Few are lucky enough to venture into the high mountains and less-visited corners of foreign lands but those who can’t, the work of photographer Hoda Afshar is journey enough.
For Iranian-born Hoda, migrating to Australia almost a decade ago began not only a personal but in some ways, a professional journey too, which she now explores through her award-winning photography. A recipient of the prestigious National Photographic Prize in 2015, the majority of the Melbourne-born artist’s work has an ethereal, otherworldly feel to it, perhaps reflecting the very ephemerality of her own lived concept of ‘home’.
These works, soon to be displayed as part of her upcoming exhibition, In the exodus, I love you more to be displayed at Brightspace in Melbourne from November 17, explore the complex relationship the Australian has with her home country, which she visits often. Hoda also displayed her work as part of a global gathering of images for Instagram’s sweeping #MyStoryAU collection, celebrating the stories of women who push creative boundaries and challenge stereotypes through the platform.
Here, the native Iranian discusses the role of photography in her life and how being caught between two homes leads to having (almost) everything feel foreign.
Tell us about your experience of migrating from Iran to Melbourne.
“Migration is something that shatters your world, and transforms your world-view. The pain of being uprooted and then settling down elsewhere gives rise to a peculiar sense of homelessness, of not fully belonging – that’s something you never really get over.
It’s a strange, liminal existence but it also gives you a particular kind of vision: a way of seeing the entire world as a foreign land, as Edward Said puts it. That’s something I’ve tried to embrace, rather than clinging nostalgically to my image of ‘home’ or to a narrative of painful ‘exile’.
Instead, I’m interested in exploring this in-between state as a mode of being that is closely tied to the modern condition of homelessness. I’m also fascinated by the idea that things can become nearer the more you draw distant, and vice versa—the play of presence and absence.”
How did you come to photography as a way of expressing your personal experiences with diaspora?
“My love affair with photography dates back to my pre-migration life. The first time I printed an image in the dark room at my high school, I was captivated by the magic of photography.
I knew right away that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life and I haven’t stopped taking photos since. I always loved story-telling and I inherited that passion from my mother. After moving to Australia, photography became a way for me to tell my story of migration, to explore themes about home and exile, foreignness, belonging, and more specifically, how cultural identity influences our art and daily experiences.
For me, it’s impossible to separate my image-making from the sense of familiarity I feel towards a particular place, and this is also reflected in the work I make when I return home to Iran.
Photography for me has become a way of reading, seeing and making sense of the world and of my own being —including my own experience of diaspora.”
How has your photographic style changed since those first experiences with a camera?
“Again, my photographic style has been largely shaped by my experiences of migration and how those experiences have changed the way I connect with the places I find myself in.
On the one hand, I probably feel more connected to the subjects I video or photograph in Iran and I sometimes feel like more of an outsider or spectator working in Australia. But at the same time, when I return to Iran for example, the longer I’ve been away, the more I notice how my vision is constantly evolving.
My experience of creating images and videos in Australia is always changing too. In general, I think that occupying this kind of liminal or in-between space is not a bad thing; but actually puts you in a sort of privileged position. It allows you to see things differently, to draw on different cultural experiences and points of view.”
What was the experience of being involved with World Press Photo change your artistic trajectory?
“Being involved with World Press Photo was really encouraging and exciting because it was right after graduating from my photography studies – when I was in the first stage of launching my career.
At that level, you have a lot of eyes on your work, so it definitely opened doors for me and also allowed me to see how the professional photography industry works.”
In terms of the money that won from the National Photographic Portrait Prize, how does that then become channelled back into your work?
I shoot on film, mostly, so much of my expenses involve buying and developing film. Then there are expenses related to printing and exhibiting, and travelling to new places to make work. I have a major exhibition of my work coming up, and I have been putting a lot into that for the last year.
How does Instagram’s #MyStoryAU champion your own story of migration?
“The video that I put forward for Instagram’s #MyStoryAU was taken while I was travelling in the south of Iran last year. It was an important moment for me because I went there for work inspiration, to specifically explore my relationship with my homeland and my connection to the landscape of Iran, after having been away.
In the video, I’m standing in glittering black-orange sand in the Persian Gulf and you can see my feet being washed by the ocean. I truly felt, in this moment, like my soul was being purified. It was one of the most magical and beautiful experiences of my life!”
Where do you go for inspiration?
“Everywhere! In landscapes, in faces, in poetry and things I’ve read, the world, my Instagram world and what’s happening around me—my social reality.”