“Documentary photography is very young in Iran,” Tehran-based photographer Fatemeh Behboudi tells It’s Nice That as we chat about her decade capturing Iranian life and culture over email. “Art, especially photography, has a weak position in Iran and documentary photographers work without any support and with extensive restrictions and therefore, we’re lagging behind. But in recent years, a large number of people have shown interest in documentary photography in Iran, which can be a good opportunity if proper grounds are provided for it.”
Fatemeh is at the forefront of these Iranian creatives currently garnering international acclaim – winning fans for the power and intimacy of her image-making. From projects making portraits of the mothers of soldiers still missing from the 1980s Iran-Iraq War to shooting the survivors of earthquakes in 2012 and again in 2017, Fatemeh’s approach is always right in the middle of the action, capturing emotional moments as they unfold.
One of her longest-running ongoing projects, Mourning for Hussain, is a photographic study of Ashoura, the annual religious celebration where Shiite Muslims celebrate the life (and martyrdom) of Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Starting in 2009, Fatemeh has travelled to five cities looking at different mourning ceremonies, from huge feasts to fire parades, reenactments of Hussain final battle and huge sporting events.
“Religions are always amazing to me, especially those religious beliefs which influence the people’s lives,” Fatemeh tells It’s Nice That. “Ashoura has always been one of the most interesting events for me due to the strange and influential character of Imam Hussain and the role of his epic on Iranians’ lives. We cry for his martyrdom every year… We spend millions of dollars for him and sacrifice sheep. It led me to question, who is Hussain? And why his role has turned into such an influential idea among people, especially the Shiites?”
The story of Hussain, who was martyred in the 7th Century, is seen in Iranian culture as a symbol of resistance to the oppression of outside forces, explains Fatemeh, an idea that has been consistently present in contemporary Iran, both during the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and the Iran-Iraq War and now in fighting ISIS. “Today thousands of Iranian youths are sent to the battle against the ISIL in Syria,” Fatemeh explains. “But this resistance is seen not only in war but in different aspects of the Iranian people’s life. The most amazing part of photography for me is when photos can pass through borders and communicate with the world. People can hear the voices of others who have been hidden from us because of politics.”
Politics, Fatemeh explains, has also had a direct effect on her career, forcing her to work far harder than her male colleagues. “During the past 10 years of working in Iranian news agencies I have always fought against the patriarchal views of the media. There are not many female photographers active here,” she says, “and often we’re not given top projects to work on. There is one news agency in Iran which always supports its female photographers and sends them to foreign countries for missions, but other news agencies have either fired their female photographers or allocate only a small number of projects to women due to the religious atmosphere.”
Never letting her gender influence her choice of stories or the way she captures images, Fatemeh instead prioritises the important issues she sees in society and the stories that need to be told. But, she explains, part of her mission is to show that women too can be world-class documentary photographers. “I think that our feminine identity is more powerful than people think and today our world needs more feminine views,” says Fatemeh. “I’ve tried to prove that being a woman doesn’t mean weakness. But after some years, I’ve reached the conclusion that one can awaken blind people but can never awaken a person who pretends to be asleep.”