Photo: Angelos Christofilopoulos

Meet the young Iranian creatives who prove that art defies all odds

Turns out, it’s harder to be a refugee photographer than a photographer who disobeys the Iranian ruling class.

Sahar Farhang and Farid Dolabi are in their late 20s. They are a married couple who fled Iran and came to Greece on one of the infamous inflatable boats whose engines often fail during the crossing of the Aegean Sea. Their journey was difficult; they were separated and had their belongings stolen. Farid had to swim to the shores of Lesvos, a few miles away from the Turkish shores. You know this story, you have heard it many times. It never ceases to amaze.

What is really amazing, is the story of who they really are. What they did before they got on that dinghy and were branded as refugees. They are the young creatives of Iran. In a country that discourages creativity through persecution and punishment, where a nude portrait is not an object of praise for its honesty but a one-way ticket to prison, they were photographers in the truest sense of the word. In following their passion, they defied a hostile environment that is almost inconceivable to a westerner like myself.

“My father has been a photographer for 30 years. Me, my sister and my brother learned from him. Me and Farid had a studio in Tehran. We mostly did fashion, weddings and children portraits. All of our work was hidden. People in Iran enjoy having their photos taken and videos recorded.” Sahar told me.

Sahar. Photo: Angelos Christofilopoulos

Farid is a massive camera nerd. Just name any model and he will recite all its specifications. Believe me, I’ve tested him.

“Additionally to the photography work we did at the studio, I also worked in a camera shop in Tehran. It was a major distribution point for Sony, Canon, Olympus, Nikon, drones, movie cameras and more. I won an award as best salesman. Nikon awarded me a camera and a T-shirt.

“For our work, we used Canon 5D and Fujifilm X-A1, X-A2, X-E2. We also had 3–4 lenses. They were stolen in Turkey. I was exiting the metro and someone grabbed my bag, with my laptop inside. Now all we have is a Nikon D7000. At least Nikon is the best at capturing color.”

Farid. Photo: Angelos Christofilopoulos

Libra Gallery, their agency, was hired for photoshoots by private individuals and companies. They saved up for a few years and got a loan to found it. Their work ranges from jewellery to lingerie advertising. For the racy shoots, they found models on Instagram. The pictures were circulated privately. Sahar remembers:

“We created a magazine for the studio, which we disseminated to people we trusted. In Iran there is no freedom of photography. Even at weddings, the bride has to be covered up. Once, we were shooting a wedding, and the police saw the uncovered shoulders of the bride. They disapproved, so they simply arrested her, on her wedding day.”
For their protection, the faces of the models are concealed.

The duo had trouble with the police on several occasions. As Farid explained, “All of our work was offensive to the government. They came to our studio twice and took everything; pictures, equipment, everything. They shut us down. We had saved up for years and even took out a loan to start this business.”

As true artists tend to be, they were unstoppable. In Sahar’s words, “This was our job. We didn’t know how to do anything else. I tried to get into makeup or selling cameras, but it wasn’t me. I love photography. It reveals beauty, both external and internal. A photo can provoke all sorts of emotions.” They took out another loan and re-opened the studio.

Soon, another part of their identity was under the microscope. Sahar’s family was under surveillance. “My family had travelled abroad to convert to Christianity. The police knew. My father was an outspoken critic of Khomeini before the revolution, so he already had a target on his back. They were watching him. Every time he moved houses, they asked questions.

“Our neighbours noticed the Bible we had at our house, and told on us. If they prove you are Christian, they may kill you. The police came to our house and found the Bible. We told them we were just curious. My sister fled the country, and the police came to our house again. They told us to check in with the local police station two weeks later. A car was watching us from then on.”

They never showed up to the police station. Instead, they gathered their belongings and started their long journey towards freedom.

In Iran we had everything. We had our studio, our work, our clients. What we didn’t have was freedom; to work, to party, to gather, to travel, to do anything. If you ask for freedom, you are dead.”

They stepped away from the barrel of the gun, only it wasn’t that simple. As so many others, they faced danger at every turn on their way to Europe.

To them, the journey wasn’t as difficult as the decision, or what they discovered at the other side of the proverbial tunnel. At least that was the impression I got. After all, they had been following their passion to the edge of a cliff for years. Have a look at the pictures below, and imagine how a theocratic government would react to them. My guess is that Turkish smugglers do not compare to the massive Iranian police apparatus.

Despite the hardships and restrictions inflicted upon them by their own government, they love their country. They can never return, at least as long as the current situation persists, for they will face the death penalty. All they can do is be nostalgic of their home and its awe-inspiring mountains.

In fact, they can do very few things. At Eleonas camp, life goes by idly. They still go out to take photos and discover the city. “Let’s go this way, it’s closer,” they tell me as we are walking down the streets of Athens; they know the city as well as I do, if not better. They borrow laptops from their friends and family to edit their pictures, creating small projects here and there.

Which only serves to prove that, to them, photography is not just a job, it’s a passion, a lifestyle. They see the world as a series of frames rolling out before them. All this creativity is wasted away in a container indiscernible between hundreds of others just like it, under the blazing sun, at the edge of a city on fire.

Here are some images that could’ve got them into serious trouble

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