An Artistic Glimpse Into Exiled Iranians’ Nostalgia for the Homeland


Saman Aghvami's “I'm Not There” is a featured photographic exhibition during Toronto's Contact Photography Festival. 

Many Iranians living in the diaspora are faced with nostalgia for a home country that they cannot return to because of the threat of persecution. Recent comments by moderate President Hassan Rouhani suggest that he believes Iranians abroad should be allowed back without fear of punishment, but returning still remains a risk for many. So they are left with reminiscing about their homeland from afar.

Iranian-Canadian photographer Saman Aghvami attempted to capture that feeling in a photo exhibit called “I'm Not There” for Toronto's Contact Photography Festival.

“I asked, ‘Where would you go if you had two hours to spend in Iran?’ These pictures were their answers,” Aghvami said in an interview with Global Voices.

Aghvami, who worked as a photojournalist for the Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA) prior to moving to Canada, photographed Iranians in their current homes and projected images of different places that evoke feelings of nostalgia for the subjects, who included activists, artists, minorities, journalists and dissidents. Aghvami was drawn to the subject of exile and nostalgia for a home out of reach because of his own experience as an Iranian living in Canada. 

Hand written notes by each of the subjects were included to explain the places in Iran they were nostalgic for. Photo by Semco Salehi.

Handwritten notes by each of the subjects were included to explain the places in Iran they were nostalgic for. Photo by Semco Salehi. Used with permission.

One photo, entitled “Rouzbeh: Filmmaker,” captures its subject reminiscing about the Tehran Bazaar. “He said to him the bazaar has always been a metaphor for this world, and life,” explained Aghvami, who included handwritten notes by each of his subjects to explain their choices. 

The right of Iranians living in exile to return has become a salient discussion ever since President Rouhani asked Iran's Intelligence and Foreign Ministries to allow the return of Iranians living abroad. In response, Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister for Consular, Parliamentary, and Iranian Expatriate Affairs Hassan Qashqavi urged those living outside Iran to email the Foreign Ministry and inquire about their travel status at

Iran's Prosecutor General Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejehi, however, has made statements that evoke little confidence in Iranians living abroad. In a press conference in July of 2013, he stated that everyone is allowed to return to Iran, but not everyone is allowed to leave the country. In a May 12 report by Shargh newspaper, it was revealed that many of the inquiries sent to the Foreign Ministry have yet to be answered:

Furthermore, cases such as former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati's continued incarceration have instilled very little hope amongst some looking to go back safely. 

On May 11, Iranian-American journalist Negar Mortazavi posted a tweet regarding the right to return of Iranians, addressed to the Twitter account associated with President Rouhani's office. The post caused a stir when Rouhani's account retweeted it. This led many to comment that the concept of the right to return for Iranians who fear persecution is a policy Rouhani agrees with, but has yet to implement within the country. 

“I'm Not There” runs from May 1-24 in Toronto at the I.M.A. Gallery.  


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