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Form x Content – Artist Hoda Afshar and Curator Nur Shkembi In Conversation

Wednesday 25 August 2021, 1pm

Nur Shkembi:

We are here today taking part in the Form x Content series for Monash University. I'd like to begin by acknowledging the Wurundjeri, Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nations as the traditional custodians of the lands and waterways where I live and work. I'd like to pay my respects to their Elders past, present, and emerging. I'd also like to acknowledge that sovereignty has never been ceded. My name is Nur Shkembi, and I am sitting in my dining room, I have brown eyes, pale-ish skin, and I'm wearing a smokey-coloured grey veil. Hoda.

Hoda Afshar:

Thank you Nur. Hi, my name is Hoda Afshar, and I'm sitting here in my study room with a black shirt on and with light brown skin, speaking to you today.

Nur Shkembi:

Hoda, I'd just like to share with everybody your amazing bio. Hoda Afshar was born in Turan, Iran, in 1983, and is now based in Naarm/Melbourne, Australia. She completed a Bachelor degree in Fine Art Photography in Turan, and a PhD thesis in Creative Arts at Curtin University. Hoda began her career as a documentary photographer in Iran in 2005. Since 2007, she has been living in Australia, where she practices as a visual artist, and also lectures in Photography and Fine Art. Hoda is represented by Milani Gallery in Brisbane, Australia. Through her art practice, Hoda explores the nature and possibilities of documentary image-making, working across photography and moving image. She considers the representation of gender, marginality, and displacement.

In her work, she employs processes that disrupt traditional image-making practices, play with the presentation of imagery, or merge aspects of conceptual stage and documentary photography. Hoda's work has been widely exhibited both locally and internationally, and is also published online and in print. She's also part of numerous private and public collections, including the National Gallery of Victoria, UQ Art Museum, MUMA Collection, Murdoch University Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia, and Monash Gallery of Art. Throughout her career, Hoda has been shortlisted for many prestigious art awards. In 2015, she won Australia's National Photographic Portrait Prize, and in 2018, won the Bowness Photography Prize.

She was also selected as one of the top eight young Australian artists to exhibit at Primavera 2018 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. Hoda is a member of 'eleven', a new collective of contemporary Muslim Australian artists, curators, and writers, whose aim is to disrupt the current politics of representation and hegemonic discourses. Welcome, Hoda. It's great to be in conversation with you this morning. I want to just speak about your rich body of work, which includes some pretty impressive accolades and prizes. There are so many things that we could discuss in relation to your practice, but I'd love to start with the themes and processes, and how that has developed for you over the past decade since your first body of work, 'The Scene' in your birthplace in Iran, and then if you could please share with us the shift in focus since arriving here in Australia.

Hoda Afshar:

Thank you so much, Nur thanks for that thorough introduction and your kind words. I really appreciate it. My photography practice started, as you said, in Iran, when I got into Art University and started majoring in Photography, basically, Fine Art Photography. My main interests back then was in theatre. My first choice to go to uni, the first major I chose was studying theatre, but I didn't get into theatre, and photography was my second choice. Somehow unconsciously, you can see through all the works that I was making then, and still now, this theatricality and the stage-ness of the images I make has been always part of it from the beginning.

The series you were talking about, 'The Scene', is one of the first major works that I made, the long-form work that I made in Iran. It was back then when I started documenting the circle of my friends in secret gatherings and parties that we had then, and because after the Islamic revolution, which is when I was born around that same time, gatherings as such were banned, and the national TV and all the images that were coming out of Iran were very much controlled in terms of what is the new Iranian Islamic identity. It was mostly propaganda TV that was only showing the images of the war between Iran and Iraq, and also introducing a new idea of Iranian-ness which was quite homogenous.

As young kids, we were secretly doing whatever we wanted to do inside the houses, and it was like having a party and gathering then was a rebellious act. I became really interested from the beginning of my image-making in documenting what was hidden. Part of our reality was remaining unspoken. I knew then that the images I was making were not allowed to be shared, but I was interested in documenting it as part of my own personal history. But immediately, from that early moments when I took the camera into the gatherings and parties, I realised that people are so conscious of its presence. The camera is often in places as such considered as a weapon, right? It's revealing something that is meant to be a secret.

So, I only talked to the friends that I knew, and I said, "This is what I'm doing," and they were all willing to collaborate. But as soon as the camera was there, people were acting for the camera. Like, "How about I sit here? How about I do this? How about I do that?" So, this idea of staging or just collaborating with the subject in making the images was something that I immediately picked up on, because my training in my major in photography was documentary. I was very much interested in that, to a point that I wanted to become a war photographer. But our training, traditional training in documentary image-making, is that your approach to the subject matter has to remain objective to get closer to the truth.

You remain or eliminate the image-maker, which I believe is impossible, but that's what you're told, you're trained to do. This idea of hiding the camera, it's like click and run. It's like hit and run. You know? It's like you're stealing something from someone, part of the story without them noticing, because it's believed that if the camera is invisible and people are not aware of the image being taken in scenarios as such, you are more likely to capture something that is closer to the truth. I was not comfortable with that, because I knew that what I was doing was something dangerous, you know? So, I wanted my friends to know, and I wanted them to be part of that rebellious act in some ways.

These ideas immediately shaped then, but when I was presenting the work to the class, I was lying about it. I was in fact cheating, saying that no one knows that I'm taking pictures or whatever, you know? Because I knew that if I tell them that these are staged, then probably it won't be accepted as a documentary image. Maybe I should show you some images of the works on my website here. This is, yeah, between 2004 and '05 I was making these pictures. To me, they were closer to the reality of our gatherings, because these were friends saying that, "Hey, how about I do this? How about I roll a cigarette or joint?" You know? It was just something that was not far away from the reality, but it was performing a story for the camera.

Nur Shkembi:

Do you think that makes it any less true?

Hoda Afshar:

No. That was the thing. To me, it was closer to our truth when they were actively part of the process of image-making. But to be honest, then I didn't know why I'm doing that. You know? I was doing it intuitively. The reason why it's important to my practice today is that in fact what I'm doing now is not that different from what I was doing then. The only difference is that I'm very much aware of the process and why that process is working for me and what it means to me today. It's interesting, because quite recently, I started scanning all my old films from the university years and after, and I'm finding it very fascinating, because there were assignments for each semester at the university, which speaks a lot to this idea of education and image-making, something that we will talk about later on today, hopefully, this idea that everything we know about image-making has to be unlearned, in a way, to be able to de-colonise or dismantle those hierarchal structures that exist in that process.

For example, every assignment is about, for example, I had assignments about photographing homeless people. When I was looking through all my old negatives, I found a few sheets of negatives that I actually asked a guy, a homeless guy who was living on the same street as us, and I went to him and I said, "Hey, can I spend a day with you and just follow you around, and you do whatever you want to do for the camera?" So, he's actually wearing sunglasses and acting like a superstar. That was my response to photographing homeless people, which was... I found it really difficult to walk on the streets and take photos of homeless people, and I wanted to reverse that dynamic, in a way.

Again, my assignment was not accepted in the classroom, because the teacher refused to accept it, because he was like, "This is not a homeless person." I was like, "He is, but he's having fun with me and the camera. We spent a fun day together." So, yeah, this was part of my process from very early stages, but now I'm realising it in a different light.

Nur Shkembi:

So, this sense of collaboration is really strong in your practice, and is really important in the storytelling that you do. More recently, your work 'Remain', it's had a lot of attention, it's an incredible work. Can you speak to us about that idea of collaboration, and also what drives you to essentially put yourself in a pretty dangerous situation? You traveled out to Manus Island, which is kind of a place where we're not supposed to be going, we're not supposed to be looking in, we're not supposed to be bringing back these stories. It's such a highly charged political space in terms of how the government has been suppressing what comes out of places like Manus Island, suppressing the voices of refugees who have essentially, rightfully, they're seeking asylum, and now they're illegally detained. It's really quite a, I guess, sensitive or potent, even, both of those things, topic for a lot of Australians. Can you speak to a) that journey out to Manus, and then the incredible collaboration, again, this idea of collaboration and truth-making, even with staged images?

Hoda Afshar:

Yeah. Sure. It's interesting you pick the first project to talk about was 'Scene', and then there's probably 14 years gap from there to the moment that I went to Manus Island, and my life changed a lot since that project. I migrated to Australia in 2007, and in fact, it took me awhile, like four, five years to find my place here as a migrant, the crisis of identity. Especially when you migrate from a non-Western culture into the West, it shatters your entire idea of your own self and identity and culture and everything. So, it takes some time to adjust, and then start thinking about, again, image-making and what you want to do with the artistic thinking and practices you developed in a completely different context.

It took me awhile. I thought I would never be able to make pictures again. But then my approach to image-making completely shifted here for a long time. But then in 2016 and '17, I started returning to the same processes that I was using in the project 'Scene' that we just looked at, which was staging realities and making documentary work. I'd call it documentary, but for most documentary or photo journalists, documentary photographers and image-makers, they're not accepted as documentary work. 'Remain' was made in the same light, but it grew out of my longer-term research that I was doing on the idea of understanding the notion of marginality and the hierarchies that exist between the West and the rest, and post-colonial theory, which was a big part of my research for my PhD, and the idea of the figure refugee was always the ultimate marginal for me.

I was always curious to make work about it, because I make work about things that I want to understand better. I don't make work about issues that I know or have a clear idea of. Making work for me is a process of getting closer and looking closer at that issue through the lens of the camera, and studying it deeply, and engage with the matter physically, emotionally, mentally, and, and then whatever the outcome is, I'd like to share it as the artwork with the public. With the refugee crisis that was happening at the time on Manus Island and Naru, it was a concern for most of us, and it was growing bigger and bigger. At some point, when I saw at the end of 2017 that the Australian government closed the detention centre on Manus after four years and forced the refugees to move to the new facilities, and the idea was that they're going to remain there, and they were forced into the community and told that you're going to remain here indefinitely.

There was a shock in the group of the men who were remaining on Manus Island, and the idea of a future and life and freedom and all of that just disappeared in front of their eyes. Back then, Behrouz Boochani was writing excessively from Manus Island to the world to describe what's happening. So, at that point, I felt like I need to do something about this. Because my background is... my father is Kurdish and Behrouz is a Kurdish man too, and also I could see him as struggling with English and language to communicate, and I thought, I can connect with him and collaborate with him on something, and see if I can use my small platform to share part of their stories and to be part of that process of resistance.

Yeah, at that point, Behrouz and I started talking, and I told him that I want to come over. He said, "They won't let you in, but I was also waiting for an artist to come to Manus, so let's spend time together, I educate you about the history of the island and what's been happening here, and then we will decide what to do from there." We spent months exchanging WhatsApp voice messages, and he literally sent me every single writing and document and news article about Manus and Naru at the time, and even chapters of his book before it was published. At some point he was like, "I think you're ready. You can come here now." So, I had to smuggle my way into Manus, like go to Port Moresby and pretend that I'm a tourist there and then get a Visa to go to Papua New Guinea, and then from there, get on a flight and go to Manus Island.

We planned the whole trip with Behrouz Boochani prior to going there, because he told me... Maybe I can show you some images from the back-stage of the process of making the work. We knew that I had very short amount of time to spend there to make the work, so we planned for six refugees to get out of the camp every day to come with us to neighbouring island, because we were monitored on Manus Island on everything we were doing. A couple of locals helped us. One of them, his name is Robin, he was picking us up. He's a fisherman who lives on a small island near Manus with his family. He was picking us up every day with his boat, taking us to his island. Him and his whole family helped me to set up a small studio on their island. I took a piece of black cloth with me, and they digged up holes and set up poles. This is Robin here. In less than half an hour, they built me a small studio in the island. You can see bits and pieces of the video here.

This was the first group of refugees that came to Robin's island with me. This is Behrouz Boochani and his team, the team of directors. We were kind of working together. This is the man we were getting on the boat together. The idea of collaboration was very important to me, because often, the images of the refugees are portrayed as passive, and they are imaged as victims. Always, the images are identical. They are denied agency and autonomy and all of that. So, it was really important for me to use processes that they are again active in the process of making the image, and they bring something of their own narrative into it.

I'm going to show you an example, because I told them then at the beginning, before getting into shooting the pictures, we were making food together, and fire, we were just sitting around the fire talking about their stories, sharing parts of my story with them as well, and getting to know each other. Then I was explaining to them the processes I needed to use for making the images. I said, "Let's pick something from nature that represents your story and feeling best." I explained to them what metaphor means. We were buying fish from the market to bring into the pictures, whatever we could get access to, because there was nothing else around us. So, everyone started, as soon as they understood the process, they started choosing different elements.

For example, Emad said, "I want the water because water represents the journey for me, and it also reminds me of my mum when I was a kid and she used to wash me." Everyone was getting involved in the process of making. We wanted to use methods that makes each a story different from the other. I had a big audience, as you can see, in the background. For example, the result of that image at the end was that process, we shot it in all different ways, and then this was the final image that I picked. Or, for example, with Emad, he was a Kurdish stateless man, Iraqi Kurdish stateless man, and he picked this soil and the sand, and he said it represents the land to us, and the land is taken away from us, and it's the most precious idea in Kurdish culture. We used different ways of bringing the sand or the soil into the picture, and the heaviness of that loss on his burden was something that we were aiming for.

With Behrouz, he picked fire. For example, there was a whole team of people in the background helping to make this image. There were someone holding a piece of wood with a cloth on top of it to put it on fire, someone was making air for the smoke to move, someone was holding the backdrop, and someone was holding the reflector. Everyone was really involved in the process. It was like the theatricality of that whole process was quite amazing to me. We wanted to make it very unique to each individual that represents their stories and feelings as a way of breaking that typical image of a refugee. I also made a video work in there that I wanted to make the video very different in process from... let me just go in the 'Remain' video. I wanted to make it different in terms of imagery from the portraits, because there were aspects of these stories that were really important to come into the work, but that's something that I couldn't do with photography. The narratives that they were sharing with me were quite shocking.

I also wanted to show the situation, the idea of nature as prison. Most people in Australia were saying that they're free in the island, why are they complaining? But when you get there, when there's no future, there's no job. This idea of constantly walking through this landscape, there's nothing there, the cycle of boredom and repetition. The island was the most beautiful place I've ever seen, but the beauty of it as opposed to the trauma of the refugees was the most disturbing experience I ever had. I wanted to bring that into the work. The coexistence of that beauty and violence was something that I experienced and was part of the true reality, and I wanted that to come into the work.

So, yes, you hear the work is about the death of their friends, the people who died on Manus Island due to medical negligence, or murder by the guards, or suicide, and so on, and their own fear of dying in the island too, and the lack of hope for their freedom. The video is a two-channel video installation, and the two screens respond to each other in terms of narrative. Yeah, it's very much staged and performed by the men who you see in the photographs as well.

Nur Shkembi:

How were you able to share this content back to the men that collaborated with you, and what were their responses when they actually saw their own images presented back to them? Also, I believe there's a poem that's sung as well with this video. Can you tell us a little bit about the personal responses to your work?

Hoda Afshar:

I was and still am in touch with all the men that were in the project, more or less. Luckily, they're finally free, all of them. The majority were released only last year. In the process of making the work, it was really hard to share everything with them on Manus, because the internet was very slow, and I could only record from the screen bits and pieces that each and every one of them were in and send it to them through WhatsApp. They were looking at it and they were like... the process was long, and Behrouz Boochani was very much involved in the whole process as well. When I returned, there were gaps of narratives that we needed to fill, so I was sending them the different footage that they were in and asked them to... the voiceover that you hear, in most cases, is something that they recorded after in response to their own image and recorded it on their mobile phones and sent it back to me.

So, they were also involved in the process of editing, and with their photographs, they really loved it. Some of them made it their Facebook profile pictures. Yes, it was very much collaborated, even after I returned. The way that I see it is... With every work, I can't make work about these social political issues that I do not have that strong personal and historical connection to. I can't go to the places of conflict and make work. It's often like a very long process of research, and the people that I've worked with become part of my own history and life as well. I always say life is more important than art-making, and the work that we make is about life. It's not just working with people as subjects, it's that you share part of your experience and life and trauma or moments of happiness that we also shared on Manus together, and they become part of your life and you become part of theirs.

Nur Shkembi:

Just for young photographers out there that might be looking to your practice and also experiencing that really innate desire to tell stories that are authentic and meaningful to their own experiences, and in sharing difficult stories about and with other human beings, essentially, how did you process the emotional and physical and mental density of creating a work like 'Remain'? Because obviously you're describing this as something as being immersed in your life now, and something that is deeply important to you personally. How do you deal with that? What type of processes did you go through personally to maintain this element of your practice, which is really so important for all of us, because it does become a document, and I would say a true document of a period of time in history. How do you maintain that as a professional? Because it is so personal.

Hoda Afshar:

Yes. I guess it's something that only in the last couple of years I started looking into quite seriously. As an advice to young practitioners who are interested in engaging with social political issues as such, I think self-care is really important, because I wasn't thinking about that at all when I was making the work, and it only hit me later, especially in the last year during the pandemic after making the work, that after 'Remain', which was engaged again with a lot of trauma and difficult themes, at some point, I felt that it really hit me. Because in some ways you live and breathe when you're making that work, and when you present it constantly and talk about it, it becomes... the way that I describe it is that your body becomes like a museum that preserves and archives other people's trauma, as well as your own, you know?

It's quite important to be conscious of that and do the care that you need for yourself and take time off and process it. But also, for me, processes like meditation really help to be able to understand the thoughts and separate them. But in general, I think, yeah, it's really difficult. It takes a lot out of you, making work like that. When you especially become engaged with the subject to that personal level, it becomes part of your own narrative as well.

Nur Shkembi:

You, again, after 'Remain', went into another fairly heavy subject matter with your work for PHOTO 2021, which was 'Agonistes'. Again, we see you here using your art as a vehicle for truth-telling, as a form of protest and intervention. Can you tell us a little bit about how 'Agonistes' came about, and also your engagement with the subjects? So, the people that you're working closely with, was both intellectual and also, in terms of production, slightly experimental. Can you speak to those two points for this particular work?

Hoda Afshar:

Sure. Maybe I should show some images from Agonistes so people can see what we're talking about. I apologise for my messy...

Nur Shkembi:

It's fine. We get to have a little sneak peek of all your amazing work.

Hoda Afshar:

Thanks. These are the portraits that we're talking about, but again, I see 'Agonistes' as a mirror image of 'Remain', the previous project that we looked at. These are the portraits of the whistleblowers, Australian whistleblowers who are former employees of the Australian government in different areas, such as the military, intelligence services, disability sector, youth detention, immigration, and so on, people who spoke out about the government's wrongdoing or the corruption within the system, and they lost their jobs and they were threatened by two years jail-time, in some cases, lifetime imprisonment.

This project grew out of the other project as well, when I was on Manus Island. One of the men who I worked with, I asked him if there were any of the Australian employees on Manus or Naru, he tried to confront the system about the conditions of the camps or the atrocities that they were seeing and the treatment of the refugees, they said at the beginning there were many, and all the people who cared, they were immediately dismissed and threatened with jail time and they lost their jobs, they were sent back to Australia, and they couldn't come back. Anyone who complained about the situation, which this guy that you're seeing the portrait of, he was a prison guard, worked in prisons for 30 years, and at some point, he's sent to Manus Island at the beginning of the opening of the camps in 2013, and he was one of the first people who complained and said, "This is even worse than any prison I've worked in before, and you can't treat people like that."

He saw sexual abuse, self-harm, and so many other cases, and the government's inability to support people or just abandon them like that. As soon as he complains, he loses his job, he's sent back to Australia, and he's threatened with jail time as well. Up until now, since 2013, he still is struggling with legal cases. Due to that, he suffered from severe mental health issues. He lost his family, his marriage, life and everything. When I started hearing stories like that... This is another girl from Manus Island that she was only 22 when she was sent out with Salvation Army to go there to help refugees. But when she sees the situation and she confronts the system, she's threatened, and then she remained silent, but installs secret cameras to document what's going on. Again, she suffered a lot from fighting for human rights, justices, and so on.

I became curious then when I heard these stories, but later on, when I was invited by PHOTO 2020 festival, they commissioned me to make work that responds to the theme of truth. As soon as they offered that opportunity, I thought of making work about the whistleblowers. Then I collaborated with Claire Loughnan, a researcher and a scholar at Melbourne University in the area of Criminology. Her major focus is with whistleblowing and detention centres. She introduced me to a broader understanding of the matter and its legal matters. Then we did a long few months of research back and forth. When I realised that this is applied to all the governmental organisations, not just the immigration, at first I was shocked, but then I felt that urge that we need to include as many as we can, and show diversity of ranges of stories.

In terms of the processes that I used and why I chose that aesthetic, again, this goes back to my interest in themes related to visibility. In the case of, for example, the refugees, it was the lack of visibility, all the other minor communities, that their images are either eliminated or misrepresented in the visual realm. My attempt has always been to dismantle that or reverse that approach and mode of representation. In this context, it was, again, quite interesting in relation to those ideas, because you can only speak out the truth if you remain anonymous, not in the case of my subjects, because they were all of them people who went to the media at some point and spoke out and risked their lives and everything for the sake of public, and they wanted the public to know.

But once the news got out, they realised that the public, the majority actively remain silent about it and choose to ignore or remain blind to it. That to me, when I realised that, there were a few things that led to the aesthetic choices I made, the Greek statues, and also the tragic figure, because to me, that was the essence of tragedy. You know? If you look back at the history of tragic plays and tragic stories, they were always about the broken, damaged hero is the one that is caught between the law and morality. In fact, many believe that democracy was in some ways shaped through the tragic theatre. Back then in Athens, it was a time that the society was struggling with very similar issues. All the tragic plays were about issues related to xenophobia, sexism, refugee crisis, and stories as such. They used to play out in public, and people used to gather there and watch the play. That was the idea of people sitting around after the play ends and talk about it.

The idea of making this work for me... I was invited to make it, to place it in public, in fact, in front of St. Paul Cathedral in the city in Melbourne. It was the most central place. I wanted people to stand around and talk about these issues and read the text on the images and respond to it. There was this connection between them and my approach to it, to also refer to the earliest stages of the formation of democracy, and to bring into attention its fragile state now, and where we're at, because the essence of democracy is the power to people and the freedom of speech. In the case of all these people, what they're showing to us is that both of them are taken away from us.

The aesthetic refers to the Hellenistic statues of that period. Hellenistic statues were the first statues when the artists were shifting the attention from the statement and powerful men of the time to the ordinary people and ordinary citizens. What they wanted to bring into the statutes was to capture this fragility and the pain of the subject, which before then was all very heroic and strong faces and figures. I wanted to mimic that also. For that, I used a 3D studio, as you can see, there are 110 cameras installed there, that they were scanning the subject from 110 different angles. But the only thing we couldn't capture with that technology was the details of the eye, which to me was linking it to the Greek statues' aesthetic, and also a reference to the idea of the witness and the gaze, and in the absence of the gaze.

There were many things going on in my head when I was thinking it, like idea of also facial recognition tools like iris scanning and the surveillance cameras, or going to the media, the extreme level of exposure through the media leads to this lack of recognition. Do you want to ask any questions before I move forward?

Nur Shkembi:

So, the detail in the video is actually the aspects of the 3D imagery that are erased, so the eyes and the mouth. Do you see these three components, so the photography stills, the 3D sculptures, and the video, as formulating one image?

Hoda Afshar:

Absolutely. I wanted to capture two different aspects of the struggle of the whistleblower. One was the public image, and the public image was the statues that represents this broken hero, the heroic figure. That's why I used the 3D scanning process. I'll quickly show you what the process does. This was the test that I did on myself. The 110 images go into the 3D program and stitch it all together, and then we formed it, as you can shape it as a 3D statue, in whatever shape you want to shape it in. Then I printed the images. This is how they come out of the printer with support legs to hold it until it completely dries out. Then you can take off the extra bits. Then I tried different methods to photograph them in the studio with the studio lighting.

This is like I first tried with large format camera and it didn't work, and different methods until I got where I wanted it to get to, which is the ones that I first showed you. Like these ones, I used very theatrical lighting to bring out the drama and tragedy into the objects. I wanted to keep the imperfections also in the image to refer to the medium I was using. But then with the video, again, like the Manus Island project, they were another aspect of the narrative that photography couldn't represent, and I needed to communicate that in a different way. It was the pain and trauma exactly as I said before that the body preserves. The video is very close up. I conducted nine hours of interviews all together with all the whistleblowers, and I had to transcribe them all and find the mutual points of conversation.

We were using a super high-res camera to capture all the details, the sharpest details of the face, and the tension that is in the face as they're telling the story, how close you can get to the subject to eliminate their identity also. It was mimicking the language of documentary films like Abu Ghraib Prison, The Ghost of Abu Ghraib especially affected me a lot, the documentary where the inmates that were in Abu Ghraib Prison were interviewed, and to hide their identities, the film is using this traditional language in documentary that crops in. In this specific context, it was very moving, because they were talking about the experiences they had, and the skin and face and the body was shaking as they were talking. I found it really powerful, and I wanted to bring that into my video work as well, and I wanted people to feel the discomfort in the body of the subjects.

So, the video installation is a very large, four-meters-wide projection of super high-res quality of the skin and the tension in the body as you're listening to the narratives. Also, one other thing that is always a big question for me in response to making work about issues as difficult as that, is that how much of the violence we need to see visually to respond to it? In fact, I feel like the more of the violence you see, the lesser impact it has, because it's too extreme to take in, and people go numb in a way that they can't even respond to it. It's like seeing violent films. It's quite surreal, but hearing the absence of the violent image, you're listening to the narratives that these people are sharing, and to understand it, we have to imagine the story that they're talking about. We are forced into imagining it, and it kind of does something different to us because we have to use and access part about own stories and traumas to be able to understand it. That's what I wanted to achieve.

Nur Shkembi:

Okay. Yeah. Thanks for sharing both 'Remain' and 'Agonistes'. Just to finish off, a little change of pace, we'll just talk briefly about your recently published photography book with Mack Books, 'Speak the Wind'. Are you able to share some images and speak about this project briefly before we finish up today?

Hoda Afshar:

Sure. I guess I'll keep it very brief. The book it's called 'Speak the Wind'. Let me see if I've got a copy here handy. Yes. That's it. It's published by Mack Books, a publisher in London. I was invited to work with them on this project a couple of years ago, and it takes that long for it to become a reality. But the project is something I've been working on since 2015 in the islands of the Southern Iran, in the Persian Gulf region. It was when I traveled there the first time in 2015, and I was really taken by the beauty of the landscape and its strangeness and its history. When I got there, I experienced something that was beyond the real, and this idea of a magical experience, a real magic.

I became curious about the islands, and I wanted to know more about it and dig into its history. The locals believed that the area and the region is possessed by a wind that comes from East Africa, and I was curious to know why East Africa. The history is that there were centuries and centuries of slave trade through the African slave trade in the region since 13th century, and it only ended in 1927, quite recent. There are a big population of Africans who live in the region around Persian Gulf, like Oman, Iran, and other neighbouring countries, but their history is not acknowledged. There's also a lot of racism towards them there. But this cult and culture of spirit possession came from East Africa with them to the region, and the identical rituals that still exist in, for example, Ethiopia with the same name and so on, but it's Islamisised versions happening now in south of Iran.

For me, the idea was related, again, in a different way to the relationship between visibility and photography, and the question was, how can I photograph invisible entities like the wind or the history, and to me in this context, being possessed by the history of cruelty and slavery. It took years of research for me to do it. But, again, this idea of performance and collaboration comes into the work in different ways. It's a long history that maybe doesn't fit into the timescale that we have, but when people are possessed, they go to the shamans of African descent in the region, and they're the only ones we can negotiate peace with the possessing wind in your body. The afflicted person is covered with fabric, and they play the drums, and there's the sound. Then they do a particular dance that encourages or negotiates peace with the possessing wind.

But I used multiple methods to capture this idea of the wind, and also, it's believed that the wind possesses women more than men, but both men and women are possessed. Women in the region wear these masks that some believe that the mask is to protect them from the possessing wind, because it's like a moustache and a thick eyebrow that makes women look like men to scare the wind off. So, it's a very, very gendered history as well, but also now that's part of the costumes and habits. But the landscape of the area is quite otherworldly. It's like nothing else you've ever seen. You feel like you were thrown into a Pixar animation or something. Yeah, I became obsessed with it. For years, I returned, and there are different elements in the work that you can see that shows, like, for example, there are drawings in the book made by the locals of the possessing wind, because they believe that they've seen it, so the drawings are in the inside the book, and also I use text that is from the interviews I did with the possessed people.

Nur Shkembi:

Thank you so much for sharing and for sharing your practice so generously with us today. We'll say goodbye to one another and speak again soon.

Hoda Afshar:

Thank you, Nur. Thanks for having me. Thanks for talking to me.

Speaker 1:

You would see people screaming, running around, pacing, yelling, crying.

Speaker 2:

It's a lonely business made worse by laws passed after 9/11 that was meant to deal with terrorists. Those laws, in great irony, are being used against me.

Speaker 3:

We forgot because it was convenient to forget. That was a government decision to send soldiers to war.

Speaker 4:

It's a place of incarceration, it was worse than any prison I'd worked in before.

Speaker 5:

I would describe him as being akin to torture.

Speaker 1:

That's when I started collecting incident reports and different documents and buying hidden cameras to record what I was seeing.