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Portraiture

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Original author: 
Azadeh Moaveni

In 1999, Iranian students took the streets of Tehran in the fiercest unrest the country had seen since the 1979 Islamic revolution. The protests started out in response to the closure of a reformist newspaper, but after authorities raided a dormitory, setting fire to rooms and forcing students to jump from balconies, the violence spiraled into a week of full scale street warfare. We print reporters covering the story did our best, but it was the photographs that commanded the world’s attention: powerful, searing images that captured all those Iranian students’ anguish and bravery. As I cowered in back alleys and shop doorsteps — riot police and hard-line vigilantes patrolled the streets — I couldn’t imagine who was managing to take those extraordinary photos.

Later, when the photographer Newsha Tavakolian became my friend, I learned she had spent a week scaling trees and perching above with a zoom lens, bearing unique witness to an event that is a watershed in Iran’s history. She was disarmingly young in those days, girlish and funny in a way that made you forget she had already become one of the most intrepid and influential photojournalists in the country, and of her generation.

We went on to cover many of the same stories in the years that followed, sometimes working together, and I remember being struck by the sheer emotional intelligence of her work. Her eye for gestures, scenes, and moments that captured aspects of the modern Iranian experience that were hard to even formulate in words: the conflicted identities of young women caught between tradition and dreams of independence, the unspeakable betrayal of mothers of war martyrs, the suffocation felt by a generation of bright, talented Iranians increasingly cut of from the world and any real opportunity. Having grown up in that Iran, none of this was foreign or exotic to her, and in her images were often stories, saturated in an intense sympathy and understanding.

“I used to think that photographers should travel to wars and earthquakes to capture suffering, but its much harder to portray the atmosphere of those suffering in their normal lives,” she says. “When my heart hurts for someone, even my sister or neighbor, I want to tell their story.”

As her profile and portfolio grew more distinguished, more and more young photographers in Iran sought her out. She was emblematic of what was possible, and made working with these young photographers a part of her life, incorporating them into her vision for a better Iran. She saw that they had drive but lacked the resources and guidance they needed — she likens Iran in this way to “an island cut off from the world” to train their outlook — to develop their own creative, visual language. Even today she remains in this role, encouraging young photographers to focus on angles or stories, and most importantly, to see working in Iran as an opportunity and not a restriction: “I tell them they can take their best pictures in Iran, because they live here and it’s their story and their concerns. Ultimately they’ll find more here that they have meaningful things to say about.”

The aftermath of Iran’s 2009 post-election uprising changed many things in Iran, not least among them the climate for photojournalism. The authorities used press photos to hunt down and arrest protesters, many of whom later suffered torture and rape at detention centers. Iranians, Tavakolian says, “developed a phobia toward having their picture taken, they were simply very scared.” That reluctance, together with her own fear about inadvertently endangering someone by taking their picture, propelled Tavakolian down a new path, toward a more artistic form of photography with a strong base in social documentary.

The shift marks a deepening and aesthetic maturing in her work, which has been shown by the British Museum and acquired by modern collections such as London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. She says this new approach reflects a turn away from demystifying Iran for the West, and toward a different audience as her interlocutor. She’s no longer moved to capture various forms of hijab or veiling, and sees young Iranians’ vibrant presence on social media as capable of presenting their own voice to the world.

“When we’re stuck on getting the West to understand Iran, our work remains on the surface,” she says. “I want to tell Iranians’ story to Iranians themselves, this is where I can challenge myself and go deeper into the more complicated layers.”

Her new exhibition, Look, which recently debuted in New York at the Thomas Erben Gallery, illustrates this change in tactics. The series of portraits of inhabitants of her own apartment building in Tehran, all taken at a twilight hour seemingly suspended between night and day, conveys all the deep anxieties and fears that middle-class young people in Iran have about the future. “They were all scared or anxious, and I saw that despite how much access they had to technology, despite not being at the edge of poverty, they were still lonely, perplexed,” she says. “I wanted to capture such a moment in their lives.”

Look is a devastating portrait of a middle-class in decline, squeezed by economic pressure at home, and dwindling access to the world, a generation of young people whose lives are not reduced to the twilight hour of melancholy that Tavakolian captures, but marred by it. In this mode, she is still the storyteller, but now in more command of the tale, relaying the truths that are closest to home.

Newsha Tavakolian is based in Tehran. Her work debuted at the Thomas Erben Gallery in New York on April 11. Tavakolian served as the secretary of the 2013 Sheed Awards, a prize awarded for Iranian Social Documentary photography.

Azadeh Moaveni is a TIME contributing writer on Iran and the Middle East. Moaveni recently reported on The Aftermath of an Acid Attack for LightBox. She is the author of Lipstick Jihad and co-author of Iran Awakening.

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What does prison look like?

In her latest body of work,  Sailboats and Swans, Israeli photographer Michal Chelbin challenges viewers to re-imagine the answer to this question. Working with her husband and co-producer, Oded Plotnizki, Chelbin spent three years photographing prisons in Ukraine and Russia from 2008 to 2010.

The pair used a network of connections, built over the 10 years they have worked in the region, to gain incredibly rare access to these facilities. What they found inside surprised them. Instead of grey concrete and steel, there were tropical wallpapers, lace-covered tables and furniture painted in glossy blues and greens. The prisoners in Chelbin’s photographs are not dressed in orange jumpsuits, but the floral housedresses, cloth jackets and rubber sandals common to village life in the region. Religious icons seem as ubiquitous as tattoos.

With only one day to work in each location, Chelbin and Plotnizki carefully explored these strange environments, quietly combing halls and common areas to find subjects for their portraits.

“It’s something I look for in their faces, their gaze,” Chelbin said, adding that it was intuition, rather than any specific characteristics, that guided their choices. “It’s not a formula. Some people have this quality that you can’t take them out of your head,” Plotnizki added.

The mood in each location varied widely. Chelbin and Plotnizki described the tense atmosphere of a young boys’ facility as a “living hell, ” while the residents of a men’s prison “were like zombies.”

But it was a prison for women and children in Ukraine that made the greatest emotional impact on Chelbin, who herself had two young children at the time of the shoot. In one frame from that facility, a nursery attendant dressed in white is pictured leaning on the corner of an oversized crib. Inside, toddlers play with rubber balls that mirror the bright, primary colors of a mural painted on wall behind them (slide #7).

The tired, distant expression of the attendant, whose name is Vika, is the only clue that this isn’t a happy scene. The children, we learn from Chelbin, were born in prison and have never known the outside world. Vika herself is a prisoner–charged with murder. She is also a mother, but cannot visit her own child who has been placed in an orphanage.

Chelbin chose not to ask each prisoner about their crimes until after their portrait sessions. Likewise, in the soon-to-be-released book of this work, captions containing the names and criminal charges of each prisoner are left to the last pages. In this way, viewers do not immediately know that a pair of sisters in matching dresses are in custody for violence and theft, or that a young man, reclining on a green iron bed, has been charged with murder.

There are a huge variety of faces in these portraits. There are young girls with pale, delicate skin and older women whose features are made severe with heavy makeup. There are boys so small they look more suited to grade school than prison and men whose scars indicate years of hard living. In all of them, though, there is a sense of dignity.

“I want people to look at the book and see themselves,” said Chelbin. “The circumstances of life could have brought anyone to this place.”

Michal Chelbin is an Israel-based photographer. See more of her work here

Chelbin’s latest body of work, Sailboats and Swans, will be released on Nov. 1 by Twin Palms Publishers. An exhibition of the work will be on display at the Andrea Meislin Gallery in New York City from Oct. 18 to Dec. 22

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“The preoccupation with I has become a cliché in contemporary art,” says Kimiko Yoshida. The Japanese photographer challenges that cliché by creating large, color photos of herself in which she wears elaborate costumes that reference a wide range of subjects, from haute couture and indigenous cultures to the canon of Western painting. By constantly changing what at first appears to be a self-portrait, Yoshida says, “I am basically saying that there is no such thing as a self-portrait,” she says. “Each of these photographs is actually a ceremony of disappearance. It is not an emphasis of identity, but the opposite—an erasure of identity.”

Born in Tokyo in 1963, Yoshida came of age in a tradition-bound culture where the conservative attitude towards the role of women left her alienated and unhappy. She studied literature and worked in fashion, which allowed her to hone her creative eye, but she remained frustrated. Over her father’s objections, she enrolled in the Tokyo College of Photography. Even after she had her degree in hand, she felt her options for a creative career in Japan were limited and moved to France to escape those stifling confines.

“Since I fled my homeland to escape the mortifying servitude and humiliating fate of Japanese women, I amplified through my art a feminist stance of protest against contemporary clichés of seduction, voluntary servitude of women, identity and the stereotypes of gender,” Yoshida says.

Yoshida critiques the idea of a firm and unchanging identity in a variety of ways, most obviously by physically changing it. In her “Brides” series, she often photographs herself in indigenous garb that she borrows from museums. Meanwhile, in her “Paintings” series, she and her husband repurpose items from the archives of Spanish fashion designer Paco Rabanne. But no matter what the source material is, Yoshida riddles the final product with playful anachronisms and cross-cultural references that undermine its perceived authenticity. The Paco Rabanne garments and accessories, made between 1965 and 2000, are themselves full of unusual materials, from plastic bottles to CD-roms. Yoshida adds a twist by refusing to wear them as intended: shoes become headdresses while dresses become hats. Yet another twist comes when you realize that Yoshida’s odd remixes actually reference paintings from Western art history, from Caravaggio to Picasso to Warhol. The fact that many of her images are nearly monochromatic threatens to drown whatever individuality that may remain. Finally, Yoshida often displays her images on walls in overwhelming numbers, thus minimizing their specialness.

The end result is evocative of Cindy Sherman, another artist who dons costumes in front of the camera and who even references art history like Yoshida. And while the meanings of Sherman’s work reside in its surfaces, Yoshida’s work provides the artist with an internal, metaphysical space. “Art is above all the experience of transformation,” explains Yoshida. “All that’s not me, that’s what interests me. To be there where I think I am not, to disappear where I think I am, that is what matters.” In the end, perhaps the photographs themselves are simply evidence of this performance. But it is interesting that Yoshida, an artist who is driven by the denial of the self, has made them with such a singular and memorable voice.

Yoshida has solo shows at St. Jakobshalle in Basel, Switzerland, and the Musée Pavillon Vendôme-Dobler in Aix-en-Provence, France, both opening June 13. Her work is also in a group show at the Musée de la Tapisserie in Angers, France that opens June 29. More of her work can be seen here.

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Jeffrey Gettleman and the photographer Sven Torfinn spent a week in Mogadishu, Somalia, with the rare opportunity to step into people's lives.

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Ever since Matthew Brady trekked to Civil War battlefields documenting war and warriors,  photography has been a critical way of showing what the rest of us cannot—or choose not to—witness. The Pentagon itself has long acknowledged the importance of photographs, and it has hundreds of photographers, some in uniform and some not, taking thousands of pictures every day.

Beginning in 1960 the best have competed to be the Military Photographer of the Year. This year’s contest included 3,500 entries submitted by 603 competitors.

In March, Colonel Jeremy M. Martin, who runs the Pentagon’s Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Md., announced the 2011 winners. A formal ceremony for the first-place winners in each category will be held on May 4. But in the meantime, LightBox looks at some of the powerful and harrowing images that were recognized this year.

To see more work, including winners of the year in video and graphics, take a look at the DINFOS awards website.

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