Photograph by Newsha Tavakolian showing a young woman wearing hijab and dark attire stood in the sea at the shore

Iran as seen by women photographers

Three generations of photographers have been gathered in Breathing Space, a new book of images that reflect on identity, conflict, and collective memory

Breathing Space is a compendium of photography by Iranian women, beginning with the Iranian revolution in 1979 – a period of unrest that drove Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi into exile and the establishment of Iran’s ongoing theocracy – through to work made as recently as 2021.

The photographic responses to 1979 have “particular resonance today”, according to the book’s editor Anahita Ghabaian Etehadieh, who is also the founder of Silk Road Gallery – the country’s first gallery space dedicated to photography.

Photograph by Maryam Firuzi showing the artist reading from a book on steps in a street surrounded by everyday onlookers. The steps are covered in a long pink panel of fabric down the middle
Top: Imaginary CD Covers, from the series Listen, 2010 © Newsha Tavakolian; Above: from the series Reading for Tehran Streets, 2014-2016 © Maryam Firuzi
Photograph by Shadi Ghadirian showing a person wearing a floral veil, their face covered by a yellow rubber glove
From the series Like Every Day, 2000-01 © Shadi Ghadirian

The book comes less than a year after the death of Mahsa Amini while in police custody, spurring widespread protests led by women and girls across Iran, as well as international demonstrations. Ghabaian Etehadieh firmly situates the work within this context in the introduction, bringing it together “at a moment in history when Iranian women are fighting for their rights with courage and determination”.

The decision to open the book with Hengameh Golestan is clearly an intentional one. Her evocative documentation of the 1979 marches shows crowds of predominantly women pouring out in their droves to protest the compulsory hijab. It bears obvious parallels with the circumstances surrounding Mahsa Amini’s arrest by the ‘morality police’, having been taken in for allegedly failing to comply with hijab laws. Mid-way between these events, and mid-way through the book, photojournalist Yalda Moaiery documents women being arrested, in 2006, for not adhering to dress code laws.

The crises in Iran will have largely registered in international consciousness in the past ten months of uprisings. However, the book shows issues such as gender-based oppression, and people’s responses to it, have been percolating long before the tragedy of 2022.

Photograph by Gohar Dashti showing a couple sat at a table drinking and eating, which has been positioned in a desert landscape with a tank directly behind them
From the series Today’s Life and War, 2008 © Gohar Dashti

Breathing Space also retraces women’s perspectives of other forms of conflict, namely the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1980 to 1988. We see how women were largely prevented from depicting the war at the time (Rana Javadi), but were nonetheless forced to endure it everyday (Gohar Dashti).

Ghabaian Etehadieh explains that photography is a relatively young medium in Iran (the gallery says it took off hand-in-hand with greater press freedom in the early 2000s). Yet her edit shows how, in a matter of decades, imagemaking became intrinsic to women’s processing of their interior lives and external realities, and the complex juncture between the two.

There are links back and forth through time, too. Ghazaleh Rezaei, Sahar Mokhtari, Malekeh Nayiny, and Nazli Abbaspour all incorporate images of, or by, family members from the past, using them to reckon with earlier conflicts and social landscapes that the imagemakers might not have experienced themselves, but have left a mark on their lives nonetheless.

The inclination to use existing photographs and artefacts, as well as expired film, indicates an impulse to connect with other generations and the ghosts of the past. The strongest common thread between these artists isn’t their experience of Iran – spread across three generations as they are – nor even necessarily their gender, but a desire for empathy: to see others through an empathetic lens, and to be seen through that lens, too.

Image by Nazli Abbaspour using an old family photo of two women, one wearing a veil, in the foreground and the man in the background with a hand on each woman's shoulder, covered with an orange floral translucent layer over the photograph
From the series Reincarnation, 2017-2019 © Nazli Abbaspour
Image by Malekeh Nayiny of a family portrait in a studio that has been recolourised with bright colours
From the series Updating a Family Album, 2004 © Malekeg Nayiny

Breathing Space: Iranian Women Photographers is published by Thames & Hudson;