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Feature: The Woman Who Put Tehran’s Fashion In Full Focus


 

Shabnam poses on location in the markets of Tehran

Shabnam poses on location in Tajrish Bazaar of Tehran

 

 

Accidental Revolutionary: Photographer Afra Pourdad lenses Tehran

 

By: Isabelle Bourgeault-Tassé

Ottawa, Canada

 

A friend of mine wrote to me: “what did you do to me with your Tehran,” expressing the emotional nostalgia she has had experienced seeing the photos. A lot of it has to do with memories, nostalgia, craziness, liveliness, the possibilities and the impossibilities of living in Tehran. And I guess it is all emotional for people who live in exile and deeply miss their city, the food, the smell of freshly baked bread that comes out of the bakeries when you walk down the alleyways, the Alborz Mountains covered with snow, and did I mention that blue colour? 

 

Afra Pourdad (www.afrascorner.com) wants you to be seduced by the beauty of her native Tehran.

 

The Canadian-Iranian photographer recently shot a fashion feature for Fashionable, Sexy, Haute and Naughty Magazine (FSHN), the first international fashion spread of its kind since Vogue’s 1969 December edition took its readers to Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, and Persepolis.

 

International media hailed Pourdad’s work as politically groundbreaking, but the veritable revolutionary nature of Pourdad’s shoot has perhaps less to do politics and more with challenging Tehran’s image in global popular culture.  Much like Poosh and The Tehran Times’ approach to street and haute fashion, Pourdad shows the simplicity of an ordinary beauty, a fashionista, milling the streets of Tehran, offering an idea of a fashion-forward, modern society bursting with the jewel hues of Zarir Design.  Pourdad is an ‘accidental’ revolutionary whose vision shows us another Tehran, a city different than what much of the West might have imagined. With her lens, Pourdad’s Tehran emerges, revealing Manouchehri House, a medieval relic from the Safavid dynasty, an empire that made Persia a centre of art, culture, and knowledge.

 

Before Pourdad’s lens, model Shabnam Molavi wanders the streets of Tajrish Bazaar, its kiosks teaming with fruits and vegetables, gleaming jewels, and shimmering blue Persian tiles.  Molavi, glowing in a saffron tunic, her raspberry hijab tucked behind an ear, revealing a dangling diamond-shaped earring.  In one photograph, a beaming tomato vendor, smiling with delight as he strikes a pose next to Molavi.  In another, Molavi’s eyes are raised to the sky, her face bathed in light, set against the ordinary spaces of everyday life in the city.

 

In an interview with Ramp1885, Afra Pourdad explains why she wanted to show the world the colours of her beloved Tehran, what it was like to shoot in Tajrish Bazaar, and whether she thinks Iran is on the verge of a fashion revolution.

 

 

Heading up Tehran's fashion revolution is photographer Photographer Afra Pourdad

Photographer Afra Pourdad

 

You are the first international fashion photographer to shoot in Iran since its 1979 Revolution – how does that feel??

 

I was not aware of that fact; I learned that after the photos went viral. Some local designers had shot their look books in more quiet urban areas that I saw after I published my work. The truth is, I wasn’t even thinking about being the first fashion photographer shooting in Iran after the revolution; the project was rather personal to me.

 

You have said that this photo shoot was deeply personal – what did you mean by that??

 

As a young girl growing up in Iran, I was very aware of fashion trends, what was hot or not; shoulder pads, lace, and boot cut jeans, in the late 80s and 90s. After I moved to Canada, I realized that much of the world had never seen the manner in which women transgressed the existing boundaries just by choosing the style of their attires in Iran.

 

Here in the Euro-American context, I was asked questions like: “did you wear black all the time?” and even “did you show your face?” Through photography I decided to show the world what is possible in the realm of women’s fashion in Iran.

 

Heading up Tehran's fashion revolution is photographer Photographer Afra Pourdad

Photographer Afra Pourdad in action.

 

How did people in the street react? Were people welcoming of you and Shabnam Molavi? Or were they weary of the camera?

 

Iranians are exceptionally warm and affectionate. They were curious of what we were doing; you could see the curious eyes following us in the streets.  No matter where you shoot,photography teams often experience this form of public attention even when you take your models for a shoot in a busy street of San Francisco.

 

The relationship we experienced with the Iranian people surrounding us was definitely reciprocal. If I wanted to take pictures in front of a shop in bazaar, I’d ask the owner for their permission. Although their answer was always “yes of course.” Some added “only if I can be in it too.”

 

Heading up Tehran's fashion revolution is photographer Photographer Afra Pourdad

Photographer Afra Pourdad in action.

 

Afra shooting with Shabnam

Afra shooting with Shabnam

 

 

Shabnam and I certainly attracted a lot of attention. If we stayed in one place for too long, a crowd of onlookers would gather around us. So, in order to keep the shoot organic, Shabnam and I walked in bazaar keeping a distance from each other. At first we tried taking pictures in the corners, but then we moved to the main alleyways.

 

I was standing in front of Shabnam and I would see the expression of the people passing by her, and depending on how they looked at her, I’d ask her to look up or down, or give me a powerful pose or gaze; and she was just amazing. One of the best models I’ve ever worked with, and I’m comparing her to professional models working in the fashion scene in the Euro-American market.

 

 

Afra puts it all in focus with this stunning shot.

Afra puts it all in focus with this stunning shot.

 

 

I did get a lot of funny questions from the people passing by. Some were so persistent on getting my attention that I could not ignore them. One man asked “are you a photographer”; another one made sure I showed him one of the pictures I had taken. Some commented on how it was not a good time of day to shoot. None was really discouraging; they just wanted to comment and share their opinions.

 

There was this old man carrying a cart of tomatoes, and I just captured the moment as he gazed into the camera. Then he got closer and asked “you took a picture?”  I said yes, and he went a few steps back, stood by Shabnam and asked for another one; we all were laughing. How could one not love this city?

 

Afra shooting on location in the markets of Tehran.

Afra shooting on location at Tajrish Bazaar of Tehran.

 

Photography by Afra Pourdad

Photography by Afra Pourdad

 

 

How did you work with Molavi and your stylist to achieve your creative vision of Zarir Design?

 

I had seen the designer’s work on their independent pages on Facebook. I have grown to like their work over the years. Before my travel to Iran, I contacted them and told them about my idea of shooting in crowded urban areas. And they liked this idea.

 

We met in Tehran in their studios. I asked them to pick their favorite pieces, and then I chose some of them knowing exactly what the colors of the Bazaar were, and what I want her to have on when we would be walking there. In the Bazaar during the shoot, I was just looking for signs and colors/shapes, light and shadows that would bring my story to life. The designers did a great job on styling and matching the scarves and accessories.

 

Photography by Afra Pourdad

Photography by Afra Pourdad

 

Photography by Afra Pourdad

Photography by Afra Pourdad

 

Photography by Afra Pourdad

Photography by Afra Pourdad

 

 

Iranian based designers always make look books each season and none was really done outside of studio. So I wanted a complete hijab look with the hair coverage, just as Iranian women appear in the streets. As for choosing the model, we went through their look books. I was looking for a natural look of a contemporary Iranian woman.? I wanted dark hair, Middle Eastern complexion, a typical Iranian girl with an edge. And Shabnam had it all.

 

When I selected Shabnam from the look books, the designer said she’s not modeling anymore. I asked them to call her anyways, and they did. So we got to meet her and her manager. I think we clicked as soon as we met and she was very excited taking a part in the project. We all wanted to show the complexity of beauty, of fashion in Iran.

 

You’ve talked about the beauty and colors of Iran – tell us more about what you love about Tehran?

 

Before I uploaded the album to my Facebook page, I thought for days to choose a title, and at the end it was just “my Tehran.”

 

I think many Iranians living outside Iran could relate to it. A friend of mine wrote to me: “what did you do to me with your Tehran,” expressing the emotional nostalgia she has had experienced seeing the photos.

 

A lot of it has to do with memories, nostalgia, craziness, liveliness, the possibilities and the impossibilities of living in Tehran. And I guess it is all emotional for people who live in exile and deeply miss their city, the food, the smell of freshly baked bread that comes out of the bakeries when you walk down the alleyways, the Alborz Mountains covered with snow, and did I mention that blue color?

 

Photography by Afra Pourdad

Photography by Afra Pourdad

 

It probably was the most spontaneous element of the shoot. Living in Iran you sometimes do not notice the beauty of the mosaics of Persian tiles that surround you. The blue and turquoise theme just became a part of the gaze of the camera. The camera flickered over the tiles and I fell in love with them all over.

 

I remember going home after the shoot and I was so excited I was still jumping up and down. I wrote on my Facebook page about the experience and I added “I’m in love with this crazy city.” I think I leave it to the pictures to speak for themselves.

 

Some of us in the west may not think of Iran as a fashion power house – but observers are increasingly writing about Tehran’s fashionistas.? How would you describe Iran’s fashion ethos??

 

Years ago when I lived in Iran, I became familiar with fashion in more art sense of the word. I think fashion in the Middle East is just becoming more interesting to the Euro-American audience thanks to the World Wide Web, the blogs and the social media sites. Communication is easier and pictures from Iran have found their way to appear in Western media.? But fashion is nothing new to Iranians; fashion and style always existed and has been part of the transgressive culture of youth and women for years.

 

Fashion and feminist observers have noted that Hassan Rouhani is supporting the women’s fashion movement – that in a recent tweet, he said that a woman’s virtue should not be judged by her clothing? What do you make of what seems to be a burgeoning fashion revolution in Iran?

 

I don’t think it is a fashion revolution.?Fashion has always been part of women’s agency in Iran to express their choices. This indeed is a transgressive act. However, it is not even limited to women. The youth of Iran, boys and girls, have always been designing and redesigning their own trendy looks.  Communication and Internet in recent years has just made these activities more visible to western eye.

 

The Internet has made the margins of fashion industry more visible, even in the Euro-American context. Look at the fashion blogs popping up here in west all the time. Did we have The Sartorialist (which I think is one of the oldest) 15 years ago in New York City? New Yorkers have always been fashionable in a diverse manner. What the trendy youth of Brooklyn wore was not always dictated or influenced by the fashion industry in the Island of Manhattan.

 

Photography by Afra Pourdad

Photography by Afra Pourdad

 

 

What do you hope you have changed in your public’s image of Iran? Would you say that, in your own way, you are pushing for change for Iran, and of our perception of Iran??

 

A change in perception; yes. I wanted to show Iran as it is. That’s why I did the shoot in Bazar. You see a good diversity of people; you see workers, you see women In Chador, and you see women in colorful attires.

 

I could have done this shoot in the more modern shopping malls at which most of the women you would find will look like Shabnam. Or I could have shoot these photos in a place with every women wearing the Chador, the all black cloth that covers from head to toe.

 

The truth is that Tehran, like many other urban centers, is a diverse city; this I wanted to show.

 

Read more international news coverage about Pourdad’s photoshoot on Storify.  Follow Pourdad on Twitter and Tumblr.  See her work at www.afrascorner.com

 

Photography courtesy of Afra Pourdad

 

*Isabelle Bourgeault-Tassé is a writer, budding world traveler, and explorer of the ateliers of fashion artisans around the world. She tweets @Isabelle_BT and blogs at isabellebourgeault-tasse.tumblr.com.

 

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One Response to Feature: The Woman Who Put Tehran’s Fashion In Full Focus

  1. Ramin says:

    Iran is full of surprises. The article is a good proof for this.
    Another good proof is a non political blog that brings daily news about Iran and Iranians:
    http://theotheriran.com/

    This kind of news need to be shared more on social networks. This is the side of Iran that is never shown, but is necessary to give a balanced view about the country.
    I don’t mean this as denial of the bad news on Iran, but they are just not the whole picture.

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