“My series are exactly like a mirror of my life. When I see me, I see the other women like me, my sisters my friends, the women in this country.” Shadi Ghadirian
Produced by The Kitchen Sisters and Lacy Roberts
When we first began work on Hidden World of Girls, Davia saw a photograph on the cover of Art in America— a rich, sepia-toned image of a beautiful woman in a headscarf, wearing ornate traditional clothing, and bold, hip sunglasses. The evocative photo became the logo for our series—unexpected, paradoxical, rich with story.
Shortly after the discovery, we spoke by telephone to the photographer, Shadi Ghadirian in Tehran where she lives and works. We also interviewed Rose Issa, of Rose Issa Gallery of Iranian Art in London, who was born in Iran and who represents Shadi’s work.
Shadi Ghadirian was born in 1974 in Tehran, shortly before the Iranian Revolution. She was one of the first to graduate in photography from the University of Azad which had been closed during the early eighties after the Revolution. While she was at the University she encountered some of the earliest works in the history of Iranian photography. These archival images sparked her own work, a series of photographs that capture the private worlds of Iranian women today, caught between tradition and modernity.
The Qajar Series
Shadi’s first series of photographs was called the Qajar Series, a project she created for her thesis.
“During my study of photography at the University,” Shadi told us, “I started to work in a museum of photography in Tehran, and my job was printing old photos from glass negatives. I realized that we have a very good history of photography in Iran because 150 years ago our king was interested in photography. And this happened just in Iran, not in the surrounding Arab country at that time, and I wanted to do something with this history of photography.”
Naser al-Din, the Shah of Iran from 1848-1896 during the Qajar Dynasty, went to France shortly after the camera was introduced in Europe, and fell in love with photography.
“He brought a camera back with him to Iran,” said Shadi. “And he started taking photos, especially of women — he had something like five hundred wives.”
“We have fantastic documentation of his hirim, his wives, and his concubines, that he photographed himself because nobody else, of course, would be allowed to photograph them,” explained Rose Issa. It became fashionable in Iran to be a photographer, almost as well respected as a painter or calligrapher.
At that time Iran was very open to European ideas and fashions.
“The men of the Qajar who went to Paris and saw operas with women dancing in tutus wanted their wives to dress in the same way but with the trouser underneath,” Rose told us. “It was a very strange fashion.”
In creating her photographs, Shadi borrowed antique traditional Qajar era dresses. She enlisted her sisters, her women family and friends to pose in the style of the old photographs. She constructed a classical 19th century curtained backdrop to emulate the look and feel of the early photos. Then she pushed her lush, classical compositions one step further.
“I decided to add something modern in the old photos,” Shadi related. “Then I had two symbol, one from 150 years ago, and the other from today.”
Shadi included objects in her photos that are “forbidden” or restricted in Iran: a CD player, television, guitar, censored books, beer cans, a bicycle (women are not allowed to ride bikes).
“It’s all about the paradoxical life of young women of her generation,” said Rose Issa. “Women born during the revolution, live with lots of things that are forbidden. Forbidden to dance, to listen to music, to drink alcohol, or even drink Coca Cola or Pepsi Cola— American and foreign products. But, of course everything exists through the black market. So Shadi’s photos talk about all the music and dancing that happens inside the house — the difference between life inside the house and outside.”
Shadi’s photos capture women’s interior lives, behind closed doors. The women in Shadi Ghadirian’s photographs are sandwiched between tradition and modernity, past and present, east and west, public and private, reality and fantasy. In Shadi’s photos the books in the house are reflected in mirrors. The Pepsi is on a woman’s thigh, the can of beer is in her basket. She holds a tape recorder listening to music.
“Its all about whatever the rules, whatever the restrictions, the young people can overcome it,” Rose said. “The country cannot escape modernism because the needs for life, for music, for breaking taboos and being rebellious and finding loopholes in the system in order to express yourself, are there. “
The girls in Shadi’s photographs are very confident. They look you straight in the eyes. “They are not shy, they are not those victimized young women that people think the Muslim world is,” says Rose. ”They decide for their lives. They take risks. They use the things that are forbidden. They are not embarrassed. They don’t have their eyes down as Muslim women should do. No, they are very confident ladies.”
Like Everyday Series
The themes of Shadi’s life have followed the course of her life. When she got married she created a series called Like Everyday about domestic life for young married women in Iran.
“I realized I had never thought about those things — housewifing things,” said Shadi. “Cups, dishes, irons, sweeping, these kinds of things.”
In Iran, young women live with their families until they marry. “She is not a good cook because a woman never lives on her own in Iran,”Rose explained. ”It is your mother, your aunties, everybody else cooks but never you. So, contrary to the expectation, a girl does not know how to deal with real life and domesticity when she marries. What is cleaning a kitchen? What is cooking? What is making your own bed? So she criticized, she became like a faceless woman with all these tools that her friends gave her when she married– teapots, cups, casseroles…”
“In my photos you see women wearing flowery chadors,” described Shadi. ” It’s a kind of chador that women always wear inside the houses, they are colorful. In these photos you cannot see their faces. You can see, for example, a cup or things related to the housewife things instead of their face.
“For me, because I spend most of the time out of the house it is very hard because at night I am totally tired. And I believe that this is not just for Iranian women. I travel a lot and I see many many women around the world and I realize that it’s the woman, it’s the mother that’s always worried what should the baby eat. And if they are doctor, if they are teacher, if they are photographer, if they are housewife it doesn’t matter. In their mind they are always thinking about these things. It’s a part of the women’s life I think.”
Wearing the Hijab
Before the Iranian Revolution, women were not required to where the Hijab in public as they are now in Iran.
“Shadi was very young when the revolution happened, so all she knows is scarves,” Rose said. ” Women with scarves. She doesn’t have any other public images of women not wearing a veil. She is not my generation, you know, when everybody had mini skirts and was following fashion in Iran. Her generation was told always to wear a veil.”
“I grew up with the hijab and, you know, we have special fashions for this,” said Shadi. “It’s no problem for me. Maybe it is for my mother, she didn’t have a hijab before the revolution and now she suddenly has to wear it, it’s a problem. But for me that I grew up with this, it’s no difference.”
Rose Issa describes Shadi’s work as being about the iconic and paradoxical life of women living in the present regime in Iran.
“My series are exactly like a mirror of my life,” said Shadi. “When I see me, I see the other women like me, my sisters my friends, the women in this country.
“I believe that in the life of the new generation in Iran we have the traditional things and we have the modernism. If something is traditional and it’s good for us, we accept it. And if something is modern and good for us we accept it. It’s a mixture. Sometimes we have these two together. Especially in our new generation you can see in their life they can’t choose if they want to live as a traditional family or they want to live as a modern family. They want to mix these two together. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s not good. This is the story that I wanted to tell.”
Shadi’s work has been shown around the world, including at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the British Museum, and museums in Dubai, Vienna, Finland, Copenhagen and beyond.