My choice of subject matter is always intuitive – I am drawn to situations that engage me emotionally.
Globalisation has marked major developments in international trade and diplomacy. It has also greatly increased the flow of people. In various parts of the world, wars waxed and economies waned, causing families to flee danger and workers to migrate to where the money is. As the new millennium dawned in the West, the cosmopolitan ideal of different cultures living together in mutual respect began to founder. So it was in Australia.
In 2001, in what was called ‘The Pacific Solution’, refugees and asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia in small boats were detained and sent to one of two Pacific islands: Manus in Papua New Guinea or Nauru in Micronesia. The camps were closed two years later, but in 2012, the Australian government reintroduced so-called ‘offshore processing’. The following year, the Prime Minister announced that no person seeking asylum and arriving by boat would be allowed to resettle in Australia. Since then, 3,127 asylum seekers and refugees have been sent to processing centres outside Australia. 1,523 adult men were transferred to Manus island, while the remaining families with children, couples and single women were sent to Nauru.
This is the context for one of the most recent bodies of work made by the Iranian/Australian artist Hoda Afshar. In that work, which involves both still photography and video installation, she explores the lot of asylum seekers left abandoned and stateless. But our conversation began by discussing two earlier photographic series. The first critiques and satirises the difficulties faced by migrants in harmonising their inherent culture with that of their newfound home. The second is a delicate collaborative exploration of mutuality and intimacy among a group of gay men whose sexuality separates them from the majority society in which they live. In each case, these bodies of work explore what it means to be different. In the language of philosophy, those who are not like us are described as the ‘Other’. And in psychology, the ‘Other’ shapes our sense of our own identity by defining what we are not. This polarising point of view inhibits mutual understanding and compassion. It is these layers of displacement, difference and marginality – this ‘Otherness’ – that Hoda Afshar engages in her poetically perceptive imagery.
Alasdair: Do you seek to encourage a compassionate response in the viewer?
Hoda: My choice of subject matter is always intuitive – I am drawn to situations that engage me emotionally. The work is often about groups who are involved in a social or political struggle. In that sense, yes, I am guided by a compassionate approach. But this is only half of it, because compassion is outwardly directed, toward the recognition of human needs. Much of my work is also intended to challenge audiences to consider their own ignorance and prejudices: to provoke indignation.
How did the series ‘In-Between Spaces’ begin?
It was inspired by my experiences as an Iranian woman who migrated to Western Australia as a young adult. The project raises questions about nationalism, racism, and the politics of representation as reflected in those experiences.
For many non-Western migrants to the West, a tension arises as one attempts to recreate a sense of home in exile while also trying to fit into the new culture. In order to shield oneself against racism and prejudice, one tries to conceal one’s original identity in the hope of signalling that one has integrated into the local culture.
[Left] © Hoda Afshar ‘Loving the Aerial Ping Pong’ 2011 from the series ‘In-Between Spaces’
[Right] © Hoda Afshar ‘We Didn’t Grow Here, We Flew Here’ 2010 from the series ‘In-Between Spaces’
How did you apply those ideas in the way you staged these tableaux?
It did not take me long to learn about the stereotypical national icons that many Australians take pride in: the sun and the beach; the family picnic and the barbeque; a big backyard with a Hill’s Hoist in it; Vegemite, kangaroos, footie, beer… I started using Aussie slang in my conversations with people (albeit with a strong Persian accent). I watched how quickly this transformed their perception of me from a “bloody immigrant” to a “funny cute chick”. So, I used it when I wanted to be liked by someone – even if it meant making a clown of myself.
‘In-Between Spaces’ portrays the tragi-comic absurdity of this kind of performance: its theatricality. The visual language is inspired by Persian miniature paintings. The photographs depict Iranian couples trying to fit in whilst still preserving a sense of their Persian heritage. The figures in the images appear like sad puppets from another era: parodies of themselves. Their identities have been reduced to the superficial tropes of their hybrid cultural belonging. Each wears an expression of forlorn boredom.
How has this series been received by audiences?
Australians often laugh, migrants cringe in recognition.
‘Behold’ was made five years later. How did this work come about?
I was introduced to a group of young homosexual men while I was travelling in the Middle East. They would often meet in a male-only bathhouse, which was one of the few places they could share displays of intimacy. I was invited to photograph these men and, quite unexpectedly, I was granted access to the bathhouse for a few hours.
Where was the work made?
I have chosen not to disclose in which country the images were taken. This is partly to protect the identities of the men. More particularly, I want to avoid the personal dimension of the work being eclipsed by the politics of its location. This often happens with work made in a specific location and culture, which is subsequently exhibited internationally. The images also maintain an intentional ambiguity, since they are both private and yet – because they are performances for the camera – public displays.
What do the men who are the subjects of the photographs feel about the images?
They love them. They are proud of them both as photographs and as a provocation. To those who deny them their equality and even their existence, these men say “Behold!”.
The final body of work I would like to discuss is ‘Remain’. First, can you outline the context of this project.
In 2017, the Australian government announced the imminent closure of the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre. Many of the asylum seekers had been held in detention for three or four years. When the centre was closed, they had nowhere to go. Even now, three years later, some remain stranded on the island, their future uncertain.
The work has two aspects. One is a series of black-and-white portraits which include visual symbolism.
The portraits were staged to suggest the physical and psychological struggles of being a refugee. I wanted to avoid simply illustrating (or idealising) their experiences. Each man had shared with me the painful stories of their life on Manus island. I asked each of them to choose a natural element that they felt would best reflect their innermost feelings.
Can you give an example?
One portrait shows a stateless Kurdish refugee called Emad struggling under a downpour of sand. When I asked him what natural element he wanted to use in his image, he chose soil. He said: “It reminds me of land; the land that I was torn from; the land that has been torn from me. From us. Soil is the most precious idea in Kurdish culture. But we are stateless. I’ve been stateless my whole life.”
The other aspect of this work is a two-channel colour video which includes narration and song. What ideas does it explore?
It was shot on Manus island. The men in this video are the ones who participated in making the portraits. I did not want simply to confront the horror head-on, neatly laid out in linear fashion. I wanted to present an incongruity. While the video speaks of the violence imposed on the body and mind of the refugees, of constraint, intimidation and dehumanisation, it is paradoxically set against the extraordinary natural beauty of the island: simultaneously a paradise and a prison.
The video is dedicated to the twelve people who have died while in detention on Manus or Nauru. In honour of them, the men speak of their own experiences of the brutal circularity of detention on the island: anticipation, trauma, boredom, death… Re-enacting those experiences through a kind of poetic performance, these men cease to be merely passive subjects in the process of storytelling. This is important because, while the image of these men as anonymous refugees may encourage sympathy, it does not help us to see them as our equals. The only reason that, as a society, Australians accept these camps is because those involved are reduced to stereotype, denied their specific humanity. I wanted the audience to engage with the work intellectually; to unpack its visual language through their own knowledge of the situation [which has been widely if superficially covered in the Australian media].
For me, the images suggest, despite the uncertainty and anxiety of their position, a sense of shared compassion: of mutual support and gentleness.
My aim was not simply to retell their story. I did not want to make documentary work. In my opinion, the typical documentary images of refugees only reinforce their supposed ‘inferiority’ [the things they lack and the things they are not] in the eyes of the viewer. Such images merely end up confirming the destiny of refugees and, in a way, justifying it.
Instead, we set out to make an artwork – using the languages of poetry, performance, and song. I have drawn inspiration from art history, using aesthetic strategies to encompass the intensity of this humanitarian crisis. The result defies the kind of simple ‘logic’ that merely perpetuates the situation of the refugee. It requires the viewer to confront the very inexplicableness of the situation that these men face and the viewer’s own incomprehension of it. But we also wanted to highlight something about our shared human situation, which we all too readily forget.
What have you learned about compassion in the process of making these photographs?
Compassion is important. It is superior to sympathy. As the art critic John Berger (1926–2017) noted, to feel sympathy is to take on another’s suffering for no purpose. That said, I think that the same danger can lurk in compassion as in sympathy: it often merely serves the viewer, making them feel better about themselves and about the fact that they see themselves as ‘caring’. Compassion is dynamic and, as such, it may still depend on, and even amplify, an unequal hierarchy between the viewer and subject.
Hoda Afshar was born in Tehran in 1983. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Art in Photography from Azad University of Art and Architecture, Tehran, and Doctor of Philosophy in Creative Arts from Curtin University, Perth, Western Australia. She began her career as a documentary photographer in Iran in 2005, and, since 2007, she has been living in Australia where she practices as a visual artist while also lecturing in photography and fine art. Her work is held in the collections of a number of prestigious museums including the National Gallery of Victoria, the Art Gallery of Western Australia and Monash Gallery of Art. In 2015 she won the National Photographic Portrait Prize and, in 2018, the Bowness Photography Prize – both in Australia. In 2020, she was included in SUBSTANCE 100, an international list of one hundred artists, collectives, and organisations making a substantial change in the world.
Photo [detail]: © David Rosetzky
This article was initially published in Chinese, in the September 2020 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. The theme for the year was compassion.