I started using Facebook and Twitter because of AKSbazi.com, a digital space I’d created, which is a composite name meaning Photo Game. It was a culmination of my work addressing the politics of representation of Iran, through the chador photographs that I’d done. Iran is always represented through the body of its women and generally the black chador was the marker for a while, then it became the young woman in a nose job bandage. It’s moved on and now it’s the young Iranians who like to show their bra straps.
I felt I had been whining about the way people have to represent me and my country, especially through my performance piece The Power of the Cliche, but I was also thinking that if you have photographs or performances it’s all very well, but you don’t really reach very many people through art.
In 2009 it seemed the right time to put my money where my mouth was and actually try and change the situation, as opposed to just commenting on it. I created a website where I could encourage Iranian people to share photographs of their ordinary Iranian lives. We started with a game called Kitchen and people were encouraged to put up a photograph of their kitchen.
I would come up with an idea for various games or galleries, such as Iranian flag, and then started playing with Persian idioms. I would call everybody and beg for photographs to fill up the online space. I had designed the website, but it would only work if we could fill up the space. You didn’t have to be a master of photography to participate; it was really looking for multi-vocality – that was the point. If you open a game like kitchen, you would get as many kitchens as possible. We didn’t say that you would be judged on the quality of your photograph.
After a while it started to take off from word of mouth before spreading around the younger photographic community in Iran. These young people were the ones who actually introduced me to Facebook, which they said could be a way of communicating with the audience we were trying to target. Now I use the Facebook page to share information about photography and certain aspects of photography I’m interested in, like the politics of representation.
The AKSbazi.com project was quite a landmark in my career because I managed to persuade and cajole people into creating a new image of Iran. In a sense, we pioneered this whole notion, which has become a bit of a zeitgeist now amongst Iranians, to show ordinary everyday Iran and Iranians through the lens of Iranians. It’s what I refer to as a bit of an anti-aircraft missile, of propaganda, to try and eradicate the cliched image of Iran, which is very politically charged and always uses the body of women. This is the case with both sides; the Islamic Republic likes to use the change in the way Iranian women dress, so for me the black chador has become the unregistered trademark of Iran. It’s what I say in my performance. It’s used to shout that Iran has changed since the revolution, and it’s also picked up by the Western media because it’s such an easy marker.
The digital space is giving people a chance to share what they see to be themselves. It gives you the chance to represent yourself the way you want to. People use Flickr, Tumblr and blogs, and Instagram is huge at the moment. It’s the one place that isn’t filtered. You also get President Khatami on Instagram, Ayatollah Khomeni’s great grandson and granddaughter are on Instagram. It’s not blocked. It’s actually working, whereas Facebook and Twitter are blocked. Our work is being completed now on Instagram and I’m not continuing with updating AKSbazi.com any more. I’ve now decided we don’t need to do anything any more, as long as I keep the archive there.
Right now, I follow a lot of people on Instagram. One of Iran’s foremost photojournalists, Abbas Kowsari, is sharing wonderful documentary photos of moments of life on the streets of Tehran. Another hashtag called #EverydayIran is continuing the spirit of AKSbazi.com that cleverly links to Facebook, covering two platforms. If you go into Instagram and look for Tehran, or Iran hashtags like #EverydayIran you are going to see a huge amount of photography about Iran that you wouldn’t in corporate media. It’s as if we all feel this need to show the place in all its complexities, good and bad. Not all of them are pure documentary. Some are very accomplished artistically like Tehrantracker.
The internet has given us all this chance to shape a new image of ourselves as Iranians – men and women – and to show our environment and our country in the way we see it, which is amazing.
I am also on Twitter, but that’s for getting my news as I follow a lot of journalists. I haven’t really got the hang of the 140 characters. I’m a long hand person, and in good Iranian tradition, I tend to tell a long story so Twitter is just too hard for me. Plus the fact that I just don’t have a big following on Twitter, so it’s not that vital for me to keep it up.
When I’m away from Iran I keep in touch through Facebook and Instagram. Everyone I know, and thousands I don’t know, are active from Iran. We let each other know what’s going on. If there’s an event, the reactions to politics in Iran, comment and analysis, are all shared on Facebook.
It’s useful in the sense that if you create a website, it can easily be filtered as AKSbazi .com was, for a while. If you have a website of your own, and you’re just not a big enough force, you can be shut down, whereas on Facebook there seems to be this sort of security in numbers. But it isn’t secure, of course. After the 2009 elections the government was definitely looking at Facebook pages to see who was doing what.
In a sense we have to be careful about what we do, because Facebook also provides information about what you’re up to for exactly the kind of people you don’t want to have access to your life. It’s a double-edged sword, but its benefits seem to outweigh its downfalls for us, right now.
Haleh Anvari was interviewed by Julie Tomlin, co-founder of Digital Women UK.
Photo credits: From Chador-nama, Poolad Javaher Haghighi, Amir Hoseein Keihani and Amir Kardouni.
About the author
Haleh Anvari is an Iranian artist and writer who grew up and was educated in the UK but returned to her country 20 years ago. After being banned as a journalist she accidentally became an artist thanks to the de-mystifying powers of digital technology. Her work has so far been concerned with issues of propaganda in and about Iran. She is at present writing a series of memories about her time in Iran, which she likes to call personal pixels.