Please allow met to introduce you to a young gifted photographer, Newsha Tavakolian. We first met at National Geographic in 2006 when we were awarded the National Geographic All Roads Photography Award with Sandra Sebastián Pedro and Saiful Huq. Upon meeting each other, we had an instant rapport and it was like the four of us had known each other for years. Sometimes when photographers get together for the first time, they're used to being competitive and there is a bit of natural defensiveness permeating the scene. Not with us! We were soon laughing and joking with each other, comparing notes on what it took to become a photographer in Bangladesh, Iran, Guatemala and here in America.
Newsha just had her first photographic assignment with National Geographic published in their August 2008 issue, whose feature story is Ancient Iran, Inside a Nation's Persian Soul. It was a good time to try and catch up with her and do a short interview.
LM: You and I were National Geographic All Roads Photographers from 2006, along with Sandra Sebastian and Saiful Huq. We have all formed a very close friendship, even though we live in very different parts of the world. It seems that the All Roads Award has been helpful to each of us in different ways. I think that part of what made being a photographer (with this award) easier for me is that when people see that I won this wonderful award, they think that I must be pretty good to win something from National Geographic and it opens doors in the sense that if I'm good enough for Geographic, I must be good enough for them! I suspect that it makes me more of a "sure thing," whatever that means. What about for you? Can you tell if the award has assisted you with your career as a photographer?
Newsha: Many people saw my work because of the award, it raised awareness and it has given me credits and self-confidence as a young person.
LM: When did you shoot the photos for the National Geographic assignment and how long did it take to make the photos?
Newsha: I shot in the period between November and January for about five weeks.
LM: What were some of the challenges you faced with the assignment?
Newsha: To work in Iran is not always easy, you need permissions for certain places, but officials were helpful and we got stuff done. I love traveling, which I had to do a lot for the assignment, so I really enjoyed it. The assignment was really a chance to get to know interesting details about Iran's history, which I didn’t know yet. It was the first time that anybody gave me such a long assignment. This was a really special experience as it gave me the time to get to the roots of the subject and shoot many different images. National Geographic's editors spend a lot of time on these thousands of pictures, coming up with a great edit. Besides from an assignment it was also a practical master class for me.
LM: What projects have you been photographing lately?
Newsha: I have been working on a project in India about water and floods. In Iran I did work on the way people have summer holidays.
LM: Your photographs of people are always so vibrant and full of life. I see that your newest photos that were published in National Geographic have a similar visual aesthetic as many of your earlier photos. Did you have a favorite photo from the series and why?
Newsha: My favorite picture is the spread, which opens the Iran special. It's clearly shows the contrast between old and new, something you can see daily in our culture.
LM: I notice that you have many series of photographs from over the years. Do you have a series that was more challenging than any of the others, or do they all have their own unique set of challenges?
Newsha: All have their own challenges of course, like in India, if you go there for the first time you have to find your subject, get your feet on the ground, and so on. I generally enjoy the challenges, as it is a part of our job as photographers. It feels good when you manage to do the job right.
LM: I notice that your Iraqi photos are a diverse cross section of the country, from horrific scenes of death and destruction to more everyday kinds of images. I think that people are not used to seeing photos that celebrate life, like a wedding scene with a happy young couple, buildings being rebuilt or the inside of people's houses. You seem to be able to put a human face on the conflict with your photos, including fighters from both America and the Middle East. What would you generally like your viewers to think about when they see these series of photos from Iraq? Did you consciously make them for any one audience?
Newsha: I like to show hope, even in darkest times. Also in the West people generally only see places of conflict in such a way that war is always and everywhere. But life continues too, in such places. In order to give a realistic image I want to show as many sides as possible of what is going on there. In Iran it's the same thing, there are many stereotypes about Iran, but many of them are inflated for a western audience. I like to show new points of view as well.
LM: You have many photographs that look wonderful in black and white, as opposed to color. Why do you think that is, I mean why do you think black and white works so well with some of them? Can you give us an example of a specific photograph that looked better in black and white than in color, and why?
Newsha: I did a series on Iranian pilgrims who visited the old fronts of the Iran Iraq war. They go there to see where their relatives died in battle. These are emotional gatherings. When I arrived there I decided that B&W suited the atmosphere much better than color.
LM: How is it to be working as a photographer in the world as a woman? Does it present any unique challenges?
Newsha: I never had any problem as a woman photographer, inside and outside Iran. It depends on yourself. If you are sure of yourself, you just do it without worrying about what you can and cannot do; you will get the job done.
LM: How do you plan for future assignments? Is it via the photo agencies, or do you select the subject yourself?
Newsha: I try and mix this. I do many projects myself, without any assignments. Those are stories I want to tell. For assignments, I work with Polaris Images for the last six years and I am very satisfied with them.
Thank you Newsha, especially for sharing the heartfelt photographs that you make. Your photographs do indeed give people hope, even in the darkest times. I like the assertiveness in your photographs, especially with how they go about breaking down tired old stereotypes and how they encourage people to think in new ways. Your photographs help build bridges of understanding between various cultures, which is a delicate act in itself, and seems to be what the world has in short supply. Congratulations with your new spread in National Geographic!
Newsha began working as a professional photographer in the Iranian press at age 16 as a self-taught photographer. She started with the women's daily newspaper Zan, and later worked with nine reformist dailies, all since banned. In 2002 she began working internationally, covering Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Her work was soon published in editions of Time Magazine, Newsweek, Stern, Le Figaro, Colors, New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, Der Speigel, Le Monde 2, and NRC Handelsblad, as well as other publications in Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.
Newsha became particularly known for her photography that focused on women's issues. She is a founding member of Evephotographers, or EVE with five other women photojournalists.
She is represented by Polaris Images photo agency, New York.
Recent group exhibition, Made in Tehran: 6 Frauen-Blicke, Cicero Galerie für politische Fotografie, Berlin, Germany, 2008.
- She was Runner-up in Picture of the Year International Competition (magazine feature category), and the National Press Photographers Association and Missouri School of Journalism award in 2003.
- All Roads Film Project, sponsored by National Geographic, Washington, D.C., 2006.
- Chosen by World Press Photo organization, Amsterdam, with five other photographers, to conduct the Joop Swart Masterclass at FOAM (Fotografiemuseum, Amsterdam), 2007.