ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Masi Abolhassan as part of our Artist Spotlight series.
Masi Abolhassan is an Iranian freelance journalist and photographer who started practicing in 2000. After receiving her bachelor’s degree, she started working as a social and political reporter for different newspapers and magazines. In her last position as a journalist in Iran, she was the media adviser for the Tehran City Council between 2012 to 2016. This job gave her a closer look at the system of censorship and control in the regime of the Islamic Republic. She decided to quit her full-time job as a journalist and began traveling around the world in search of new ways to pursue her goal of making a positive change in Iran.
Since 2018, photography has been a new medium from which to follow her passion for journalism. She has always been interested in showing the difficulties vulnerable groups of people face in countries with limited or no democracy, such as basic human rights for women and LGBTQ groups. Her ongoing documentary series addressed Iranian transgender refugees in Turkey since 2020.
ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?
Masi Abolhassan: As an Iranian bisexual woman, I had to show different personalities in different societies for my whole life while living in Iran. My persona at work, in the family, at a party, or at school was completely different. I would always show the face that I knew would be acceptable to that society. As a result, I always had to lie about my sexual orientation, religious beliefs and habits.
Finally, at 33, I decided to stand up for all my values; I quit my full-time journalism job and secretly attended a short course on women’s leadership held by Deakin University in 2017. The course was happening in Thailand, and I did not return to Iran when it finished. I kept hitch-hiking and camping around South East Asia for about six months.
In 2018, when I returned to Iran, I found photography as a new medium to follow my passion for journalism. I have always been interested in sharing the difficulties that vulnerable groups underwent in countries with limited or no democracy, such as fundamental human rights for women and LGBTQ groups. During the 15 years of experience I had in journalism, I could never freely talk about these topics in the media. I realized that photojournalism has an advantage over written journalism; a photo alone is an expressive document that everyone in the world understands. Therefore, I have started a long-term ongoing documentary series about Iranian transgender refugees in Turkey since 2020.
AE: Talk to us about your experience working with journalists and photographers as a fixer in Iran and how this has shaped your practice?
MA: The first way I found to follow up my passion for making a positive change in Iran by narrativizing women’s issues was by working as a fixer for foreign journalists and photographers. I would guide them on how to come to Iran anonymously on a tourist visa and how to get access to their subjects. My experience as a journalist and a women’s rights activist would help them see the underground realities happening within Iran.
It was a risky job, but I needed to take that risk to share our voices with the outside world. I was arrested by the police twice in the last year of my career as a fixer because of being with a foreign photographer in the streets and taking pictures.
Despite the difficulties, It was a great experience overall. The reason that I even started photography was because of a European photographer whom I was working for as a fixer. He inspired me to get a camera and start shooting. I learned a lot about photography from the people with whom I have worked.
AE: You are currently in asylum in Turkey, what is your current situation and how has your status affected your practice and life?
MA: It has been two years since I fled Iran in September 2020. The first year I did not ask for asylum, and I was staying in Turkey on a one-year residence permit that lasted until October 2021. During this period, I was hanging out with a group of LGBTQ people who had been living in Turkey for many years as refugees. This year I published a photo story named You Only Leave Once with pictures I took during my first year in Turkey.
Simultaneously, I was part of a court case that was taking place in Iran. A former friend and a member of IRGC sued me and took me to court for speaking out and revealing his name as one of my abusers. In August 2020, I spoke out about a series of assaults and harassments that I experienced between 2000 and 2020. I published these stories on my Instagram account.
While I was in Turkey, the court in Iran charged me with agitating public opinion by disseminating lies and encouraging people to engage in moral corruption and prostitution. As a result, I was sentenced to 15 months in prison and had to ask for asylum.
This is an all-too-common occurrence among “Me Too” stories in Iran. Women in Iran have no legal protection against sexual harassment and assault. When women speak out against violence in Iran, they risk being prosecuted. The Islamic Republic laws are based on Islamic law, which differs from International law. Based on Islamic law, to prove sexual abuse or harassment, four men should testify in court that they have seen it. Otherwise, the woman can not prove her claim and will be punished for speaking out.
Since December 2021, I have been living in Turkey as a refugee, and I am not allowed to leave the city I currently live in without the permission of the police. I cannot even travel inside Turkey to continue my project. The worst part of this is that I will never have the chance to apply for or receive Turkish citizenship. Meaning, I will never have the same rights as Turkish citizens while going to a third country, where I will permanently settle, since freedom of expression is not a guaranteed right for asylum seekers. It is like living in a constant state of limbo.
AE: Can you talk about your project, You Only Leave Once? Why was it important to tell the story of these individuals?
MA: When I came to Turkey, I started to search for an LGBTQ community, and I met Maki, Haleh, and Baran, three Iranian transgender women, through a mutual friend. They accepted me like a family member and hosted me with open hearts. Baran was like a mother to every newcomer LGBTQ refugee in the city. Their house was like a piece of Iran to me.
As we got closer, I adopted the steadfast resilience they carried with them throughout the harsh difficulties they constantly faced. I learned from them how to deal with these hardships daily. Transgender women in Iran face many injustices in their homeland as well as in Turkey. I felt responsible for echoing their voices since I understood them for who they were and who they had been forbidden to be.
I published a photoessay about this project with Nara, a media organization featuring work by independent journalists, where I share more details about my subjects’ journeys and stories.
AE: What role do narrative and storytelling have in your practice?
MA: Failure to respect the human rights of minorities in societies makes them feel unseen. I shed more light on their lost rights by showing their struggles through documentary photography. Significant changes in societies emerge from breaking silence. The people you see in the photo story, You Only Leave Once, manifest the courage of those who took many risks by revealing their sexual identities. I believe that this is the expression of the truth that can lead to changing the laws and asserting the rights of minorities, even though this is only the first step.
MASI ABOLHASSAN ONLINE