Maryam Ashrafi is an Iranian living in exile in Paris. She left behind a country rife with human rights and ethnic struggles to journey to different parts of the world and photograph the stories of people living in crises.
Ashrafi's portfolio spans Iran, Iraq, Turkey and protests in Paris. Her latest project took her to Iraqi Kurdistan to document the stories of female Kurdish peshmerga (armed fighters) in their training camps. The following is an interview conducted by Global Voices with Ashrafi about her photojournalism, with a selection of 13 photos she chose to share as she explained her work.
Global Voices (GV): Can you still travel back to Iran? If not, please explain what the situation is for a political photographer like you.
Maryam Ashrafi (MA): Following my recent projects, I have found it quite unsafe to travel back to Iran. As hard as it was for me, a while ago I made the decision to fully dedicate myself to stories I believe are worth telling and events that are needed to be captured. These projects never factored in the effect on my chances of travelling back to Iran, and these stories sometimes involve people fighting or demonstrating for human rights and issues that are not acceptable by the Iranian authorities. My last trip to Iran was during the last year of Mr. [Mohammad] Khatami's presidency [in 2005]. At that time I began to follow the stories of Afghan refugees and their lives in Iran. This was a project which was nipped in the bud when I was arrested visiting some Afghan families, which is why I have no photos to show from that project. When they realised I am a photojournalist living outside Iran, they automatically charged me with espionage and it took me a month of back and forth to the courts to prove my intention. That is when I decided to work with an NGO (named Persepolis) which helps drug addicts overcome their addictions.
Also my other projects in Paris (especially those dealing with Iran’s Green Movement) and Kurdistan have made it harder for me to go back. There are many photojournalists living in Iran who are bravely capturing social and political issues still, but that is of course possible only to some extent, and with serious limitations. The best example of this can be the great amount of images and footage captured during the Green Movement in Iran by both professionals and amateurs, namely citizen journalists. This placed many lives in danger, leading some to flee Iran while others were arrested. This shows the incredible power of photography, and the threat those in power feel by it.
GV: According to a France 24 report, you participated in protests against the Iranian embassy and their diplomats in Paris in 2010. Do you believe there's anything exiled Iranians can do to improve the situation for human rights inside the country?
MA: I was partaking in the protests in Paris as more of a photographer. And yes, I do believe the role of those living outside Iran is really important. At some level, we in the diaspora are a great support to those inside Iran, but more than that, we can send a message to the world and show them what is befalling Iranians, and what people are struggling with and fighting for. Sometimes issues related to human rights cannot freely be spoken about inside Iran. This becomes the responsibility of those who are living outside Iran. This is perhaps the best way the world can understand the Iranian government and people are two different things. The system in Iran doesn’t represent the nation as a whole.
GV: Can you tell me how you came upon the topic of female Kurdish peshmerga?
MA: The stories of Kurdish people is not new. Throughout history they've endured calamities and injustice, and that goes beyond the Kurds of Iran, but in Syria, Turkey and Iraq too. What drew me to this subject was the role of women within Kurdish parties, where they fight shoulder to shoulder with men.
Their battle, I believe, is even harder compared to their male counterparts, as they are not only fighting for their basic rights as Kurds, but also as women in rather male-dominated societies. My interest in their story came in two layers. First to know their role and part in political parties like the Komala [an Iranian communist political party] or PJAK [Party of Free Life of Kurdistan], and on the other hand to learn more about societies which push them out and make them join such groups. I wanted to learn more about their intentions, the problems they face, not only politically but also culturally, problems such as early age marriage, domestic violence, female circumcision, right to education and so forth.
GV: You captured some intimate photos of these women. How were you able to gain their trust and get their permission to photograph them? And how long were you with them?
MA: I've made 4 trips to Iraqi Kurdistan between late 2012 and 2014, spending about two weeks each time with these women. During my last trip in June 2014 I met the Kurdish female Peshmergas of the 2nd Battalion who are the only female official branch of the Kurdish National Army.
As a female journalist, I was able to join them in their private moments, and gain their trust to share their stories. As they told me several times, we all fight for women and human rights. While their weapon was their guns, mine was my camera, so they said.
We connected with each other on that level. It was important for me to share only what they were comfortable to share given their conditions, duties and commitments. I believe their role and problems have largely been missing from news headlines and sometimes lost in everyday news. Having said that, I dedicated myself to a long term and in depth reportage of their lives.
GV: What sense did the women give about the dangers of life on the battlefield?
MA: These women saw their role in the Peshmerga as a way to assert their equality with men in society in general. For them fighting is not only with a gun. Part of their responsibilities lie in informing their societies about the rights of women. They work with the media through their television and radio programs to inform women about their rights as women. During the time I spent with them, these women were preparing to defend their lands from the Iranian regime and fight for Kurdish people's rights in Iran. On the other level, the Kurdish female Peshmergas of the 2nd Battalion were also ready to defend Kurdistan against ISIS, side by side with men who are fighting on the front lines these days.
GV: Do you struggle with what photographers often face when capturing individuals in crisis — that it is exploiting or victimizing subjects in condescending ways?
MA: I believe that is the case for many photographers, and I should admit there have been instances where I questioned whether or not photographing certain moments are appropriate. These moments are when I have to remind myself why I’m there in the first place, and why it’s important for those lives and situations to be captured. Of course if I know my physical help and reaction is more appropriate or needed, that's when I put down my camera to help.
The moment that comes to mind is when I started watching two Syrian girls from a distance. The older girl was trying to make a shelter for her little sister. At some point she gave up and when I approached them she was curious, presuming as a grown-up I could help her. My intention was to show their condition in the Arbat refugee camp, but then I thought to myself what is more important to them at this very moment? Me staring at them with my camera or joining them during their game? I joined them.
GV: What kind of impact do you hope your work to have on the subject matter you cover? Is there a particular project you have worked on that has affected you the most?
MA: I believe that photographs are capable of creating awareness for events and situations afar, and help towards social change as the problems of each society are illustrated. For example we can no longer stay ignorant and pretend we don't know what effect the Syrian conflict has on it's people. The photos I took of Syrian refugees in Turkey and Kurdistan were meant to demonstrate this.
Out of the 600,000 Syrians who have fled the unrest in their country and have taken refuge in Turkey, 100,000 went to İstanbul and are living in places with poor, unsanitary or dangerous conditions. Although some of the Syrian refugees have been sent to the camps in different parts of Turkey, many still prefer to live in big cities, in the hope of finding work and better conditions for their families. The future of their children is uncertain and fragile. Similar conditions intensified for Iraqis with the invasions of ISIS.
By being a witness and sharing my photos from these situations I hope to make people think deeper and take action, while questioning what’s missing within mainstream media.