Interview #86 — Hoda Afshar
by Omar Sakr
Hoda Afshar's work has been widely exhibited both locally and internationally, online and in print. Her work is also part of numerous private and public collections including the National Gallery of Victoria, Murdoch University Art Collection and Monash Gallery of Art.
Throughout her career, Hoda has been shortlisted for many prestigious art awards, and in 2015 she won Australia’s National Photographic Portrait Prize. She was selected as one of the top eight young Australian artists to exhibit at Primavera 2018 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. Hoda is also a member of Eleven, a new collective of contemporary Muslim Australian artists, curators and writers whose aim is to disrupt the current politics of representation and hegemonic discourses.
Hoda spoke to Omar about the process of constructing and deconstructing images, and the intimacy or lack thereof between the body and the lens, especially in a foreign space.
Can you tell me a little bit about your upbringing and how that informs your work?
I grew up in a loving and secular family in central Tehran. My father was a lawyer and a knowledgeable man with a romantic vision of the world. He always considered himself a feminist and spent his whole career defending the rights of women and those who were powerless in a corrupted judicial system. My mother is a homemaker, with a strong passion for humanity, nature and storytelling. I think my father’s poetic nature and my mum’s love for stories have significantly impacted my way of looking and sensing the world.
The society that I grew up in was and still is poisoned by social hierarchies. I was always conscious of my privileged position in that society and also curious to understand why those valorised categories exist in the first place. Photography became the lens through which I started looking closely at the lines that divide us, and that curiosity still motivates me today.
I'm in the weird but common position of not being a photographer, of knowing very little about it, and yet still taking hundreds of photos every week. We're obsessed with images. Why do you think that is, and what brought you to the camera?
To me, it’s the desire for perpetuating passing moments, preserving life and our individual histories. That desire is basically what initiated art and artmaking in the first place. Artmaking has always been an attempt to imitate and record the real world, and our obsession with that is ever-growing, it seems.
I was first drawn towards photography, like many others, through the magic of the darkroom—when I saw an image appearing on a paper floating in the chemical liquid tray. Later, I became obsessed with the ability of photography to materialise unseen and hidden realities—the intrusive nature of the camera and the spectacle that it creates. This very intrusiveness became a point of interrogation in my post-migration practice. I became more interested in the relationship between photography and truth—the realities that the camera creates and perpetuates.
When I moved to Australia, I struggled with two major issues: one was making images in a place that I had no physical, historical and emotional attachment to, and the other was the crisis of identity that is common amongst those who experience cultural displacement. I was confronted by the image that existed of me in the mind of this society—the image of a female Iranian woman, and how that image always precedes me. It was then that my focus in photography shifted from “documenting realities” to questioning how this practice of “documenting reality” has contributed to the formation of such representations.
My art practice now is a constant searching of the possibilities of dismantling those exercises, especially those that reduce marginalised beings and excluded identities to a fixed image that denies them autonomy and voice.
I think my father’s poetic nature and my mum’s love for stories have significantly impacted my way of looking and sensing the world.
There’s so much going on here. The image as both revelation and reproduction, as obfuscation—the sense of it always as a manufactured reality. Can a photo capture love? Can you talk a bit about the intimacy of the lens and the body?
My approach to image-making is an emotional one. I can’t make pictures if I don’t feel strongly towards what’s in front of my camera. I think visual language is very close to literature and poetry in particular—only the words are replaced with images.
Being able to communicate feelings and thoughts with the viewer is the most important factor in the image-making process for me. For example, when I make images in Iran, my sense of being and not being there, longing and belonging, distance, absence and all the other palpable emotions in the life of a migrant are right there, between me and the lens of the camera. So anything that I capture is filtered through those emotions and consequently reflects back the very same emotions.
It’s a different process though when I make work with and about other people. The collaboration aspect and mutual trust is crucial to me. I believe it’s only in that space where a genuine dialogue forms between the creator, the camera and the subject matter. It’s the intimacy of the body, journeying through the mechanical camera and the emotions of the image-taker, and its final appearance on the physical surface of a photograph. The truth or falsity of that reflected intimacy is not measurable, of course, but its human aspect is certainly sensible.
The question of trust is so important, especially with respect to belonging. Did you feel a lack of that trust, that intimacy, with Australia when you first migrated here—is that why you initially struggled with photography here? I’m asking because I characterise my own work as operating from a place of unbelonging. Uncertainty is my guiding principle so I’m really interested in what hindered your practice between places.
The question of belonging is an interesting one. When you migrate, it’s like you move from your family home to a hotel. That’s exactly how I felt when I arrived in Australia, and that feeling remained with me for a long period. Of course, I could have made work about that experience—I mean, I could have turned the gaze of my camera towards my experience of not-belonging—but to be honest, my thinking was different back then, and it took a while for that change to happen.
In my view, the sense of connection to and security provided by a particular geography or community comes only through time and sharing a history with a people or a place. It’s through time that trust gradually shapes and fills in the empty gaps. You may never fully feel that you belong to the new place—I certainly don’t feel that here, and I don’t think I ever will. I think it’s because the roots are still placed in a different soil. The body is here but the soul is somewhere else. It hurts, but you can’t cut the roots. If you do, the soul dies.
In the past decade or so that I’ve been living in Australia, I have developed a strong connection to it. However, on one hand I’m conscious of the colonial history of this land and often ask myself, as a migrant, where I sit in relation to this problematic and unresolved history. On the other hand, I like the in-betweenness that comes with the experience of migration, especially one that involves not just geographical, but also cultural displacement. It's a strange existence, but it also gives you a specific kind of vision: a way of seeing the entire world as a foreign land, as Edward Said put it.
That's something I've tried to embrace, rather than clinging nostalgically to my image of "home" or to a narrative of painful "exile". Instead, I'm interested in exploring this in-between state as a mode of being that is closely tied to the modern condition of homelessness. I'm also fascinated by this idea that things can become nearer the more you draw distance, and vice versa—the interplay of presence and absence.
I was watching a mini-documentary about your National Portrait Prize win, and you said something that really struck me: ‘Half of the impact of the image comes from the story behind it.’ Do you still believe that, and are there any story-less images that come to mind which had an impact on you?
All art is a response to the world, and consequently reflects something about the world. Even abstraction is a small piece of a larger narrative. Many artists intentionally challenge the narrative convention, and that in itself is a concept, a story. I don’t believe in such a thing as a portrait or image without a story. By “story”, I don’t necessarily mean the details describing what’s in the image, but their openness to different ways of being read and seen, and the very story of how they came into being—the horizon of possibilities that preceded them.
To me, the power of a striking portrait is in the secret that it holds and reveals at the same time. When time becomes eternal in that still moment; when the subject reveals a piece of history to the camera—something human and familiar. It’s like an entry door to a new world, and a new way of seeing the world—a micro-fragment of that person’s life sits right there, on the surface of an image, and it activates the viewer’s imagination.
I’m conscious of the colonial history of this land and often ask myself, as a migrant, where I sit in relation to this problematic and unresolved history.
On the other hand, I like the in-betweenness that comes with the experience of migration, especially one that involves not just geographical, but also cultural displacement.
Speaking of the imagination, is there such a thing as speculative photography? I love what you did in your series Under Western Eyes, where you disrupted familiar imagery about Muslim women, exposing the conceit beneath them. In my work—and I think in the work of many artists, yourself included—we look most often to the past and the present. Can you document the future with photography? Another way of putting it is: do you have a sense of building the future in your work?
When you make social or political work, you do it with the hope that it might contribute to changing the world in some small way, and so you are building the future. Especially when your effort is a form of resistance. For example, in my work I look at different categories of marginality and I make work about them to create spaces for those beings who have been forcibly made inaudible and invisible. I construct images, so to speak, about the unsayable, and to make visible a fraction of the invisible power structures that give rise to such hierarchies. This is in itself a form of speculation; you discover more the deeper you dig in.
The construction of different categories of Otherness or excluded forms of being reflects centuries of domination and manipulation. For example, the female body, black identity or homosexuality, a Muslim body or that of a refugee one—these have all been, in different ways, overlaid with certain negative connotations. To deconstruct these established forms of knowledge, centuries of persistence is needed to gradually remove the layers of one history and replace it with a fairer one in which the social order is distributed more equally. I see my work as part of an effort towards the future; an attempt to create new visual languages that will contribute to dismantling and replacing the existing ones.
Has the ubiquity of the selfie, the dominance of Instagram, affected the world of photography? Or even just your own?
Social media platforms such as Instagram have certainly affected our relationship to photography. It has made photography accessible to a mass audience, of course, but at the same time lessened the impact of images in a way, as well as the time that the viewer spends with individual images. Having said that, I personally find it a positive challenge for professional photographers too. I think social media has created a significant shift in the way that photographers think about recording, perceiving and distributing images in this fast-paced and eternally changing space. Traditional methods and ethics of image-making are under interrogation now, and new visual languages are forming and emerging accordingly. Making a good image is becoming harder, but that’s a good thing. A lot of photographers, including myself, have returned to analog photography, which involves a much slower process, making fewer images, and thinking harder about every click.
Also, for many artists such as myself, social media now functions as an independent platform—one through which artists can directly communicate and share ideas, narratives, artistic activities and new and old works with a broader audience, without an in-between agent and beyond the contrived space of a gallery or museum.
Do you have any advice for emerging photographers/artists?
Practice critical thinking and looking. Question everything you look at and whatever is in your proximity. Read. Always remind yourself why you make art, since it’s easy to forget. Ignore the art scene and don’t follow the trends. Artmaking is a constant practice of exploring and interrogating the world that we inhabit. Make art that is true to you and your world.
When you make social or political work, you do it with the hope that it might contribute to changing the world in some small way, and so you are building the future.
Who inspires you?
My greatest influences tend to be outside of the photography world. I always find inspiration in literature—especially poetry, as well as theory, visual arts, and movies,particularly slow cinema. Recently, the artist who has probably influenced my photography practice the most is the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, because of his ability to communicate deep human emotions through images. Another favourite artist of mine is the Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr. His movies have the same poetic quality. I die and am reborn every time I watch one of his movies. They’re magical. So too is the work of the Iranian film-maker Abbas Kiarostami—probably one of my longest standing influences. I am also very much inspired by the romanticism and poetry of the work of the video artist Bill Viola. I have also been deeply influenced by the work of the visual artist Mona Hatoum—in particular, her beautifully distilled way of communicating ideas related to power relations and the condition of global exile. I love the writings of Frantz Fanon and Edward Said for a similar reason.
What are you reading?
My partner is a philosopher and he’s been getting me more and more engaged with philosophy. This has been really instructive for me and a nice compliment to my visual practice, since it teaches you how to peel off the skin of a surface. Recently I have been focusing on the writings of Jacques Rancière on art and politics and Georgio Agamban’s The State of Exception. I also just finished reading the Kurdish-Iranian refugee and journalist Behrouz Boochani’s novel No Friends But the Mountain. It’s extraordinary, and I think every single Australian should read it before the next election.
How do you practice self-care?
Nature is my number one place to escape when I need to. It heals my soul, always. I try to exercise too, as much as possible. I love playing squash, swimming and doing yoga. Or taking a nice bike ride on a sunny spring day along the Yarra river.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
Honestly, it is only when I am asked this question that I really think about being Asian-Australian. It is the same as my being ‘Middle Eastern’—these descriptions presuppose an imagined geography whose boundaries are vague. It is like the description produces and reproduces. Not that these descriptions mean or correspond to nothing, of course.
My point is rather that you only acquire, and thus reflect on, these titles when you are outside the context of your local culture. For instance, I never consciously thought of myself as being Iranian, much less Middle Eastern before I migrated. But now I’m reminded of it on a daily basis; my Iranian-ness is attached to me like a name tag. But when I travel, I think myself as being Australian, too—for the same reason, because the issue arises in conversations I have with strangers or friends—and reflecting on this makes me realise how being Australian has now become part of who I am and my history.
So on the one hand, I suppose being Asian-Australian (or Iranian-Australian or whatever) means not-being and not-belonging either here or there, and not for any intrinsic reason, but because others have decided this on my behalf. And it’s not insignificant that my being “Asian” is part of the equation. No one really talks about being European-Australian, as if that is something peculiar or notable. There is a hierarchy between these imagined geographies. A distribution of the sensible
That said, I think that being Asian-Australian means being part of a newly-formed culture that is made up of uprooted cultures, of histories dispersed across multiple geographies, and diverse individuals trying to grow new roots, even as the dominant culture likes to imagine that its own are more solid. I have to say that living here has completely transformed the way that I understand nationality, borders, cultural identity and difference. My view of these concepts are much more fluid now than they used to be.
But I also have to say that the longer I stay in Australia, the more uncomfortable I feel about the fact that these new roots of mine are growing on stolen soil and on the land of a people whose original history has never been fully reconciled or acknowledged. So for me this Asian-Australian identity is like a borrowed, oversized T-shirt. It’s not mine, but I’m wearing it for the time being.