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.