Posted by Karmel Melamed
In November 2006 I had the opportunity to interview the American Jewish artist and photographer Shelley Gazin. Since 2001 she has been slowly capturing various unique aspects of Iranian Jewish life here in Los Angeles through her remarkable photographs. Gazin was given on many occasions very rare opportunities into our community as many outsiders (non-Iranian Jews) are typically not as readily welcomed into the private lives, celebrations and intimate gatherings of the tight-knit Iranian Jewish community. Over the years these special photographs of the Iranian Jewish community have been exhibited in New York and also locally at the Skirball Museum, Huntington Library, USC and now at UCLA’s Fowler Museum. In fact on March 3rd at 2 pm, Gazin will be speaking about her photographs that are on display at the Fowler’s “Light and Shadows” exhibition that focuses on Iranian Jewry. After seven years since my last interview with Gazin, I caught up with her again to discuss how her work has been received by both Iranian Jewish audiences and other visitors to the Fowler Museum. The following is a portion of our conversation.
You have been working on this project of photographing the Iranian Jewish community for a number of years now. Can you please share some of the reactions you've received from the community to your work, which has been on display at the Fowler Museum in recent months?
Many, many words of appreciation for “putting a face on the community,” “illustrating that there has been so much Iranian-Jewish contribution,” “staying committed to telling an objective story…” There is a sincere interest in seeing more of my work and an overriding respect for the quality of the prints that I’ve produced for the Fowler exhibit. I think that some viewers have questions about the choices made for this installation but a few fearless community spokespersons have qualified the work within the academic setting. Professor David Myers led the way at the recent L & S Conference by remarking on the beauty of my images and their importance in representing the local community within the context of the larger L & S story. Morgan Hakimi urged a closer viewing during her opening remarks at the Conference’s panel on Women in Iran, pointing out a few of her own favorites and making it safe for others to both enjoy and comment upon it outwardly, and thus promoting the use of art for social engagement. Both Shula and Sharon Nazarian showed support. Shula, during the planning stages when I presented my concept of making the assigned gallery space a focus for the spirit of women, and then, with Sharon’s graciousness during the Night of Appreciation reception. Everyone has wondered about how I would interpret my experience. I had met and photographed far too many unsung heroes along with the already recognized community leaders for the space of this exhibit and I have more to go, so those portraits will be saved for the future. Because I have been inspired by the strength of Persian women, my wall became a metaphor for liberation, and the video is a work-in-progress, representing the rest of my archive and embracing the entire community. I think some of my subjects feel a little self-conscious seeing themselves up on the wall and they don’t know what to say. But, most have encouraged me to take artistic license because of their own desire toward free expression. One of my favorite conversations was with a 20 year-old museum security guard and yesterday I gave two talks to over 60 docents from the Skirball Museum and Cultural Center and they all loved it. So I am very happy about the potential for this work to serve a meaningful purpose to a wide audience.
The Iranian Jewish community in L.A. is very insular and tight-knit, how were you able to gain access into their inner circles in order to capture these remarkable photos?
My initial introductions came through such respected community members that a trust was established early on and I’ve done my best to stay true to the course. After my signature portrait of Hacham Yedidia was exhibited at my exhibit, looking for a Rabbi [Skirball, 2001 and again at his memorial services at Nessah, 2005], doors continually opened. Mansour Sinai, Professor Netzer, and Massoud Haroonian led me to Dr. Baravarian who respectfully made introductions to Homa Sarshar [who presented me at CIJOH], Nahid Pirnazar [who allowed me to audit her history course], Jamshid Maddahi’s family; they all embraced the value of my project. At the same time, Dariush & Roya Fakheri, Shirley Nowfer, Soraya M. Nazarian, Manijeh Yomtoubian, Dara Abaei…these friends and their organizations could have been gatekeepers but they were forward-thinking and gave me access. After a couple of years, Fakheri published an article about my work in the Iranian Jewish Chronicle, and a reader phoned to invite me to photograph Etta Israel’s Chanukah fundraiser. That was a very special experience because I really felt to have made it to the inside at that moment, seeing everyone I knew from all corners of the community, all coming together for this wonderful purpose; I was honored to be there. The same is true for photos of the A.R.M telethon with actress Shohreh Agdashloo helping out. And then I was supported in showing work at the first 30YA Conference via the efforts of Jason Massaband and Sam Yebri’s Board. Speaking of which, I love the image of 30YA first- time voters, looking at their peers, also newly minted voters from across the country, on the TV news during the Presidential election returns. But, I was also in the courtroom during Ezri Namvar’s hearing, to try to understand something of that situation for myself.
Which of these photos from the collection are your favorite and why?
From a professional viewpoint, my favorites should be based on artistic values so that the story is elevated and appreciated as art as much as it is for its ultimate historic relevancy. And that’s what makes it such hard work. I scrutinize every image for aesthetic and compositional strength as well as the story-content, the latter being the main point of a documentary project. So, sometimes, a would-be favorite doesn’t make the cut. And, because each photo session has been imbued with emotion resulting from countless heart- heart conversations, attendance at events where I am the only non-Persian in the room, the physical labor of carrying a heavy camera around, I usually can’t separate my feelings from the curatorial job that comes later. I love all of the dance images because they remind me of the music that transports me into another dimension and the time when Gity Brouchhim asked me to join her and her friends on the dance floor at the first IWJO Awards dinner where I was publicly introduced into the community, so to speak. In black & white, those images emphasize and elicit a sense of joy and function artfully because the figures are sculptural and sensual, with glamour and spontaneity all at once. The layered tableau of Mrs. Ravanshenas with her grandsons has a lot of architectural and psychological components and a further analysis of the spatial relationships in it would be interesting. The poignant portrait of Jasmine Banayan was made when I saw her in a moment of repose after her turn on the stage; we are all alone at times, even in the middle of a crowded party. The girls praying in a private girl’s yeshiva in Los Angeles; Mrs. Tehrani in tears, clutching the photo of her son lost in Evin prison; my video of Rabbi Zadmehr which I secretly made during the memorial for Yomtoubian’s mom… I didn’t know his story of imprisonment and release until we were all standing in the parking lot afterwards. One of the most symbolic of images is Homa Sarshar, confidently poised, giving light to a subdued TV studio as she broadcasts her weekly program around the world. The Golnaz suite was made when I was asked to pick up the grandparents at LAX, who [through the efforts of HIAS] were unexpectedly arriving from Tehran on Shabbat. In the Fowler exhibit, Golnaz, [now a UCLA Dentistry student] looks out to meet the viewer eye-to-eye – to make a connection. That’s what this is all about. Then there was the day that Ezat Delijani was honored downtown. The death of music icon Michael Jackson was being reported on the radio as I drove to and from the Civic Center on a sweltering summer day – but all I cared about was making a portrait of Mr. Delijani walking down the street to the magnificent LA Theatre that he saved and treasured. I drove out to the City of Hope for the first time in my life just to photograph Dr Rahbar. These experiences contribute to the way I value every picture in the archive. And we haven’t even touched on my video interviews: Gina Nahai’s is great and was edited for voice over on the 45- minute video archive loop; Amanda Maddahi speaks about the risks she has taken as a women athlete; Shuku Darvish addresses health issues; a single mother, being assisted by the Jewish Federation, is helped with English translation by her 10-year old daughter; the late Massoud Haroonian remembers the early days of acquiring visas, etc. Most of the video interviews in my archive still need to be edited.
What message or feeling would you like outsiders who are not Iranian or Iranian Jewish to walk away from after viewing your work at the Fowler and elsewhere?
I could cite a simple sentiment akin to “open your heart when you are looking at the pictures; feel the moment; make a connection….but that would oversimplify the hard work of creating relationships which is what the corpus of material and my whole process stands for. People need to understand that the images resulted from a complex commitment and involved the navigation of conflicting perceptions and relinquishing the restrictions of insider/outsider dynamics. Assimilation is a two-way process but it isn’t a straight line from A to B and can manifest a lot of stress around what can be revealed and what is concealed. I continually struggled with the question of “How do I choose a portrait for the wall that will maintain the dignity of my subject and at the same time fit in with all the artistic criteria that’s required to make a strong overall statement as a professional in my own right?” And, worrying all the while, about the reaction of my subject, who must maintain grace in an insular community. Establishing an authentic comfort level is a dance, of back and forth steps. And the trust that is developing or assumed can be nullified at any moment. But the photos are evidence of the process and a positive outcome. They capture moments in time but there is nothing definitive about a moment, although my idealism wants to take it in as such and have faith in it. I hope viewers will take the time to consider what it takes- their own ability- to create a similar body of work and to think of it as analogous to creating new relationships that are challenging. It takes a long time and a lot of stamina and love.
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February 18, 2013 | 7:26 am
Posted by Karmel Melamed
Yesterday the Los Angeles-based Iranian Jewish “International Judea Foundation” (SIAMAK) was honored for creating a program that nurtures and develops innovative medical, high-tech and alternative energy research at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University (BGU). Dubbed “Project Jacob” after the biblical patriarch, the program is the brainchild of Dariush Fakheri, SIAMAK’s president, an entrepreneur and community activist. Fakheri is no novice when it comes to philanthropy in the local Iranian Jewish community since SIAMAK under his leadership has been one of the primary non-profits helping needy families struggling to make ends meet in L.A. since 1979. The following are two videos of Fakheri being honored at a ceremony hosted by BGU in Beverly Hills yesterday:
With an initial investment of $200,000 in February 2010, SIAMAK funded three projects at BGU. While development for the three BGU projects continues to move forward, SIAMAK’s board members have been encouraging other local area Iranian Jews to invest in Project Jacob. SIAMAK’s goal is to help Israel expand its economic strength by providing seed money for developments of products to be made in Israel and also spread “tikkun olam” with the use of such products around the world.
It is indeed no surprise that SIAMAK would partner up with Ben Gurion University in Israel, since the university is center Israel’s cutting edge technology and medicine. Prior to the honoring of SIAMAK, BGU’s distinguished panel of experts discussed the latest advances they have made in the homeland security arena. The university’s researchers have worked on projects pertaining to satellites, remote sensing, unmanned robotics systems, emergency response systems, developing building materials that can withstand the shock of rocket attacks, software for cyber-attack protection, night vision technology and thermal imagining technology. Interestingly, L.A. County Sherriff Lee Baca was also in attendance to learn about Israel’s latest homeland security advances.
(BGU professor Amos Drory, photo by Karmel Melamed)
(Fakheri family & friends at BGU event, photo by Karmel Melamed).
More information on BGU can found here.
February 5, 2013 | 6:31 am
Posted by Karmel Melamed
The international community has long been aware of Iran’s notorious nuclear weapons program and U.S. and E.U. sanctions have hit the current totalitarian Islamic regime in Iran hard. Yet at the same time, the media worldwide has forgotten the equally horrendous human rights violations the Iranian regime commits every year in large scale by torturing, imprisoning and executing political dissidents, children, women, homosexuals, union organizers, journalists and anyone else they believe is a threat to their power. On a daily basis the Iranian regime broadcasts proudly their hangings of supposed “drug offenders” or “enemies of the state”, but no one pays attention. Nevertheless, what is even more disturbing is the fact that despite the tremendous sanctions on Iran and the regime’s abhorrent human rights record, dozens of multi-national corporations still continue to do business in Iran and with the leaders of the regime! Their decisions to continue having business dealings with the butchers and murders of innocent human beings in Iran are revolting and it is sad that they continue to keep this notorious regime in power by aiding it financially or with new technology.
The following is a list of just a few of the most serious corporate collaborators with the Iranian regime that need to be shamed into stopping their business dealings with Iran…
MTN Group is a South African telecommunications company. It is a 49% shareholder of “MTN Irancell”, the second largest mobile phone network operator in Iran. The majority of 51% of the company is in turn owned by the Iranian regime, which has exploited the MTN Irancell network and technology to monitor and track the activities and communications of peaceful dissidents in Iran.
Ericsson is also a telecommunications corporation. It provided a mobile-positioning center to Iran in 2009 that is used to track cellphone users. Ericsson continues to maintain the center but in October 2010 stated it would no longer sell any products in Iran due to tightening sanctions. However, new reports show that Ericsson plans to extend its network in Iran and has pledged to support MTN Irancell until 2021.
Nissan and Renault are both automakers from Japan and France. They have strategically partnered through the Renault-Nissan Alliance and both companies are highly active in the Iranian auto industry, which is dominated by the Iranian regime and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC). In 2011, Renault’s production doubled to more than 100,000 vehicles produced and it is now seen as the “winner” of Peugeot’s reported exit from Iran.
Peugeot is a France based automaker and the leading foreign auto brand produced and sold in Iran. It has partnered with the Iran Khodro Group, which is controlled by the Iranian regime. Sadly the U.S. automaker General Motors (GM) may be in violation of U.S. sanctions against Iran because of its new partnership with Peugeot. GM should use its influence and leverage to compel Peugeot to immediately end its business in Iran.
Volvo Group is an automaker based in Sweden and its subsidiaries Volvo Trucks and Renault Trucks are partnered in Iran with the regime’s corporate entities. Evidence of the regime’s misuse of Volvo equipment and technology by Iranian military and security forces has been widely documented. Volvo Construction Equipment is also active in Iran as well as Volvo Penta, whose marine diesel engines are used in IRGC naval vessels.
Herrenknecht, a German manufacturer of tunnel-boring machines. The company lists two sales and service offices in Tehran. A 2010 New York Times report highlighted Iran’s abuse of civilian tunnel-boring machines to shield and obscure its nuclear weapons program and pointed to Herrenknecht as a key supplier to Iran of such equipment.
Aker Wirth is a German manufacturer of boring equipment as well. It currently operates in Iran through the WPS Group and has previously sold tunnel-boring equipment to Iran for a water project that was managed by the IRGC.
Seli is an Italian construction equipment manufacturer. It has worked on several Iranian tunnel projects with sanctioned IRGC entities, such as Ghaem and Sahel Consulting Engineers.
ZTE is a Chinese telecommunications equipment manufacturer. As part of a $130.6 million contract signed in December 2010, ZTE sold an advanced surveillance system to the IRGC-owned Telecommunication Company of Iran (TCI) that enables the Iranian regime to monitor the voice, text messaging and internet communications of its citizens. While ZTE has announced it is no longer seeking new customers in the country, it has not stopped its operations in Iran.
Huawei is a Chinese based telecommunications equipment manufacturer. Its technology has been used by the Iranian regime to conduct surveillance on its citizens, and track down human rights activists and dissidents. Huawei announced that it would stop seeking new business in Iran and limit existing business, yet it has not fully pulled out from doing business in Iran.
February 4, 2013 | 6:31 am
Posted by Karmel Melamed
On January 28th L.A.’s Iranian Jewish community with the support of the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation hosted a night of appreciation at UCLA’s Fowler Museum for four Jewish non-profits that have been critical to the resettlement of Iranian Jews to Southern California since their first arrival in 1979. One of the most important of those organizations was the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) that helped Iranian Jews and other religious minorities fleeing Iran to more easily obtain refugee resettlement in the U.S. This unique organization has saved the lives of millions of Jews, Christians Baha’is’ and Zoroastrians escaping the grips of Iran’s totalitarian radical Islamic regime.
I had the rare opportunity to recently chat with Mark Hetfield, the interim CEO and president of HIAS about his group’s long standing relationship with Iranian American Jewry in New York and Southern California. The following is a portion of my conversation with him…
HIAS has been aiding Iranian Jews and other religious minorities escaping Iran for more than three decades now. Your organization has for the most part kept a low profile when it comes these actions for political reasons and for the safety of those escaping Iran. Can you share why HIAS has embraced a move to be more open about what they’ve done for the Iranian Jewish community now with this recent community event?
Every year the Lautenberg Amendment, required to allow religious minorities to safely flee from Iran to religious freedom in the United States, expires. For Congress to extend the program in recent years, HIAS has been forced to publicly advocate for Lautenberg extensions, though we would have preferred to maintain a much lower profile.
Can you provide an overall idea of the extent of support HIAS has offered with the issue of Iranian Jews and other religious minorities fleeing Iran as refugees over the years in Congress?
The HIAS office in Washington spends much of its time and resources advocating for the United States to keep the escape hatch open for Jews and other religious minorities seeking to flee Iran. Without these efforts, the program would have closed long ago. And, of course, in Vienna the HIAS office makes sure that Iranian religious minorities receive refugee status to travel to the United States. Thanks to HIAS’ efforts in Washington and Vienna, the program has overcome many obstacles, and enjoys the highest approval rate of any U.S. refugee program in the World. Finally, HIAS works with the State Department and the Jewish federations and family service agencies to ensure that Iranian Jewish refugees are placed in the communities where they have the strongest community ties. We also have awarded hundreds of scholarships to Iranian Jewish refugees in the United States as well as Iranian olim in Israel.
What does it mean for HIAS and its supporters to receive this public acknowledgement of appreciation from L.A.’s Iranian Jewish community?
We at HIAS are very touched by the show of support from the Iranian Jewish community tonight. Never before have so many Iranian Jews turned up to thank HIAS and our colleague agencies for our roles in bringing them to freedom and helping them start new lives. I only wish that all of my HIAS colleagues in Vienna, New York and Washington could have been here to experience the event. The immigration experience is unpleasant, and when Iranian Jews or any other refugees are experiencing it, they grumble and complain about it to HIAS, just as the Hebrews complained to Moses when they were escaping from Egypt. It is very moving to see that so many Iranian Jews understand today that we at HIAS were trying to help all of them move to a better place, physically and spiritually. Tonight we see that HIAS and the Iranian Jewish community were successful in this historical endeavor together.
You obviously have several Iranian Jews on your board and donors. How else would you like to see the larger Iranian American Jewish community become more involved with HIAS?
Yes, we are elated that Dr. Sharon Nazarian joined our board in 2012. On the East Coast, Tali Farhadian Weinstein is also a very strong supporter. Author Roya Hakakian has spoken about the importance of HIAS’ work, and members of Thirty Years After have frequently advocated on HIAS’ behalf. Tonight, hundreds of Iranian Jews have demonstrated their support by showing up. However, given the extent of HIAS’ ongoing commitment to helping Iranian Jews, we hope that this support broadens and deepens for our fundraising and advocacy efforts. HIAS can’t do its work alone, and most members of the community have not interacted with HIAS after they finish paying their interest-free flight loans to travel to the United States as refugees. If every Iranian Jew whom HIAS helped gave HIAS just $18 per year, it would make a big difference, but we are not there yet. $180 from each Iranian Jew would make a tremendous difference in our work. I hope tonight’s event is a step in that direction.
For more information on HIAS visit their site here