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 5, 2013 | 5:31 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.
January 31, 2013 | 5:00 am
Posted by Karmel Melamed
This past Friday, the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, with the help of a satellite TV channel based in Europe, covertly broadcast one of its Oscar-winning documentaries on the Holocaust into Iran. The 1980 film “Genocide,” which was originally narrated by Elizabeth Taylor and Orson Wells, aired with Persian language subtitles and was beamed into Iran with the help of “NTV Simay Azadi”, an Iranian opposition satellite station. The broadcasting of the documentary was indeed unique because it was not publicized in advance in order to prevent the Iranian regime from jamming its signal. Likewise the film’s broadcast into Iran coincided with International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27th.
The broadcasting of the film is indeed a serious blow to the Iranian regime’s leadership which has actively and openly been denying the Holocaust for nearly three decades. The ridiculous statements by Iran’s current president in denying the Holocaust have been joined with the regime giving awards to artists for their best Holocaust denial cartoons and with their promotion of neo-Nazi leaders from the U.S. and Europe through state-run news television news programs.
The Wiesenthal Center’s efforts to educate average Iranians living in Iran about the Holocaust are not unique. The center in the past has hosted Persian-language news media outlets and their representatives based in Los Angeles to the Museum of Tolerance. These news outlets which are opposed to the Iranian regime have been at the forefront of providing Persian language Holocaust educational programming that is also beamed into Iran on a daily basis. Additionally the Wiesenthal Center has provided Persian language fact sheets about the Holocaust on their website for Iranian readers online seeking more information about the Shoah. Yet the international community's effort to combat the Holocaust denial garbage spewed by Iran’s regime has not been limited to the Wiesenthal Center, likewise Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Musuem has also provided their own Persian language website about the facts of the Shoah and a Persian-language channel on Yotube.com
January 4, 2013 | 6:31 am
Posted by Karmel Melamed
This year I had the special honor of interviewing Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian Jewish activist and head of the Committee for Minority Rights in Iran based in Los Angeles after he was recognized by the Jewish Journal as a mensch. For nearly two decades he has volunteered his time and energy into exposing the human rights violations committed by the Iranian regime against Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Baha’is, and even Sunni Muslims living in Iran. He still volunteers nearly 20 hours per week for this worthy cause and has never sought the limelight. The following is a portion of my recent conversation with him:
In 2000 13 Jews living in the city of Shiraz in Iran were arrested on trumped up charges of spying for Israel and were facing imminent execution. Can you please shed light on why you decided to join a group of Iranian Jewish activists to go public with this case in the media?
We realized that the Iranian Jewish leadership outside of Iran’s traditional view of keeping the community silent regardless of the discrimination and executions facing Jews in Iran was wrong. We believed that silence would only encourage the persecutors because we knew what silence had done before during the holocaust to the Jews in the previous decades, so we wanted to break that cycle. We also believe that the Iranian regime needed international pressure in order to stop persecution of Iranian Jews and the Shiraz 13. We were fighting for the dignity of the Jews who did not speak out against their persecutions. Eventually the Iranian regime backed away from the espionage charges and the executions and the Shiraz 13 were released.
Why is it important to you to expose the anti-Semitism and discrimination of the Iranian regime against religious minorities in that country today?
A fanatic religious government has taken away our country, they have taken away our civil rights by demoting me and people I knew into second and third class citizens. By us not opposing the policies and practices of this regime in Iran we are only encouraging them and even allowing them to export the same policies abroad to the Iranian émigré communities. The world is now smaller than it used to be and fanatic ideas spread as much as other ideas. In order to save lives and the dignity of the religious minorities as whole in Iran we must continue to speak out against this regime in Iran. It’s more important for me to speak out because those people who have been assigned to lead the Iranian Jewish community as well as other religious communities have always refrained to speak out against the discriminations and the atrocities of the Iranian regime.
A 57 year old married Iranian Jewish woman was recently murdered in the Iranian city of Isfahan. Why do the approximately 10,000 to 20,000 Jews still continue to live in Iran today despite the potential threats they face from the regime?
First of all it is very difficult for more traditional people in Iran whether they are Jewish or non-Jewish to leave the country because it’s their homeland . It is also very difficult for elderly Jews to leave because they are sick or just set in their ways-- and a lot of Jews believe that they can just outlast the regime. After all, Jews have been living in the ‘Jewbareh’ or Jewish ghetto in Isfahan since the time of Cyrus the Great for more than 2,500 years and believe they can continue living there. The life value of a Jew, Christian or Zoroastrian, who are recognized second class dhimmis by Iranian Islamic laws, is worth 1/12 the life of a Muslim in blood money and they can receive this monetary payment from the family of the Muslim murderer. But non-recognized dhimmis or ‘infidels’ have no blood money retribution. A Muslim who murders an ‘infidel’, such as a person who is a Communist or from the Bahai faith has no blood money. So the Muslim murderer can get away with the crime by simply stating to the court that the victim ‘deserved to be killed’ since he was an infidel according to the Islamic laws of the land.