Selections talks to six talented female photographers from the Arab world and Iran whose work spans the gulf between East and West, transcending language and culture to tell universal stories

Each of the six women interviewed in this issue deals with this in their own way, some choosing to address the gulf between East and West directly in their work, others approaching it more obliquely. Yet ultimately, each achieves a similar alchemy — using photography as a tool, they are able to transform and translate their personal experiences into a universal format, rendering their subject matter accessible to people of any background, challenging harmful stereotypes and championing new perspectives.

Iranian photographer Gohar Dashti explains how her photographs of Iran, rooted in personal experience and memory, help to explore Iran’s culture and history in a new light and why her photographs of humans are bound up with nature.

Photographer Gohar Dashti explores Iran’s history, politics and culture though creative series rooted in personal experience

While Gohar Dashti was studying at the Fine Art University in Tehran, she would set out every two weeks to travel almost 1000km from Tehran to her parents’ hometown, Mashhad. “I’d go by car and train, and when I looked out of the window I’d see that there was nothing there,” she says. “Iran is a really big country but I feel I don’t have enough space to live, literally and emotionally, and somehow I see a connection between the geography and society.”

The desolate desert landscape inspired her, becoming the backdrop to the series Iran, Untitled. Like many of Dashti’s projects, the series features carefully composed images rooted in Iran’s history and culture, as well as her own personal experience. Against a featureless expanse of dull, scrubby sand, groups of people crowd together, crammed onto or into unlikely objects. Eleven women in black robes and headscarves sit side-by-side on an improbably long sofa. More than a dozen sets of brides and grooms are crammed together on a carpet, failing to fly.

Metaphor is central to Dashti’s work. In the recent series Home, she captures eerie, magical photographs of houses overrun by nature. “The locations are abandoned interiors in Iran and the idea is to question what happens when one’s home is left behind,” she explains. “The photographs are related to the power of nature that consumes the home. It explores how nature could be political and what happens to the environment when the human population is displaced or destroyed by war. People are transient, while nature is constant. Nature will be there long after we are gone.”

Dashti’s projects are diverse, but all share a common root in her own personal experience. “When I talk about social issues in my work, in parallel I talk about myself,” she says. “I always say it’s a kind of self-portrait.”

Her work presents Iran from perspectives that often contradict dominant media narratives, but Dashti says she tries not to anticipate the attitudes or reactions of her audience. “I have an idea, I work on it, and when I finish I think about what I want to do with it,” she says. “I always present my work inside and outside Iran and I try not to think about the point of view of Western or Iranian critics, because I think it’s much more important to trust yourself as an artist.”

Featured image: Gohar Dashti, Untitled from the series Home, 2017, 120 × 80 cm, courtesy of the artist, © Gohar Dashti

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, A Dialogue Between Generations of Arab Women in Art #42, pages 144-145.