Kiana Hayeri unveils the intimate and unseen lives of young Iranian men and women coming of age in a segregated, isolated Iran. She shares these stories from behind the scenes, where young people are trying to find a place to explore, discover, indulge in desires, and search for themselves and for freedoms no matter how small or fleeting, hoping to live outside the realities of a country controlled by religious rule.
Hayeri is an insider—born, raised, and currently living in Tehran—but she is also an outsider, having lived in Toronto and studied at Ryerson University. “I was very comfortable with photography because I didn’t have to explain myself, so I started to relate to it very well,” she says. For Hayeri, storytelling is a key motivation and photography the means to that expression. “As an artist, you’re telling your own story through your art, whereas a photographer or a documentarian [is] telling other people’s stories.”
Living in Tehran means leading a dual life. “Growing up with that culture, you learn you live at home in a way, and then on the streets it’s different.” Women are instructed to wear a hijab to cover their hair, as well as a manteau, which covers the body, to ensure they practice modesty. However, this is no guarantee against unwanted gestures and actions from men. “There is a lot of harassment toward women: in a known environment at work, or within family, or [from] a complete stranger.”
As a Pakistani girl growing up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, I can relate. Censorship and segregation of the sexes were evident in every aspect of life: McDonald’s seating booths were more like stalls that were enclosed with shutters, and teenagers flirted by throwing French fries into neighboring stalls. But this strict division didn’t stop people from throwing house parties fully furnished with drugs, alcohol, and unprotected sex.
Hayeri has intimately documented the lives of young Iranians who make up more than half of the population. Being a woman in Iran isn’t easy, let alone being a female photographer. “It’s really hard to photograph in public, out on the street,” Hayeri says. “If you take your DSLR camera out, it probably takes about 5 to 10 minutes [before] somebody comes up to you and stops you from photographing—and that person can be either an official or somebody ordinary. I’m careful not to jeopardize my subjects.”
But as Hayeri notes, change is coming to Iran, things like “gaining more freedom about how you dress or how you interact with the opposite sex, [which have been] a struggle for 30 or 40 years since the Islamic revolution. Slowly by slowly it’s changing, and the change has been drastic in the past, I would say, five to seven years.” For example, the Tehran Times, a place where citizens upload pictures of themselves dressed in fashionable attire, would not have existed a few years ago. Similarly, speaking about sex outside of marriage used to be taboo, but it is now openly talked about in major metropolitan cities.
For Hayeri, the challenge of photographing and sharing her work is worth its weight in gold. “It is a personal journey for me. I do work that I care about, I do work that I’m curious to find out. It is a pleasure for me to expose little parts of the ordinary life of people here.”
Hayeri’s work challenges the roles of women, religion, adulthood, self-expression, and censorship, asking questions and offering glimpses. She was the recipient of a National Geographic grant awarded at the 2011 Eddie Adams Workshop. Find more of her work on her Tumblr blog and on her website.