Shots of reality

Portrait Of Somayyeh (2015, above) for the I Know Why The Rebel Sings exhibition, by Newsha Tavakolian.
Portrait Of Somayyeh (2015, above) for the I Know Why The Rebel Sings exhibition, by Newsha Tavakolian.PHOTO: NEWSHA TAVAKOLIAN
Portrait Of Somayyeh (2015) for the I Know Why The Rebel Sings exhibition, by Newsha Tavakolian (above).
Portrait Of Somayyeh (2015) for the I Know Why The Rebel Sings exhibition, by Newsha Tavakolian (above).PHOTO: PRINCE CLAUS FUND

Violence choked the streets of Iran in July 1999, as a peaceful demonstration by Tehran University students against the closure of a reformist newspaper erupted into chaos after police stormed a dormitory and set rooms on fire.

For six days, a riot raged. Students and citizens clashed with police and buildings and vehicles went up in flames. More than 200 people were injured in the crush.

It did not scare Newsha Tavakolian. Then just 18, the Iranian photographer stayed with students and shimmied up trees for shots, unruffled by the havoc.

"The national TV had not mentioned a single world about what was going on in the university and people got informed about the news through our pictures. So I felt responsible to document what was happening," she tells The Straits Times in an e-mail interview.

"And when you are in the middle of a crisis, you usually don't necessarily feel in danger. To me, it was not terrifying."

Tavakolian turns 35 this year and still sees the camera as an unflinching eye with the power to "make the invisible people visible".

She will be in town for a talk and exhibition as part of The O.P.E.N. The photographer, who is married to Dutch journalist Thomas Erdbrink, has worked for publications such as Time magazine, The New York Times and National Geographic.

Last year, she became a nominee member of Magnum Photos - a photo agency regarded by many as the world's best - and was presented the Principal Prince Claus Award for her outstanding achievements in her field.

To her, photography is a way of informing people and telling untold stories. But she adds: "The art of photography is not only about taking the picture. It's also about how you tell the story that will stay on people's minds, in a world that has a tsunami of images."

She left school at 16 and attended a six-month photography course in Teheran. Then she started working for Zan, the first Iranian newspaper to focus on women's rights. "When I saw how one image can be powerful, I couldn't let it go and I got this obsession to take pictures of everything that was happening around me."

Over the years, she has captured regional conflicts, natural disasters and women's issues. "I've never considered myself a conflict photographer. I have covered wars, but I was interested not in the 'bang bang' sides of it, but the emotions of people who are affected by it."

Difficult sights have dogged her.

One of her most enduring memories was from her trip to Africa early last year, when she visited a safehouse in Samburu in northern Kenya.

It supported young girls - some of them just eight years old - who had been circumcised and forced into marriage to men as old as their grandparents.

As she sat around taking photos of the girls one day, the door to the house burst open and two young girls rushed in, sobbing and begging to stay. They had run away from home and their parents who had planned to circumcise them.

"All the girls surrounded them and started talking in Swahili. I couldn't understand what they were saying, but just saw them comforting the new girls."

She sat in front of them for an hour. Silence fell, she recalls, and nobody said a word. They just huddled on an old, rotten mattress, finding comfort in one another.

Tavakolian says: "When you travel so much and see different stories on each trip and, of course, in your own hometown, so many things that were important at first, they slowly lose their importance and you realise what is truly important in your life and work.

"That is why I love photography. You have a reason to just lose yourself in other people's stories and lives for some time and again go back to your own place and see the world differently."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 22, 2016, with the headline 'Shots of reality'. Print Edition | Subscribe