Hoda Afshar

Hoda Afshar is a Melbourne-based artist and scholar whose photographic practice straddles the line between staged image and reality. Born in Iran, Afshar, who won the 2015 National Portrait Prize and the 2018 Bowness Photography Prize, explores the image as a means for presenting new narratives.

As a very young artist you were selected by the prestigious World Press Photo as one of the top ten young photographers in Iran in 2006. Can you share the technical and philosophical approaches you began with in your practice and how they have contributed to your evolution as an artist?
I have always been interested in the intrusive nature of the camera and its ability to document and make visible hidden realities. Looking back at those works, I was doing then what I’m doing now, fifteen years later. Of course, though, your ideas and approach become more complex as your vision and practice grow. Back then my approach was more intuitive.

From the beginning, my image-making involved a degree of invention and intervention in the scenarios I was photographing. I always found the ambiguity of staged images to be closer to reality than (apparently) objective documentary images. Documentary photography approaches have often been about learning how to ‘make’ the camera invisible – that is, how to make it appear invisible – through the development of a certain aesthetic or language. But this very fact just confirms that photography is, however you look at it, a kind of poiesis. This understanding has always been part of my practice, and even a point of interrogation. So, in some of my earlier works, such as the first long-term project I started, Scene (2004), which documents my circle of friends in underground parties in Tehran, and The Carnival (2007) which documents a major Shi’ite religious festival in Iran, already the line between real and staged images is somewhat blurred.

Beyond the satirical and Warhol-esque aesthetic of the ‘Under Western Eyes’ series (2013–14), at the heart of this body of work is a powerful statement of self-determination. With the transition from auto-ethnographic documentary-style photography in Iran, to that of an ‘outsider’ experiencing a distorted lens through which you were looking back on your own culture, can you speak to the moment of realisation behind the series?
I would never have thought or had a reason to make a work like ‘Under Western Eyes’ prior to leaving Iran, and it was indeed inspired by my experience of migration in several different ways. My ‘Iranian-ness’ was not something I considered much until I discovered that, in the mind of the new society, there existed an image of me that seemed to overshadow my entire personal history and being. I had to confront all those stereotypes that so many migrants from Islamic countries routinely experience.

‘Under Western Eyes’ is a response to how these stereotypes operate within the contemporary art market. When I looked at the sort of artworks produced by Iranian or Middle Eastern artists that typically gained visibility here, and in the West generally, I noticed here too that often they reflected the same stereotypes I mentioned above. So often in these works the theme is basically identical, having to do with the struggle of Iranian women, being caught between the forces of tradition and modernity, their sexual lives and identity. And in each case, this ‘identical struggle’ is so often communicated using a single trope: the veil.

Realising this led me to engage in a deeper reflection on the intersections between postmodern exoticism and the commodification of culturally different artworks and artists. ‘Under Western Eyes’ was born out of these reflections, and this explains the Warhol-esque aesthetic. But there is a more serious side to this work too, and this concerns the way in which the constant production of images of the female Islamic subject (as at once suppressed and secretly fashion-loving or sexually free: an object of fear and fascination) is bound up with a cleverly disguised form of cultural imperialism.

In light of the quote by Edward Said, ‘The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever’, can you share the experiential elements of the work In the exodus, I love you more (2014-18) and how you use the ‘New Documentary’ style of image-making to express the disjuncture in time and loss?
I love this quote from Said. It’s a thought that I revisit quite often. I think a lot about the holes that the experience of loss leaves behind in our memories, and that was the starting point for my work ‘In the exodus, I love you more’. I began making that series right after my father’s passing. I went back to Iran to search for him in his absence, to photograph ‘his not being there’ as a way of coming to terms with it.

Beyond the personal dimension, my intention in making this series has also been to challenge some of the typical ways of representing Iran that we encounter – not just in terms of presenting a ‘truer’ picture than the negative one we so often see in the media, but by dismantling this very idea: that there is a single reality that is Iran. My approach has been to begin with the surface, and to then dismantle it; not in order to present the true reality, but rather my own personal history, which is interwoven in infinitely complex ways with the lives of other Iranians. To me, that deeper layer of invisible connections is more ambiguous, subjective, and more difficult to photograph, but for that very reason, closer to reality.

With the series Behold (2015–16), and your recent work, Remain (2018), I have witnessed a unique type of beauty and power in your photography and why it will endure: you believe in them, and they believe in you. And with that, the viewer is made privy to a moment of trust, respect and care. Can you explain the engagement with your subjects?
Thank you! You know I am an emotional and romantic person in general, and so is my approach to image-making. I cannot make pictures if I do not feel a strong emotional connection to what is in front of my camera.

The collaborative aspect of image-making is very important to me, and mutual trust is an integral part of that process. The technical elements are always secondary. Or rather, it is ultimately my relationship with a subject that will determine the language and aesthetic of a photographic series. I believe it is only in that space, where a genuine dialogue forms between the creator, the camera and the subject matter, that authentic work is made. It is the intimacy of the body, journeying through the mechanical apparatus of the camera and the emotionally charged eye of the image-maker that determines what appears on the physical surface of a photograph.

Can you tell us what joining the collective Eleven means to you, and what you feel this collective can potentially contribute to the social, political and cultural landscape in Australia?
Joining Eleven has been a highlight of my recent career. Many of the collective members are artists I’ve admired for a long time. Since arriving in Australia, the major focus of my visual research has been the work of contemporary First Nations artists and artists from minority communities whose work is part of a larger resistance movement. I always considered my own work part of such a movement, but before joining the collective, it often felt like I was screaming under water.

The importance of this collective is in the diversity of the voices that it represents. Specifically, it challenges the dominant mis-perceptions that exist within the society regarding the identity of people of Islamic background. Individually and collectively, the artists in Eleven are addressing many urgent questions about our current times and society. I think what connects us all is our heritage and struggle against an image of ‘us’, and others like us, as a homogenous group of hostile outsiders.

This interview was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 45, 2018

Hoda Afshar + others
1 – 24 July 2020

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