Hoda Afshar and I meet in the office of un Projects, beside Fitzroy Library in inner Melbourne. I make her a cup of tea and ask whether she wants sugar or milk, before realising we have neither. She takes her tea black anyway, and holds the tiny glass I hand her carefully, with both hands. Born in Iran, Afshar moved to Australia in 2007 and has lived and worked here since. As a photographer, her practice is prolific. Her works are ironic, subversive and challenging, responding to stereotypes of Iran in the Western imagination. She is deeply interested in the power of representation, in allowing complexity for marginalised people who are often denied it in media. She believes firmly in the ability of image-making to change not only attitudes, but systems.
Her most recent work, Remain, premiered in Sydney this week as part of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Primavera, a yearly showcase of Australian artists aged 35 and under. This year’s iteration, its 27th, focuses on questions of identity. Composed of a series of portraits and a 24-minute film, Remain was shot on Manus Island, where Afshar travelled between March and April this year. There, she met Kurdish Iranian journalist and writer Behrouz Boochani, after months of sending messages back and forth on WhatsApp.
Many journalists, photographers and filmmakers – Boochani told Afshar – had come to Manus in the time he has been detained there. “To him, it was really interesting the ones who get permission to get there all come with one identical agenda,” Afshar says. “They put a refugee in front of the camera, ask them very sensitive, emotional questions. As soon as the refugee breaks into tears, or there’s a moment that you can feel their pain, they click. They make the picture, they leave. The picture wins a prize, it’s published in the newspaper, lasts for a day or two. No one talks about the refugee – it’s all about the image-maker. They portray the refugees as a group of miserable creatures. The stereotype is that none of them has any ambition, dreams, autonomy or individual narrative.”
This insistence on representing refugees as damaged and dehumanised is justified by the task of creating empathy in the public eye, in the hope of creating change. But Afshar has come to believe this kind of image-making is damaging. It is how photographers become complicit in creating media narratives that refuse to see the humanity or agency of refugees.
Afshar’s descriptions of Manus are frightening. The levels of surveillance and restriction placed on the refugees there, as well as any foreigner attempting to visit, make any sort of photography or documentation an uneasy process.
“They have to ask permission any time they want to leave the camp, say where they’re going, what they’re doing, what time they will be back,” she says. “There are people who spy on them, stalk them everywhere they go. I was stalked every day, too. I had immigration officers behind my window, behind my door, everywhere, listening to all my conversations.”
A local resident from Manus, a man sympathetic to the struggle of the refugees living there, offered Afshar and the group of 13 men imprisoned in East Lorengau camp who’d agreed to work with her a safe place on a nearby small island – away from the camp – to do their photography work. She explains that they needed to be somewhere away from the camp because, on Manus, “It’s impossible. The tensions there are really high.” She smiles. “I took one piece of black fabric with me and we made a little studio”.
Art, Afshar says, encourages intuitive and emotive responses towards social issues, things she believes can’t be made sense of logically. “One aspect of art-making that I really love is the naivety. Not naivety in the sense that it’s not informed, more like that intuitive response that you have to an experience that comes from more of an emotional side of you than the logical side. For me, that emotional connection to the subject matter is one of the elements that can actually connect people to your work.”
Although she began her career as a documentary photographer, Afshar’s practice has developed more into one of visual art. She sees in arts practice the potential to understand things differently. “I became obsessed with the ability of photography to make visible unseen and hidden realities – the intrusive nature of the camera and the spectacle that it creates,” she says. “I became more interested in the relationship between photography and truth.” Afshar studied fine arts and photography at university in Australia and Iran, and recently completed her PhD thesis, and she speaks the language of theory with erudition. But there’s a groundedness. She’s concerned about the turn in global art towards abstraction and inaccessibility, and with making her work useful beyond the world of art.
“I find it difficult and sad to see that we feel uncomfortable with the idea of talking about human experience. It’s so arrogant to abstract political ideas and expect people to understand it. The work has to speak to the citizens, non-artists, non-academics. It has to come to the realm of the society.”
Until now, the focus of Afshar’s work has largely been understanding the experiences she has had as an Iranian woman living in the West. The experience, as she describes it, of having an image precede you. “My practice up until now, especially after migration, centred on representation of marginal communities, on the history of colonisation, orientalism … How as a migrant woman from Iran, there’s always an image which precedes me … an image of a veiled, suppressed woman.”
Her playful, hyper-colour Pop Art series Under Western Eyes is a reply to this disempowering imagery. It features manipulated versions of the stereotypical images used in Western media to represent Muslim women. After the Motherland took the Western white feminist saviour complex to task, examining the patronising relationship many white women hold towards Muslim women.
We talk about the reductiveness with which identities are marketed and interpreted in the arts. Reviewer and artist Caren Florance recently said Afshar’s work was “offering reality and evoking emotional connection, hoping to push through surface tension”, and described her portraits as “gorgeous ethnographic photographs of Iran”. But Afshar rejects the idea that her portraits represent ethnographic reality. She is frustrated by being taken as representative of a culture of people. She wants visual storytelling to complicate things, to incorporate multiplicities. I tell her that in an art world increasingly obsessed with distancing itself from the human, I think the presence of human bodies in her work is distinctive.
“It’s interesting that you’ve noticed that,” she says. “[The lack of human bodies in arts] is something I noticed straightaway after moving to Australia, and more and more in the global arts scene.
“Photography has turned into this whole trend of empty landscapes – no sign of human presence whatsoever, just traces of human beings. Traces of a tyre on asphalt, rubbish, leftover food, signs that say there were people here, but no human presence. It shocks me. I think, yes, it’s important to acknowledge the history of photography, how image-making has abused and manipulated narratives. We have to acknowledge the relationship between image-making and power. But to dismantle it is not to completely avoid that dialogue”.
A few nights before we met, Afshar won the William and Winifred Bowness Photography Prize, a $30,000 award, for her portrait of Boochani. Given her reservations about the figure of the opportunistic photographer who comes, takes photos and leaves to seek acclaim, I am curious how she felt to win an award for the work she did on Manus. She says she’s sharing some of the money she won with the men in the portraits, in recognition of the shared and collaborative nature of the project. Her artist’s statement for the work also foregrounds Boochani’s own frightened and contradictory response to the image. The task, for Afshar, was not to expose pain and trauma with a political agenda. She had wanted to humanise him through the image, to show his individuality; to ultimately represent him not as a refugee, but as a human being.
“I said, ‘I want people to feel your presence in the room, to be confronted by it,’ ” she says. “I tell him, this is you, your fire, your passion, and he says, ‘No, I don’t see myself. I only see a refugee in this image.’ He contradicts me. He dictates to the audience how to read this image, not me.” She says it was vital that these words were front and centre, that she was not the one holding all the power over how the work was explained.
We talk about what it means to try to give agency to another person in photography. She felt it was important to allow Boochani and the other men as much creative agency in the process as possible, to be able to choose how they would appear in the images.
Afshar defers frequently in our conversation to Boochani, as an expert, a guide and an artistic collaborator. He acted as a guide and a translator
for her on Manus, and assisted her in navigating the Papua New Guinean border and making her way across the island to the detention camp in Lorengau as discreetly as possible with her equipment. She describes carrying plastic garbage bags full of cameras and tripods through town to the boat that would take her to the filming location.
Boochani features as a centrepiece of Remain. His recounted memories and poetry are threaded in voiceover through the visuals. She shows me an image of a test-screening, where her silhouette is visible on a scene where Boochani emerges from the water carrying a dead fish. Her outline is enveloped by his, bright and huge on the gallery wall. “Look how big he looks on the screen,” she laughs. “My shadow is even bigger than me, too, and he towers over me like that.”
Afshar’s image Mohamed, the first I see from the Remain series, is grainy, classic and beautiful. It is a seated, shirtless, monochrome portrait of a Black man in front of a plain, muted black backdrop. My eyes go to his ears, his lips, his collarbones, the veins on his hands, the folds of his trousers. It is soft, loving. I am stunned by the image. I am not sure if it’s okay to enjoy looking at it. I think about the work of Dharug photographer Natalie Ironfield, photographs intended to show the beauty of young Black people. I think of Tracey Moffatt’s insistence about one of her works that it was not about documenting Indigenous identity, as some had assumed, but rather about showing hot young Black boys in front of the camera. I understand this is not a flippant or apolitical action. Rather, the attention to beauty in Afshar’s images is a daring statement on the complex personhood of her subjects. It is beauty as a response to the disempowering imagery we have become so used to seeing.
When they began speaking, months ago now, Boochani advised Afshar not to rush into visiting Manus. “He said, ‘Let’s converse. I’ll feed you with information about the history of this place, you tell me what you want to do, and when we both feel like you’re ready, then come over.’ ” She explained to him what she wanted to do on Manus, the images she hoped to create with the men. “His first response when we talked about what I want to do was to say, ‘Finally, an artist. I have been waiting for an artist for five years to come here.’ ”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 10, 2018 as "Remain in light".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription