In 2016, a chance meeting with a young Iranian couple led Youness Miloudi to make his first visit to Tehran. The encounter had, evidently, made a big impression. “To be honest, I didn’t know much about the country, especially about the daily life of Iranians,” he says.
A French photographer based in Paris, Miloudi found the trip a huge learning experience. “This first visit was enough to make me realise how much I did not know this culture, and that I had, like many people, prejudices about Iran.”
With the aim of challenging his own preconceptions, and of coming closer to understanding the country, he embarked on several more trips throughout 2017 and 2018, documenting the people and places he visited. PerseFornia is one part of the resulting project, The Iranians, and consists of documentary portraits of the youth of Tehran.
The series title reflects on the Persian Empire’s ancient capital Persepolis, brought up to date under the influence of Western and especially American culture. Miloudi draws out the parallels between the youth of Tehran and those of a Californian city: in their tattoos, their socialising, and their interest in art and culture.
There is a prevailing feeling of familiarity in the treatment of his subjects. However, the series is clearly anchored in a culture with an encompassing religiosity, more pronounced than in the young peoples’ Western counterparts.
The elaborate neck tattoo of one of Miloudi’s subjects reads “blessed”, the connotations of which could refer to Instagram hashtagging at the same time as religious benediction. In another image, a pair of young Iranians carry their skateboards past the golden spires of a mosque.
With reminders of the country’s conservatism ever-present in the texture of the work, it makes depictions of Tehran’s counterculture – piercings, alcohol, drugs – more impactful. The youth that Miloudi presents is experimental and uninhibited, and the photographer portrays this sector of society as a counterpoint to the more staid depictions of Iranian life in other media.
“I wanted to bring to light this new generation that did not experience the revolution of 1979, or the war with Iraq, and that aspires to a normal life,” he explains. Through dynamic, unpolished imagery, he presents his “surprising and creative” subjects at rest and at play: attending gigs, playing cards, on their phones.
The photographer is enthusiastic about the exercise of meeting strangers in the street and asking to take their picture, the chance nature of the encounter leading to productive and honest portraits. “It’s also a very good way to make friends, because Iranians are very curious and open- minded,” he says. “The rest came naturally.”