Photography Sarah Pannell

this photo series tells a tender story of modern life in iran

Sarah Pannell's debut book 'Tabriz to Shiraz' challenges preconceived notions of life in Iran.

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30 January 2019, 12:05am

Photography Sarah Pannell

Sarah Pannell is a Melbourne-based documentary photographer with a portfolio spanning across culture, community and landscapes both in Australia and abroad. After studying international relations majoring in Middle Eastern history and politics, Sarah explored her interest in the region through her photography practice. Her preluding photo series, I Feel Like I Know You, captured the decline of tourism in Egypt and showcased her commitment to capturing Middle-Eastern communities with integrity and warmth.

Sarah’s follow up also happens to be her debut book, Tabriz to Shiraz, an insight into the generous visual and cultural languages of contemporary Iran. Following twelve months of research, Sarah’s latest photo series and considered snapshot style of photography, displays her ability to capture the same compassion and sensitivity offered by her hosts. We sat down with Sarah to talk about her experiences in Iran and how they came to form her new book.

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What sparked your interest in documenting Iran?
After studying international relations majoring in Middle Eastern history and politics, I became quite fascinated by Iran. And then upon meeting some wonderful Iranians while studying photojournalism in America a few years later, their first hand stories about the tough decision they made to leave their families behind, it sort of reignited my interest in venturing there. Like so many Iranians studying and living in the US, they can’t travel back to see their family due to visa restrictions, but they speak about their homeland and culture with such passion, nostalgia and sadness.

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How did you come to connect with the local community?
During my first month in Iran, I stayed with around 15 different people or families and it was an incredible experience. I met countless incredible people who had fascinating stories to share and were so excited to share their life with me, even just for a day or two. It’s hard to imagine how different my travelling experience in Iran would be without couchsurfing and all the situations it made possible.

What challenges did you face while you were there?
I was quite surprised at the ease to which I found travelling in Iran and this was, of course, made possible by the people. I feel like anywhere you travel, there’s always going to be something which might challenge you because it’s different from your home. At first, wearing a hijab or loose headscarf felt strange, but I was surprised how quickly I became used to it. I’ve travelled in other strict Muslim countries before though, so the need to dress conservatively felt natural. One thing that I found hard to adjust to was sleeping habits and how late most of my Iranian friends go to sleep! Often I would find myself eating dinner after midnight and then going out to walk through a park or go to a cafe late in the night, which took some getting used to.

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Can you tell us about your influences both on your approach and visual language?
In the last few years I’ve really been inspired by the work of Bieke Depoorter, a very brave and talented photojournalist from Belgium. I actually had just returned from Iran and I was researching Egypt when I came across her work from Russia and Egypt where she travelled around and stayed with a different person she met each day. I immediately felt my couchsurfing approach to Iran seems very unimaginative and like an imitation. But I guess it’s easy for this type of thing to happen within a creative industry, and at the end of the day, your own personal approach, narrative and style sets things apart. Some other people are creating incredible photographic work which I really admire include Laia Abril and Vasantha Yogananthan. I’m also really lucky to be surrounded by a wealth of talent in Australia. Raphaella Rosella has been leading the way for a while now, alongside Katrin Koenning, Hoda Ashfar and many more — there are too many to name.

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After spending time in Iran, do you think the country is misrepresented?
Personally I think that yes, Iran has definitely been misrepresented — particularly in the western media for many years now. Its four decades since the Iranian Revolution, when things shifted monumentally for the Iranian population, especially those who were not religious and don’t believe in the power of the Ayatollah or the Shia clergy. The actions of the Iranian government does not accurately represent the diversity of its people. One of the aims for my work, is to perhaps shift people’s perception of Iran and not just buy into the bad stereotypes. Particularly those amplified by our American friends in the White House.

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What can we look out for next, apart from the book's launch?
I’m working a new body of work, which was instigated by the project I shot in Egypt last March. This is set me on a new trajectory, and I’m heading overseas in April for a number of months, starting with a month long artist residency in Latvia. I’ll also return to Iran later in the year.

Sarah Pannell’s ‘Tabriz to Shiraz’ is available for preorder now through Perimeter books in partnership with Hillvale.