Two years ago, Tahmineh Monzavi began to make her way to the region of Baluchistan, the western part of which belongs to Iran. There the photographer met Afro-Iranians, who were once sold into slavery and now live there as aliens. Her series speaks of migration, adaptation and cultural differences – and ponders on how people try to preserve their roots and traditions despite the passage of time.

Afro-Iranians – what fascinates you about this topic and what did you want to show?
As an Iranian photographer, my interests, passions, and experience have been motivated by the everyday life of human beings in Iranian society. In the past five years, my work has concentrated on the roles of women in urban and rural cultures, especially in the coastal provinces of the Persian Gulf, including Sistan, Baluchistan, Hormozagan and Bushehr. I particularly focused on various aspects of life in the African-Iranian community, known as zngis. They were imported to Iran before the nineteenth century by Arab slave traders from the coast of Southeast Africa, in an area roughly comprising modern-day Tanzania, Mozambique and Malawi. In my photographs I would like to reveal the contrast between the lives of people of African descents and the indigenous inhabitants of Baluchistan.

What is life like for Afro-Iranians there today?
Wherever the African-Iranians settled down on the southern coasts of Iran, they assumed the language, accent, and religion of the region. Until half a century ago, the older members of the community still remembered the stories of migration. What they have not forgotten, however, is the cultural mementos they brought from their homeland, which have had a major impact on the culture of the southern region of Iran. African-Iranians have mainly influenced the music of the people on the southern coasts of Iran. It is safe to say that the most prominent ritual among the African-Iranians is the tradition of zār or gowāti, which is the practice of exorcising various spirits from possessed individuals. The gowāti ceremony involves food offerings and musical performances, and culminates in ecstatic dancing, lasting between three and seven nights. Women play the most prominent roles in this ceremony.

Women are also at the centre of your photographic series…
Yes, in this project I’m focusing on African-Iranian women and their social roles and involvement in the culture of Baluchistan. I lived among them and studied their oral traditions for a while. Through my images, I try to display two major themes: first, how these women have remained isolated from the development of the modern state system; and second, how they have kept their cultural practices while adapting to the new diasporic environment.

How did you approach these women?
Being a woman allowed me access to women-only spaces, but it did not necessarily ensure taking pictures freely. Hijabs among the locals have gone beyond the norm and, in some cases, women wear niqabs and cover their entire faces. I had to get permission to shoot pictures of women, especially when they were smoking shisha, one of the few activities they can do the same as men. I was told smoking shisha was feminine and smoking opium masculine. Meanwhile, being a woman, I was subject to limitations in visiting male-dominated places and events. Though such limitations for women were always there – for example, women are not allowed to visit the mosque or graves…

Your pictures are often portraits of the protagonists – what do the faces tell?
I was more interested in their stories rather than documenting what was visible to the eye. My focus is above all on women. My work is marked by portraiture-telling compositions equally depicting individuals, communities, and their environments. Meeting and being met by their gazes, my lens captures fluid instants of vulnerability and repose.

Your pictures are reminiscent of fairy tales, traditional stories. What do you pay attention to in colour and setting?
After some time, I noticed the importance of colour, as it not only increases the representation of their femininity and their unified colourful dresses, but it also helps to highlight many delicate details within the rough environment.

Light plays an important role in your photographs. What can it do?
I have tried to use day light and light from windows. Later on, I decided to experiment with flash lights to have sharper images as well as creating the stage photography effect. At the same time I did not want the women to feel uncomfortable. It was a risk that worked out aesthetically. My main focus was on capturing their portraits.

Born in Tehran in 1988, Tahmineh Monzavi is a socially conscious photographer. She began her professional career as a documentary photographer in 2005. In her professional life, with her photographs and harmonious approach to her environment and her times, Tahmineh has created her own style for capturing and exploring the fields of artistic and documentary photography. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, and has also been published by magazines such as The New York Times, Le Figaro and Elle. Find out more about her photography on her website and Instagram channel.

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