of their faces. Is that because you feel that western change cannot be synthesized in Iran or is simply as irrelevant as the past is to a young Iranian woman?

My photographs touch upon our struggle to hold on to our parents and grandparents traditional values and practices while experiencing the benefits of modernity without getting caught up in its vices. I am also looking for an Iranian filter of modernity. Change is an inevitable process.

Are you saying that there are different references for modernity in the West and the East?

Yes, though sometimes the struggles of my generation with modernity get reflected in our struggles with technology. We get the benefits of modern inventions without the benefits of modern values. My series entitled, Control, Alt, Delete, shows how much our lives are controlled by computers and that we are almost like puppets to our computers. In the Qajar series I see between modernism and tradition, between past and present with old costumes and new inventions. In Like Every day, I go one step further; I show new inventions but the same stereotypes. In all my series that I start and add to the main idea. Most of projects have some ironic meaning.

In the next series, Like Everyday, you show women in flowered and coloured chadors with household implements like brooms, teapots and steam irons in place of their faces. What thought process triggered off these photographs?

I was recently married and I found that there were all these modern inventions like steam irons but the woman’s life was still stagnant. We repeat and repeat the same chores every day, the same things, every day is like yesterday, and there is no creativity.

Because we are born women?

Of course not. The routines of chores and the roles we have to play are constructed, not biological. I always used to fight these things. Once my father complemented me by saying Shadi is like a man, she can do everything. I told him, stop please, I am like a woman.

When I was pregnant, I really wanted a girl. I was so happy that I had a daughter. Now, I think it is very good for a feminist to have a son as well-so that we can bring them up differently, so that they can be better men.

Does it worry you that your work is exhibited and sold abroad more than in Iran? That you have to be appreciated by the West first to be appreciated in your country?

For me it is not that important to show the world that Iran is modern or not, especially Europeans. When I do a project it is for Iran. For me it is more important that I change something in Iran-for instance Iranian women. I was surprised at the arrogance and ignorance of many Europeans when I first went abroad. For example I know a lot about Paris- I read, research and know about artists in France and Europe but people in Paris don’t know anything about Iran. Not even my audience. So that is not my priority.

But can your photos be shown in Iran?

Yes, I can show the pictures within Iran. In fact, even without my permission they are used everywhere in books, magazines. First I was angry, and went to court but now I don’t react. I was in the thesis of two or three students and some ten students outside Iran. It is nice for me when they chose me as the subject,

Who are these Iranians who hang your photos?

Mostly they were intellectuals. Now it is intellectuals who are also rich and can buy art. Then there are those who are rich and put a commercial value to my work because I am sold by Christies or exhibited at the British Museum. They buy because others are buying. If they have money, they want to buy art, they don’t know art. They don’t even trust their own judgment. I have noticed in exhibitions that photographs that have a red dot are sold repeatedly. I have a project about this-what the rich put on the wall. I will show you.

Where would you like to see your photographs?

I was very excited when the Centre Georges Pompidou bought my photos-they have five. Now I want Museum of Modern Art, New York . I hear they have very good exhibitions there, I know the people working there are leaders of art. All of the artists-for example I like Annette Messeger, Nan Goldin, Betty Hahn, Erwin Olaf. I would like to be any connection with them.

And if an individual hangs it?

It should be a She, maybe not a photographer, a feminist,  maybe a lawyer, an activist in human rights-someone who will use the work for a social purpose.

That’s why I always think my photos should do something, not just a beautiful image. I did a big exhibition in Berlin in 2004 in which I did the Like Everyday series. The ten photos were exhibited on a huge billboard on the

street outside the House of World Cultures. This billboard was rolled up and shipped back to me in Tehran. I lent it to Rahi, the women’s NGO, and they made many films and interviews in front of it. Now their office is locked and it remains there. You cannot imagine how glad I was when Shadi Sadr and Mahboobeh put my photos in their office. Many documentaries then showed my photos hanging there and it meant more to me than some gallery exhibiting them for a weeks.

What are the repercussions of your billboard being there?

Nothing yet. I am not asking.

What are the repercussions of being a photographer at this time in Iran, for you?

It is very hard. Because I work on the subject of women. When you show women in Iran you have to show them in veil. This is very hard.

I am not talking about the veil, but all my photos have the veil. So although I want to talk about the veil, I am not talking about the veil. But the veil is there. All of us should talk of the veil. Iran is the only place on the map where we have to have the veil. You are not a Muslim but you have to put it on. Why? It is the law.

Shirin Ebadi says it is a matter of choice?

Exactly, it should be up to the woman.

What did the revolution do for Iran?

I was four years old then. I have few memories. I was too short for the window and I was looking outside- I saw balloons of different colours flying with photos of Khomeini tied to them. They floated into the air into the sky. I loved it. I had just started to talk and my older sister taught me different slogans: ‘Khomeini gives us pofak, and Shah give us khotak’.

I like the way we can stand up to big countries like America. Iran stands up to America and England. We are not like the other countries that we accept whatever they say. I like this kind of thinking.

But for my generation, they have stopped us, everything stopped. The revolution was like a speed breaker. We were moving at high speed before the revolution. They say it brought the Islamic laws for us. Just this. I personally believe that Islam is not like this.
Peyman was my boyfriend for many years before we got married and every time we went out in the university we would be arrested.

What were the most interesting years for you?

When I was fifteen, a very important age for a girl, we were being bombed. We were a marked generation. As soon as I understood anything, everything was the Revolution. And then there was war.

When 9/11 happened, I was so sad. I thought it is happening inside US and Americans are facing this for the first time. We are always dealing with bombs and war. Now they too will realize what we are going through.

After university, when I had my first exhibition, I had the chance to go to other countries and have a new experience. The most interesting year of my life was 2000. It was the first time I went abroad- to London. It was also the year that I got married. Important things happened.

What impacted you most?

War, we have war, our neighbors have war, and we are talking about a new war. I grew up during the war years with Iraq. I lost family and friends. The futility of the war will always be something I will highlight.

I don’t see that in your current photographs?

My Press Photo is about that, so is my next series. It is about war in our daily lives. You will see.

You don’t work for anyone. You dream up your own projects. Are you worried that the next series or the series after may not be commercially successful and how you will survive?

No, I am an artist. I like what I do. I will just continue. I was lucky that I was appreciated for my first series itself. I was a student at that time.

Did that affect your relationship with your peer group-other photographers your age, your husband, who was also a photographer?

It did and it did not. My husband is a writer and a photographer. He is very secure with himself and successful as well. His book on short stories has just gone into its third edition, within a week of its printing. With other photographers-it depends on the photographer. Bahaman has continued to be one of my biggest supporters. I try to encourage and support other photographers. I have a website which promotes and features the work of others.

What is the future of photography in Iran?

Our photography is growing in Iran after the war . We have three universities that teach photography and many graduating students are producing photos that they want to sell and exhibit. Photography will grow because of these facts.

But the limitation is that there is no market in Iran?

We can see photographs in people’s houses in Iran, whereas ten years ago it was only paintings. Now photogrphs are considered. Many exhibitions go abroad. When I had an exhibition in London in 2000 it was  considered very strange. Nobody could exhibit easily. But now many pictures go abroad. Photographers can go outside Iran as well. There is a market there and that will impact on the market here.

In Iran they don’t understand the market-because they are so isolated. How do photographers decide the price?

The biography of artists is very important for setting the price, when he exhibits, where he exhibits, which collections have his photos. Also the editions. If photos have five editions it should be more expensive than twenty. Unfortunately in Iran, they don’t know this. Some years ago we had two prices-Iranian price and international price. It was a problem. Many people would come and buy photos here and sell it abroad.

There is a photographer in India, Pushpamala N., who keeps some photos as unlimited editions so that they can be enjoyed by common people?

That is a very good idea. I will do the same. India is so interesting and Indians are so effective. I am really looking  forward to exhibiting  there, going there.


Because in my imagination India is colour and I am thirsty for colour. I am sure India is totally different from places I have seen. It is for itself. When you see Belgium, it is somehow like Paris, somehow like Berlin. But India. It will be unique. When I was in Bangladesh, I loved it. Everything was strange for me in Bangladesh. I was surprised all the time, their home, their food, how the people lived, how they reacted.
In what way was it strange?

Totally different from Iran. The people were for their own, they did not copy from other people in the world. They were living the way they wanted to. I was in a very good situation. I was with Shahidul for Chobi Mela –a nice photo festival. I loved Shahidul and the way he did photography. He is a big, big, name for me. He was here in Tehran for the Kaveh competition, and my husband, Peyman  was looking for a translator. I was told that Shahidul was not interested in my photos because I was not a documentary photographer, so I went as a translator. Later I submitted my works and I was chosen by him for Chobi Mela.

It was a very, very good experience for me. I understood the meaning of group work there. Most of the photographers were volunteers. We don’t find this in Iran. Nobody wants to work in a group. The Bangladeshi photographers wanted to work as a group, they were sharing ideas. They were working for Chobi Mela-not for one person. They even forgot their own name. They still keep in touch. I have so many emails from them. They were celebrating photography. They did not have any idea of market.

What do you see as the legacy of your work?

I don’t know. Some photos.