Political sociologist Randy Goodman made her first trip to Iran in 1980. She was part of a delegation of Americans who traveled to Iran to meet with the Iranian college students belonging to the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line, who ultimately occupied the US Embassy in Tehran for 444 days, holding 52 Americans hostage during that time, in a gesture of support for the Iranian Revolution. Falling somewhat inadvertently into the role of photographer on the trip, Goodman found photojournalism to be an ideal merging of her interests in politics and documentary work. Following her initial trip, Goodman returned to Iran multiple times in the ’80s, and on these visits, as well as on a recent trip in 2015 — following a three-decade hiatus from international work — her focus shifted to the women she encountered in Iran. In June, the Bronx Museum of the Arts mounted Iran: Women Only, a photo exhibition that juxtaposes Goodman’s work from almost 40 years ago with photos from today. Goodman graced Hyperallergic with an email interview on the subject of her time in Iran and her own shift in perception of herself as an artist.
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Sarah Rose Sharp: I see you referred to variously as an artist and a photojournalist, and I wonder if you can unpack the distinction between making art and making journalistic work. How do you identify, at this point?
Randy Goodman: Thank you for asking this question, as I have most recently contemplated whether I, as a photojournalist, am also an artist. For nearly four decades, because of the journalistic nature of my work, I have exclusively referred to myself as a photojournalist — someone who takes, edits, and publishes photographs to tell news stories.
SRS: Is it contingent on venue — i.e. the same photograph is journalism if published in a newspaper, but art when presented at the Bronx Museum?
RG: The question of whether I am an artist, too, arose only recently as I started displaying my photographs in various venues including galleries, university exhibitions spaces, institutes, and currently, the Bronx Museum of the Arts. At first I was confused about whether the noun applied. Hearing people refer to me as “the artist” was new and also limited to the settings mentioned above. However, giving it more thought, perhaps photojournalists are a specific type of artist who by definition use a medium (the camera, and either film or a digital capture method) to create an image and selectively include or exclude news-related elements in each frame. As witnesses, we use reality in front of our lens, instead of our imagination, to compose photographs. Therefore if an image is considered art, shouldn’t we consider photojournalists as engaging in an artistic endeavor?
SRS: How did you initially become engaged with taking images in Iran, in 1981? Was it your graduate studies that drew you to that work? Was it your intention to be a photographer?
RG: I had recently finished my master’s degree in political sociology (where my focus had been political change in Latin America) and was teaching at a university when journalist William Worthy Jr., whom I knew from my studies at Boston University, asked me to be a part of a small media contingent traveling with a delegation of Americans who traveled to Iran in February of 1980 to meet with the Iranian students occupying the US Embassy and holding 52 Americans hostage. Invited by the students themselves, this diverse, grassroots delegation defied US State Department warnings and traveled to Iran to learn firsthand the reasons for the takeover and what, if anything, could be done to resolve the crisis.
SRS: Does your background in political sociology provide the framework for those subjects you engage with as an artist or a journalist?
RG: As an undergraduate, I had briefly studied journalism but was drawn more so to documentary film. Stepping into the role of photographer during that 10-day trip to Iran helped me realize that photojournalism was the perfect merger of my interest in politics and news and my passion for documentary work.
SRS: I imagine you think quite a bit about the political act of photo documentation in itself. What does it mean to be documenting women, specifically? Are there situations that have raised ethical questions for you about your role as an artist or journalist, or as a woman? How do you develop relationships over time, or in real time, with people living in conditions of war?
RG: Iran is a very complex society. At the beginning of my work, I was driven by the need to use my photographs to bring better understanding to American audiences about what caused the breakdown in relations between these former allies that lead to the hostage crisis. During subsequent trips, I struggled to understand a country undergoing dramatic institutional change based on Ayatollah Khomeini’s interpretation of an Islamic Republic. Occasionally I needed to push back against ideas or expectations Iranians — particularly in government — had about me as a female photojournalist. Often, I felt their reasons were based more on a perceived need to protect me rather than to restrict me. On one occasion, when they initially forbade me to travel with a UN delegation to the war zone, it took nothing more than an explanation of why such a request was important to my work for the decision to be reversed.
SRS: Have you thought about the role your images play in shaping Western thought about the Middle East?
RG: I can comfortably say that from conversations with students, professors, Iranians, women from other Middle Eastern and South East Asian countries, and other visitors to my exhibits, that my photographs challenge stereotypes of Iranian women and Iran today. People voiced their appreciation for my photographs that show Iranian women at work, shopping, talking with friends, driving, and in other words, living their lives. Both men and women were surprised that many women wear make-up, dye their hair, position their headscarves at back of their heads and aren’t dressed in black chadors or a burqa.
SRS: This exhibition is dealing with a subset of your work in Iran over the last 40 years. I assume you have not exclusively photographed Iran as a subject, or has it always been your focus?
RG: My Iran work began shortly after the November 4, 1979 Embassy takeover and I returned in 1981 (for CBS-TV News for two months) and again in 1983 for four months (Time). During those periods, I was actively photographing life in the nascent Islamic Republic of Iran. I covered press events, political demonstrations, religious gatherings, Friday prayer, visits to a political trial, political leaders and visiting dignitaries, toured the Iran-Iraq war zone, refugee camps, classrooms, and also gained access for portraits of religious and political leaders. I have an extensive collection of images, some of which have been published and exhibited, but the vast majority have not. During that period, William Worthy Jr and I (and Terri Taylor, in 1981) covered Iran because we alone could get visas, while American networks, freelancers, and other journalists had their visas revoked. In the 1980s, to expand my photojournalistic experience, as a freelancer, I went to Nicaragua in 1981. In 1987, Worthy and I travelled to Grenada, Barbados and Trinidad for an investigative story on the assassination of former Grenadian President Maurice Bishop. In 1990, Cuba was my last foreign trip before turning my attention away from foreign assignments.
SRS: How have you seen it change in that time?
RG: In 2015, during the discussions leading up to the Iran Nuclear Agreement. I revisited Iran after a 35-year absence. As this was the first genuine period of rapprochement between these two former allies, I thought it an excellent time to see and photograph changes in Iran and also to hopefully find some of the people photographed decades before. What emerged was a country that on the surface resembled a modern European city with a relatively new underground transit system, high-end shopping malls, extensive construction of new buildings and condominiums, new hotels with foreign investments, the omni-presence of cell phones and satellite dishes on residential buildings, horrific traffic and associated pollution. The cuisine was still one of the best I’ve ever had and the Iranian people were kind, helpful, and friendly to me, one of the few Western photojournalists (or journalist) they encountered. Admittedly my 10-day trip was too short for undertaking an in-depth project.
SRS: Do you think, after all the work you’ve done there, your work has shaped some part of Iran’s narrative?
RG: Up until my Bronx Museum of the Arts show, my photographs had mostly been exhibited at universities closer to home including Harvard, M.I.T., and Boston University. For the people who viewed my work or heard my lectures, I believe I helped shape a different narrative about Iran, providing a broader historic and sociocultural perspective.
SRS: The press release I received presented a dichotomy between the images you capture of women, in a war-torn landscape “created by men.” Do you think war is gender specific? Why is it important to turn our gaze toward the women of Iran?
RG: From my experiences during the Iran-Iraq war, I saw a gender divide between men who participated in war, and women who supported the war effort. I photographed female nurses in the war-torn city of Ahwaz and women in Tehran who donated gold jewelry as they entered Friday Prayer services. Female Revolutionary Guards were responsible for security checks of women only at government buildings, and stood guard at the outdoor prayer service in the event of an external (Iraqi missile) or internal (opposition group) threat.
SRS: Have you seen a significant shift in gender politics over the 40 years you’ve covered Iran?
RG: I will again say that Iranian society is very complex, one where generalizations can be misleading. To truly understand Iranian society today, one needs to take into consideration culture, history, class, religion, and politics. Therefore I hesitate to say anything conclusive about Iranian women as I believe it requires extensive scholarly data gathering and research. (Obviously an unachievable goal for a 10-day visit.) I can however say that like my earlier description of today’s Iran, the influx and influence of Western culture and fashion, along with an increased awareness of gender politics, has influenced many Iranian women’s perception of themselves, their goals, their rights as women and their practice. In addition, as 60% of the university students are women, higher education has empowered many women. Resistance to the imposition of having to wear a hijab (a head covering) is an ongoing pushback among some women who want the right to decide, not only what they wear in public, but more importantly, the right to a more egalitarian society.
Iran: Women Only continues at the Bronx Museum of the Arts (1040 Grand Concourse, Concourse, the Bronx) through September 23. It will travel next to the Porter Fine Arts Building’s East and West Galleries at Wesleyan College (Macon, Georgia) on October 16.