One day, while photographing on the streets of Isfahan, Iran, I spotted a young Persian man wearing a Dixie Chicks t-shirt. I introduced myself, and I inquired whether his t-shirt was intended to signify his dislike for the American President Bush. He smiled, and replied that the shirt wasn't just about President Bush. He explained that shortly after the Dixie Chicks criticized Bush on stage, bootleg Dixie Chicks shirts appeared in stores all over Iran's major cities. He told me that the shirt represented the admiration that he and his compatriots had for Americans' freedom of speech.
That young man and his t-shirt have become a symbol for me of the basic philosophical compatibility of Iranians and Americans— and of Americans' unawareness of that compatibility. For example, few Americans understand that the Persian culture celebrates knowledge, personal freedom, and the enjoyment of life. Most Americans do not know that Iranian women, despite the obstacles put in their way, are a significant political voice, and make up a majority of the university students in Iran. It seems that Americans would ordinarily admire the courage and willpower of the Iranian people, but the current political climate makes it nearly impossible for Americans to recognize those qualities.
I want all Americans to have a chance to come face-to-face with their Iranian counterparts, and I want to document the Americans' responses to the encounter. For this reason, I am assembling a traveling photography exhibit entitled 'pictures of you: Images from Iran.' The show features portraits of Iranians printed on translucent silk. The images can be viewed from either side, and the translucency of the fabric permits viewers to watch as other people look at the installation. This serves to make viewers aware of other people's reactions to the images, and perhaps will cause them to reflect on their own responses. The fragility of the silk is intended to remind viewers of the significant effect that American misperceptions might have on Iranians and on Persian culture. I want viewers to have the sense that something beautiful is in jeopardy.
The installation will be shown in outdoor venues that are not traditionally reserved for art. It will be shown in high-traffic areas, so it will be encountered by viewers who do not typically seek out art. For example, we plan to show the exhibit at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, at a NASCAR event, and at select state fairs. Many viewers will simply happen upon the show without having heard about it. My intention is to reach a broad audience, and to evoke an unfiltered response to the photography.
For me, Americans' response to the installation will be the real point of the show. Many Americans have strong feelings and intuitions about Iran, and many of their ideas have developed in an environment tainted by ignorance and suspicion. While Americans are free to learn about Iran and engage in informed debate about foreign policy, so many of them choose not to use those very freedoms that millions of Iranians long for. I hope that the show will ultimately transcend the issue of Iranian/American relations. It will illustrate how Americans exercise their freedoms and privileges— including the privilege to remain uninformed about other nations and cultures without suffering any significant consequences.
The main title of the show, 'pictures of you,' is deliberately ambiguous. Viewers may assume the subject of the show— the 'you'— is the Iranian people. But the American viewer of the show is its subject— its 'you'— as much as the people of Iran are. I hope that the documentation of Americans' response to the installation will allow us to examine that part of American culture objectively and with compassion. My intention is that allowing Americans to see themselves in this way will encourage them to look more carefully at other nations and cultures.
The title of the show was inspired by a verse by the Iranian poet Rumi. In translation, it reads:
If my head holds one thought wise and clear, it's you.
Poor as I am, what I hold dear is you.
No matter how I see myself, I'm nothing.
Anything I am entirely is you.
from Rumi's Kolliyaat-e Shams-e Tabrizi
||'pictures of you: images from iran' is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization. Contributions in behalf of pictures of you may be made payable to Fractured Atlas and are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.