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Hidden Faces

Faceless pictures and blurred faces are the focus of photos taken by three trainees of the ‘Omid-e Mehr’ charitable foundation, with the overall theme of ‘Image and Identity.’ Omid-e Mehr is based in Tehran and has been set up for girls from troubled backgrounds to empower them and teach them life skills.

Setareh, Marzieh and Niloofar, three trainees taking part in the Foundation’s photography workshop, decided to also participate in the ‘Image & Identity’ project this summer in Tehran, with photographs expressing their identity in symbols and images.

Setareh is a 17 year old girl who photographed her pregnant sister. She says, “My sister is afraid of becoming a mother. She doesn’t want her face to be seen in the photos. So I only photographed her body and her shadow. I was trying to show a mother’s identity and feelings towards her children, and fear of the future.”

Setareh, who is from Kabul, Afghanistan, adds that she also fears being a mother. She thinks photos of hidden faces stimulate the viewer’s curiosity to know more about the character behind them. Setareh adds, “Sometimes my family would try to stop me, but I proved to them that I loved photography. My dream now is to live in Canada and be a famous fashion designer.”

Niloofar also photographs faces, obscured by smoke from hookah pipes. Now 26, she says her first experience of smoking the hookah at 17 made her feel like an independent adult. She often still visits coffee shops with friends to smoke the hookah. Niloofar says, “It’s not normal for our women to smoke them in public. Coffee houses allow girls or women to smoke hookahs only if they are accompanied by men.” She thinks there should be no discrimination between men and women. So, she has taken pictures of both men and women smoking, but their faces obscured by smoke.

Marzieh is another Omid-e Mehr trainee who has participated in the photography workshop. To depict her own identity, she has photographed her younger sister's face from behind painted glass. She says: "My sister's life story is very similar to mine. So, I have placed her behind glass and have painted my dreams and aims onto the glass. Bright colours represent my hopes for the future, and dark colours belong to my past."

Marzieh is 22 years old and hopes to become a computer specialist and open a training school for girls who do not have financial support. The colourful paintings on the glass reflect these dreams. She becomes despondent when she compares herself with her peers who, she believes, are much more successful. She hopes that neither her family nor society will obstruct her efforts. Marzieh says: “Photography gives me an opportunity to express part of my thoughts. I used to count on my family to help me fulfil my goals, but now I have realised that the only person who can help me is myself.

The ‘Image and Identity’ workshop was held simultaneously in the summer by the Omid-e Mehr Foundation in Tehran and the Iranian Youth Development Association (IYDA) in London. IYDA was founded to support Iranian youth living in Britain, strengthening their ties with Iranian culture.

Sanaz Amidi, IYDA manager and project coordinator for this educational workshop says, “The children involved with IYDA are either second or third generation immigrants or from mixed Iranian and non-Iranian parents. Once a week they study Persian language and other skills. They have quite different circumstances from the girls of Omid-e Mehr in Tehran, yet there are some similarities as well. Both groups are at an age where they search for their identity, and often confront social, gender, economic, and cultural obstacles.

Amidi says that there are various reasons why the girls avoid showing their faces clearly in these photos: One is that they do not like to be recognised as trainees at Omid-e Mehr. Then, there are socio-cultural perceptions to deal with. Most important are identity issues, which they express through their self-portraits. They are from various ethnicities, and some are from Afghanistan with financial problems. She adds: “In this project, photography is used as an abstract tool by the young trainees from these two organisations to express their concept of their own identity.”

An exhibition of the photographs taken by the Omid-e Mehr girls will be held in Tehran and London*. In this multimedia report, we can see the photographs by Setareh, Marzieh and Niloofar, expressing their impressions of their identity and surroundings. They have been selected for publication on JadidOnline from amongst the photographs taken by trainees at the 'Image and Identity' project.

* The Silk Road Gallery, Tehran (16-21 September 2011).  

The Stephen Lawrence Gallery, London (24 October- 11 November 2011).

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