Can photography change the world? Iranian artist and journalist Farnaz Damnabi's new exhibit, "UNVEILED," set to open at 29 ARTS IN PROGRESS, would seem to suggest yes, at least in part. I don't think it's a surprise to anyone that shifts in power structures can be turbulent. Even minor revisions in social identities can lead to conflict. Damnabi's exhibit is a document of the transformations in the identity, visibility, and recognition of women as equal and free participants in Iran, an unveiling of a new Iran, if you will.
I had the chance to talk with Damnabi about her exhibition and about the value of photography as an agent of change. Based in Tehran, Damnabi is excited that she can document the changes around her, perhaps helping future generations to understand how to affect deeper, more profound change.
Damnabi maintains that the aim of her portraits and street photography isn't to be controversial, but rather to show us and to document for future generations, with her own eyes, contemporary Iran. More than that, Damnabi's images invite us into a world which we are certainly aware of, but which can, through the images themselves, touch us more intensely. Damnabi doesn't live in my privileged world, where I can push for changes without much risk to myself, where hope isn't such a foreign concept. Considering the world around her, a world where the powerful are free to arrest any progress, Damnabi isn't convinced that her photographs can create change today. Her images do, however, speak for themselves.
Damnabi faces potential consequences. For many of us around the world, photography doesn't pose the same risks. I believe that this speaks to her passion for her subjects and for the rights, the absence of which she photographs at risk to self.
It is undeniable that Damnabi’s pictures give voice to the unheard. Her images are the stories of women, marginalized from all aspects of the society in which they live; they are the stories, all things considered, of all the invisible Iranians who have always been relegated to the farthest confines, both geographical and social. I'm amazed by the isolation I can feel of each individual woman, isolated from the reflected city and from each other, when looking at her image "Loneliness."
Damnabi has a knack for finding the right moment to contrast her foreground and background. Damnabi's ability to frame her subjects tells tales of isolation, loss, and exclusion — a shout of indignation. Her photographs demand that we hope alongside her.
Many of the photographs on display highlight the discrimination against women in the labor market as a result of a salary gender gap and the failure to recognize women's silent contribution to key sectors of the Iranian economy and craft industry, most notably in the saffron fields of Torbat-e Heydarieh or the production of world-famous Persian carpets.
The visually shocking female figures portrayed from behind in front of a traditional Persian rug and appear to blend in — and almost merge — with the background, a metaphor for both their optical and social invisibility.
Damnabi's Metamorphosis series documents scenes of everyday life, rituals, garments, and emblematic traditions of Iran. Combined with her Be Like a Butterfly project, Damnabi documents the attempts made by the younger generations of women to improve their condition, marking changes so slow and tardy that they seem imperceptible, comparing them to the same metamorphosis that chrysalides undergo to become butterflies.
Perhaps there is room for change and growth here. Perhaps the existence of Damnabi's images themselves are the hope and promise that Damnabi and her subjects are clutching for: a new Iran.