One Small Voice: Newsha Tavakolian

Published on 30 August 2016

There is an art to storytelling. Acclaimed Iranian photojournalist Newsha Tavakolian shares her experiences.


AS A PHOTOJOURNALIST, MY LIFE IS OFTEN AT RISK. COVERING THE IRAQ WAR, there was no frontline; the war was everywhere. More recently, I travelled to Syria to photograph Kurdish women fighters. Anytime, someone could blow herself or himself up. But it’s like this anywhere in the world now. I don’t know where is safe and where is not. But, having said that, I’ve never felt my life was in danger because I am a woman.


I think it all depends on how you behave. When you enter a different culture, you have to respect the culture. If you’re flexible and adaptive, I think you can do your job anywhere. It’s also important to know whether someone wants his or her picture taken, or not. It’s a sensitivity you cultivate. For me, the ‘permission’ can come through simple eye contact or the person’s body language. With experience, you know when is the right moment.


Sometimes, I think it’s harder for male photojournalists. As an Iranian woman, I have less difficulty gaining access into certain communities in the Middle East, like women and youth. Similarly, there are areas I’ll never get access to. So as a storyteller, you must know where’s your advantage.

In my personal projects, I feel most drawn to the middle-class — especially the young people living in Tehran — because they are invisible. I try to uncover interesting things from them because I believe they have stories within stories, layers and layers of them, and nobody is really interested to listen. Yet in Iran, the middle-class forms 70 to 80 per cent of the population.


Shooting their portrait is capturing their soul in a moment. For me, it’s a very slow process because it deals with the person’s situation, condition and emotions. To capture their essence, you really have to spend time with them. During these periods of art making, I stop taking on photojournalistic work. I’m in my own world. It’s always a difficult time for me. It’s as if I’m in a black tunnel; I see the light at the end of it, but I still have to pass through the darkness to emerge. Some artists who know my creative process tell me it’s not necessary I do this. But I don’t know any other way.


I didn’t go to university, so I don’t know the art world academically. Whatever I create comes from inside me. I don’t do art just for the sake of being an artist. It’s always something I need to let out. In this busy world, there are so many little things that matter that nobody knows or cares about. I try to make these things visible.


But some stories are very hard to tell. In war zones, there are some tragedies that are so great, it’s impossible — with one or two or even 10 images — to capture the reality of the person’s situation. Sometimes, the victims don’t want you to take their picture: like this 14-year-old Yazidi girl, who was abducted by ISIS and raped multiple times over a period of 25 days. Because I felt compelled to tell her story, I wrote [the essay] ‘A Thousand Words for a Picture That I Never Took’.


I feel it’s my responsibility to share because people in Singapore, for example, don’t think about this girl. But if I make you stop, and think about her, then I feel I’ve done my job.

NEWSHA TAVAKOLIAN is an Iranian photojournalist based in Tehran. A self-taught photographer, she began working professionally in the Iranian press at the age of 16. Her works have appeared in international publications, including Time Magazine  and National Geographic, as well as in exhibitions, such as at the British Museum and Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Tavakolian is a recipient of the Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism Award (2014) and is the Principal Prince Claus Laureate 2015. She was recently featured in the Singapore International Festival of Arts’ pre-festival of ideas, The O.P.E.N.

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