Artist Spotlight with Parisa Azadi

Posted: May 10, 2023

ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Parisa Azadi as part of our Artist Spotlight series. 

Parisa Azadi is a Canadian visual journalist with a keen interest in history and conflict, memory and displacement. She is based between Tehran, Iran and Dubai where she covers the region, and is bilingual in English and Persian. 

For over a decade, Parisa has worked extensively in the Middle East, South Asia, Africa, and Canada. She has reported politically sensitive issues such as missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada, the Syrian refugee crisis in Jordan, the illegal practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Uganda, and religious extremism in South Asia. Since 2015, Parisa has been working in the Middle East, examining the nuanced dynamics of communities living in the aftermath of political violence.

In 2023, Parisa was selected for the South Asia Incubator Program and was awarded the Magnum Foundation Mobility Grant. Parisa’s work has been presented in group and solo exhibitions across Europe and her work has been recognized by the World Press Photo 6×6 Global Talent Program. Parisa earned the Chris Hondros Fund Award (Eddie Adams Workshop, 2019) and a Women Photograph Emergency Fund grant (2020). Her photographs have been published by The New York Times, The Guardian, Vogue, Associated Press, Annabelle Magazine, Malala Fund, International Rescue Committee, among others.

ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?

Parisa Azadi: The complex and various intersections of politics and history play a huge role in my practice. Much of my work is inspired by my personal history: I grew up in a repressive social environment. As a child raised in the Middle East, my life was imbued with politics, violence, and grief. When I immigrated to Canada, I struggled with a fractured identity. Themes of political violence, religious extremism, and identity politics form the foundation of all my work. 

In Summer 2022, you exhibited your work in an exhibition titled, Ordinary Grief, at Galerie Melike Bilir in Hamburg, Germany. What works were on view?  What was your experience exhibiting works in Hamburg and what was the feedback you received from the local audience?

PA: My Iran work unfolds in consecutive chapters; each expands and reflects on the previous one to contribute to the fuller story, or picture. The Hamburg show was part of that journey. The portraits, landscapes and documentary images conveyed both the specific and general surreality of the last five years in Iran. There was a sense of urgency in the photographs rooted in daily life: children playing in snow in Tehran; a family gathering in the mountains of Lorestan; a Kurdish man caressing his horse in Ilam. For me, it was crucial to offer such slices of Iranian life that are rarely seen in the West. These moments are also reminders of the incredible fragility of life in Iran.

This was my first time in Germany and my first time showing work there. The exhibition was delayed several times due to the pandemic; the curators—Melike Bilir and Bettina Freimann—worked tirelessly to make it happen. 

The audience in Hamburg were receptive to nuanced stories and conversations about Iran. There was more interest in stories that fell outside of the orientalist and reductionist narratives that disregard the daily realities of Iranians. The artist talk and gallery tour that were included in the gallery programming were valuable opportunities for collaborative learning.

I had the chance to share the stories of the people in the images in a deeper way. Leila, for example, married at the young age of 19 to escape her overbearing father. Her husband turned out to be a violent addict. Despite conservative, familial pressure not to divorce, she chose to become a strong single mother. I was able to share what I saw in her: admirable tenacity and courage in the face of overwhelming odds and rigid social mores. 

AE: You work both as a documentary photographer as well as a fine artist and photographer. How do you navigate these interconnected and parallel practices? Where do you see a clear boundary or a blurring of the line between the two? 

PA: My approach is similar, whether the photographs end up in a gallery or shared by news outlets. The ethics of journalism are paramount to me. At the same time, the language of photography is changing and there is growing fatigue with clichés and easy answers. I’m driven to offer something new and nuanced.

The Middle East’s contemporary visual narrative history has been largely shaped by the Western gaze. Oft-repeated orientalist expressions such as “Behind the Veil” reinforce stereotypical notions of a region rife with violence and full of chador-clad women and rebellious, over-sexualized youths enchanted by the West. Of course, such putative subjects are frequently photographed in gritty black-and-white, as though that imbues the images with “truth.” 

Much of my work aims to counter easy stereotypes and to convey a more complex and contradictory humanity—ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. My imagery, though simple in some ways, uses poetry, subtle metaphors and ambiguity to speak of politically sensitive topics and push the boundaries of Western understanding of the Global South.

I don’t consider myself an “artist” per se:  I’m a visual journalist and storyteller. 

What has your experience been photographing in Iran? How do you navigate socio-cultural realities as well as questions of trust when photographing your subjects?

I had to allow myself to be vulnerable with people, gaining access to their stories by sharing my own. I spent my formative years in Tehran, immigrated to Canada at the age of eight, then moved back to Tehran as an adult. When I first returned, I tried to hide my “foreignness,” but my accented Persian outed me as a Westerner. Over time, my accent became a useful point of entry, instigating conversation and facilitating connection. In some ways, stark differences in our lives brought us together. 

To protect my subjects, I omit the parts of their stories, their identities, and even omit certain photographs that they do not want to share with the world. This is less about how the West will perceive them and more about how some images could put them in danger with the state and/or with their loved ones.

To offer an example: I photographed the secret engagement party of two friends. The woman’s parents were against their inter-faith marriage. In Iran, women who have not been previously married must obtain official consent from their father before marriage. The bride did not get this consent but proceeded with the engagement party anyway—there were five of us in attendance at a beautiful historic cafe in Tehran. The couple allowed me to document these delicate parts of their lives over the years. I have shown some of their images in different contexts, but a number of photographs have never been published.

My process is inherently collaborative: we decide together what to conceal and what to reveal and where. 

AE: What and who are some of your major creative influences, and why?

PA: Traveling and making work can be a very isolating endeavor. So much of our work as photojournalists is solitary. My colleagues and mentors are major creative influences. I am inspired by the passion and complete commitment of: Sarker Portick, Sohrab Hura, Daniella Zalcman, Natalie Keyssar, Erika Larsen, Laurence Butet-Roch, Melissa Bunni Elian, Victor Blue, Mike Kamber and Stephanie Sinclair. I feel so incredibly lucky to know all of them. They continue to help me think through the gaps in my work and to offer fresh perspectives.

Writing is an important aspect of my work. Some of the writers I admire—like Porochista Khakpour and Kerry Manders—pushed me to dig deeper and to continually and (almost!) completely revise and rethink early drafts of my work. 

AE: What are you currently working on and do you have any shows or projects upcoming in 2023-2024? 

PA: I’m collaborating with another artist on my first short film and experimenting with sound, which is exciting. I’m working on my book and scribbling ideas for my upcoming solo show. 



Instagram: @parisa_images