Recognizing Women: Photography and Feminism from Iran

By Elizabeth Derderian
Submitted to Session P3103 (Seeing the Political: Gender and Visual Culture in the Middle East and Its Diasporas, 2012 Annual Meeting
LCD Projector without Audio;
With the rise of contemporary Arab and Iranian art’s recognition in Western art markets, women photographers such as Shadi Ghadirian and Newsha Tavakolian are redefining the way Arab and Persian women are being represented and understood. While Ghadirian’s work tends towards the artistic, Tavakolian’s photography serves a more documentary purpose while retaining a distinct aesthetic. Both photographers blur the lines between artistry and documentary, challenging and probing the role of photography in their works.

Ghadirian and Tavakolian's active construction and representation of women can be read as feminism, as these photographers and artists advocate varied and nuanced positions that resist normalizing and homogenizing reductions of women from the Muslim world. Viewers are confronted with scenes that profoundly disjoint expectations, including scenes that appear atemporal, juxtaposing the modern and the historical, unveiled women, and transgendered individuals. Photographs of veiled women are done in a provocative manner, wherein the women retain rather than lose power through the veil. These works also question the social constructions of gender roles, thus provoking shifts in the way audiences construe masculinity as well. In fact, Ghadirian’s portraits of her female subjects invokes elements of contemporary masculinity, while Tavakolian's complicates easy ideas of gender and Islam. Here, Fred Myers’ work on the discourses and role of acrylic paintings in the Australian context also provide helpful frameworks for analyses as these photographers’ work achieves more prominence and wider audiences in the art markets of New York, Paris and London.

While studying these images and trying to extricate readings from them, this paper questions what advocacy is possible with photographs, that are composed or witnessed snapshots of one moment in time and viewed in another? This paper analyzes the ability of these photographers and their images to confront and provoke social issues, and the discourses created by the varying audiences of these works.