I think there is a magical power in photography that cannot be found in other visual arts.
Iranian photographer, Nafise Motlaq, has been based in Kuala Lumpur for the last 11 years, where she currently works as a journalism lecturer. A self-taught photographer, she is interested in documenting stories that are often overlooked and little heard. Her fascinating series ‘Fathers and Daughters’ gives us an up close and personal look into a wide cross-section of Iranian society.
I always like to show the real face of my country, whether it’s positive or negative; reality is what I’m looking for in photography.
What sparked the idea for the Fathers and Daughters series?
I have lived in Malaysia for 11 years and during these years I had the chance to see my country from a distance and discovered more about the weakness and richness of my culture. I’ve noticed that when people talk about Iran they don’t have a real picture in their minds. To me, they are under influence of those stereotyped news they get everyday in the mainstream media. So generally I always like to show the real face of my country whether it’s positive or negative; reality is what I’m looking for in photography.
About the ‘Fathers and Daughters” project, there was a personal incident that inspired me to do it. I was away from home, Iran, when my family told me about a serious illness that my father was challenged with. We were about to lose him when he went into a coma for days but fortunately he came back to us and since then my relationship with him has become stronger. When I visited my country in 2014 after more than 7 years, the idea of this project was sparked in my mind. I wanted to do something about Iranian fathers and their relationships with their daughters and thought that would be a glance at the diversity of my culture. The first series that brought me several photography awards were 10 photos but later I went back to Iran and continued it to 30 pieces.
It is fascinating how you managed to get people from a wide cross section of society for the series. How did you manage this? Did you have a list that you checked off?
My studies are mostly in social science, so understanding the classes in each society is one of the basic knowledge to know a society. Yes I tried to write down a list of types of families we have based on religion and culture in Iran and then I looked for a representative – “modern religious, traditional religious, religious moderate, very modern, very traditional, fathers and daughter who are following same path, who are following very different path”.
And how did you go about finding the subjects? Tell us the story of one.
Through this project I noticed that taking the portraits of the educated and the elite was much more difficult as they were conscious about the results and they can easily mislead you with their calculated look. So, I had to spend more time with them to understand their character first!
How long did you work on the project? Is it finished or on-going?
I visited Iran two times and each time, two weeks…but I prepared and found my families earlier. But Tehran is a very busy city with fast lifestyles and it was difficult to find father and daughter at home at the same time when it was not at night because in my photography I used natural light. And yes, the project to me is finished.
From the photographs, you can feel that some of the father/daughters have a close relationship, but there are others where there seems to be a slight distance, whether in their stance or in the description. How did you work with the subjects during the shoot?
That was the best experience for me to see how they posed in from of my camera. I only took care of the background and they mostly stood in front of my camera as they wish. I asked them not to laugh and to look at my camera just like they are watching a TV screen.
How did you get started with photography?
I’m a self-taught photographer. I started photography when I was in the first semester of journalism in a public university in Tehran. I wanted to become journalist so as a part-time trainee I found a job in one of the pioneer newspapers, where I met some talented photojournalists who are now my best friends. They opened a new perspective to my life with photography. Very soon I bought a camera to accompany my stories with some photographs and surprisingly the editors and photographers showed more interest in my photographs than my writing! Just a year later I started working as a photojournalist in the newspaper while I was studying. During these years, I’ve tried other visual medium too but I think there is a magical power in photography that cannot be found in other visual arts. I have a strong passion for documentary photography and I like to tell stories.
What kind of stories interest you?
When I look at my previous works, I see most of them are in the category of social documentary. So far, I’m really into documenting stories about people, community or issues that tell us about things that we don’t know or it’s important to pay more attention to. I never tell very personal stories or have a conceptual approach to subjects and stories. But maybe in future I’d like to try, I don’t know!
Your stories are warm and feel personal. For example, Glory in the Dark is about the life of a blind masseur and athlete in Kuala Lumpur. How did you gain access?
Blindness is one of those phenomenon that always has my attention. I’ve done two projects so far about blindness. I think the blind live in a world that is absolutely in contrast with the photography world, which is all about light. There is no photography without light. When I read a piece of news about Mr. Lee, I went to his centre and talked to him and told him how I’m interested to spend some time with him to document his challenging life. It was a great journey for me to learn and observe. I submitted his story to The Other Hundred Project 2015 and they selected it for their annual book and international exhibition. Mr. Lee is now one of my good friends, even after finishing this project we regularly meet.
Having lived in Malaysia for 11 years, how is your photography work different in Malaysia and in Iran?
Both of them have advantages and disadvantages. When I’m in Iran, I know my environment better and have better understanding of stories but here in Malaysia, people are sometimes more open towards my camera as they see me as foreign or a tourist. But I have more of a challenge to get access to stories and understand the issues, so I think people can have a deeper perspective when they tell stories about their own culture and community.
What are you busy with now?
These days I’m busy editing a short movie about Afghanistan. I visited this country and came back with two stories and a short movie.