I was looking for something different, something more self-explanatory, that instead of me talking to people, people would come and would draw their own conclusion.
Then it struck me, “How about a photo exhibition?” A photo exhibition so that people would come, we provide a space, and we show things that they don’t see in the media: part of culture, part of nature, maybe everyday life of people.
Then in this space, visitors can create their own impression. I wrote this proposal and took it to the Rueff School of Visual and Performing Arts. The gallery coordinator was so excited, she asked me, “So, are you a photographer?”
“No,” I was not.
“Hmm, do you have any sample photo?”
“Have you ever had any experience of setting up a photo exhibition?”
“About that? No.”
But it wasn’t the end of the story. I was not a photographer, but I had a lot of photographer friends. So I contacted them.
And finally I located a friend, an editor of a well-regarded journal. The name of the journal was “My Motherland” or (Farsi).
I was amazed by their archive, more than 22,000 photos, over six years of their work. And the editor told me that, in their touring other countries, the journal has been called “National Geographic of Iran.”
For having everyday life of people, we needed street photography. We reached out to other photographers, and even bloggers who had good photos of Iran.
Lastly, we invited everyone who had a photo of Iran to share it in the social media, to hashtag “Iran beyond Politics.”
In my mind everything was simple. We had all these photos, they provide a photo, we are in charge of the rest. We needed a space. We have photos, we frame them, now we have a photo exhibition.
But the reality was totally different. So much work, so much collaboration, communication, and of course, miscommunication. I needed help, lots of help; I reached out to nearly all my friends.
And you know, in grad school nobody has time; but if you have a good story to tell, people like to help. I had lots of help. A group working on reception day preparing Persian snacks, of course, with saffron. A big group working on fundraising; another group working on publicity and advertisement; a big group of translators receiving everything in Farsi, translating it in English; an American friend who fact-checked and edited every single description, so the contents can convey to the audience clearly.
Finally, it was there, “Iran beyond Politics,” the photo exhibition; nearly 50 photos with descriptions in Farsi and English, and a small map that shows where the photo was taken. 600 people showed up, including individuals, groups, students of classes like history, political science, architecture.
This project took more than a year from the beginning to the end. And in showing “Iran beyond Politics”, we took our audience, we walked them through mountains, through deserts.
We took them on a journey to experience the hillside full of flowers, we showed them the richness of my history, through showing the historical monuments, the castle of Cyrus the Great, mesmerizing Islamic architecture, full of pattern, full of colors.
We took them to religious ceremonies, even to traditional dance. To taste the everyday life of people, we took them to big cities full of traffic and buildings. They give them a glimpse of everyday life by showing pictures of stores, corner shops, bakeries preparing fresh products every day, in every corner of my home, Iran.
“Iran beyond Politics” – this exhibition was not my voice. It was the voice of all those photographers and journalists who could not be here, who could not even share their photos earlier with other journals on international scales because of the sanctions and limitation in communication.
And the third chapter of this story goes beyond introducing a country in the Middle East. And this talk is not an inspirational talk to say that, “Oh, the political differences do not exist.” No. I do not want to deny that, definitely not.
I would like to share with you the power of media, the power of media in not showing the whole story, the power of media in not presenting the whole picture, and presenting one facet of the country, the political facet; and ignoring all those stories that are out there and shaping the culture; in this case, my culture.
Media can be so powerful to create ignorance and distort the view of a group of people, nationality, or a religion in the eyes of the rest of the world. And this ignorance and distortion can be so strong that those people prefer to hide their identity, to hide part of themselves.
Media can be so powerful. Today I’m using the same media to talk to young people out there and tell them: if you hide part of your identity, maybe you have a second thought of revealing who you are and embracing your identity fully, and completely, and proudly.
I would like to end my talk with a quote from Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian novelist.
“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with the stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
The United States has one portrait of Iran in the media, and with this exhibition, we would like not to negate that portrait at all, but to supplement it with rich history, intelligent people, and magnificent geography of my home, Iran.