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In one haunting portrait by Tavakolian, an Iranian woman stands on a deserted road in Teheran, wearing a black chador and fire-engine red boxing gloves. She appears resigned but ready to fight.

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Tavakolian (above) started taking photographs when she was a teenager. For nearly two decades, she has been documenting the social and political upheavals in the Middle East.

Giving voice to the voiceless

Newsha Tavakolian's photos show Muslim women as resilient and determined, in contrast to common misconceptions.
Jun 24, 2016 5:50 AM

THE opening of the OPEN festival was marred by an incident of censorship. The Media Development Authority (MDA) objected to 15 photos in an exhibition by Iranian photographer Newsha Tavakolian, a highlight of the festival. Most of the 15 photos depicted Kurdish women taking up arms to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

These pictures were published in the April 2, 2015 issue of Time magazine. It went on sale without incident. The story and images titled Meet The Women Taking The Battle To ISIS can also be viewed on Time's website. None of the images featured nudity, blood or brutality, only uniformed women holding guns.

But the MDA deemed the images inappropriate for the exhibition which has a rating of NC16. Hence, the organisers have placed black rectangles in the spaces where the photos were supposed to be.

On opening night at arts space 72-13 on Wednesday, festival director Ong Keng Sen said: "No reason was given for why the (issue of) Time magazine was not banned, but these images were not allowed to be exhibited . . . For me, it was very surprising because they were women fighting ISIS."

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The OPEN festival, which stands for Open Participate Engage Negotiate, is a three-week festival that anticipates the much-bigger Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa) starting in August. Previous editions of the festival also ran into trouble with the MDA. Last year, for instance, two films and a few performances were removed or censored.

Mr Ong added: "We are still waiting for a lot more permits (for the other shows) because they are usually given only two days in advance. And so we are living with a new terror where we don't know, it is out of our control."

Censorship aside, Tavakolian's photography is extraordinary. The 35-year-old started taking photographs when she was a teenager. For nearly two decades, she has been documenting the social and political upheavals in the Middle East, including the Iraq War of 2003.

Her photographs have appeared in esteemed publications such as The New York Times, Le Figaro, Der Spiegel and National Geographic. And she has garnered numerous accolades.

Her exhibition at the OPEN, titled I Know Why The Rebel Sings, is arresting particularly because of its images of Muslim women expressing themselves in ways that contradict preconceptions of oppressed Middle Eastern women.

In one haunting portrait, an Iranian woman stands on a deserted road in Teheran, wearing a black chador and fire-engine red boxing gloves. She appears resigned but ready to fight.

In another striking image, a woman stands amid the thorny tangle of a dead tree's branches, gently unpicking herself.

Tavakolian's most heart-breaking images, however, belong to a photo series taken of young Kenyan girls who had fled to a safehouse after being forced to undergo genital mutilation in preparation for marriages to much-older men.

Tavakolian, however, does not confine herself to photographing women. There are numerous photos capturing humanitarian tragedies and military conflicts, just as there are images of ordinary Iranian men going about their lives.

As a photojournalist par excellence, she gives voice to the voiceless.

Though Tavakolian could not be in Singapore for the opening, she will deliver a talk on July 2 at 5pm at 72-13 on Mohamed Sultan Road.

  • To attend Tavakolian's talk, purchase from Sistic a ticket priced at S$45, which gives you access to the exhibition as well as 41 other events at the OPEN. As seats are limited, certain events require simple online pre-registeration on sifa.sg/theopen