Rasti’s series, There Are No Homosexuals In Iran, reveals a community caught between ongoing persecution and the promise of freedom
In 2007, during a forum held at Columbia University, New York, former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad famously said: “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon.” He later went on to claim that he was misquoted by Western media, but his remarks remain a classic example of the country’s archaic views on homosexuality. In Iran, it is seen as an illness that must be treated and, in some cases, it can be punishable by death. Such overt oppression has led people to flee their homeland in order to escape persecution and ostracisation. A large majority travel over the border into Turkey, with help from NGOs such as the Iranian Queer Organization. There, they find refuge in cities like Denizli in the southwest of the country, where they will wait, often for many years, to be granted visas for Europe or North America.
It was in this liminal space, where refugees enter a prolonged purgatory, that photographer Laurence Rasti produced the images for her project, There Are No Homosexuals in Iran. Born in Switzerland to Iranian parents, Rasti struggled to reconcile the differences in gender roles between the two cultures and, following years of research on gender and sexual identity, was inspired to explore Iran’s complex relationship with homosexuality. “I discovered what was happening in Denizli in 2014 through a contact I made at an NGO,” she recalls. “I came to understand that it was one of the main cities assigned to LGBTQI+ asylum seekers in transit in Turkey.”
In her series, Rasti photographs a small group of these asylum seekers as they attempt to settle into life in a foreign city, away from family and friends – many of whom are unaware of the real reason for their departure. Created in collaboration with her subjects, some of her portraits are stylised with props, while others are taken in a more subtle fashion, capturing the subjects against the backdrop of the city.
Through these images, we catch glimpses of their unique stories and individuality, rather than being depicted as faceless runaways. Rasti says this was important to those who agreed to be a part of the project: “At the beginning I wanted to show the abuse that these people had suffered in their country and in their families. But they quickly made me understand that this was not what they wanted to communicate about themselves. Instead, they wanted to show the reason for their escape: love.”
Love permeates the series, tangible in the intimacy between the couples and the vulnerable positions assumed by several of the subjects. They appear playful yet sincere; a carefree spirit that contradicts the reality of their situation. And, the trust between photographer and subject is evident. Rasti explains that this was established over long periods of interaction. “From the very beginning, I was asked about my reasons, as a heterosexual female, for starting such a project,” she says. “It took a long time for trust and friendship to develop and for me to better understand the issues.” She goes on to say the experience taught her invaluable lessons about her position as an artist and the possible imbalances of power and reward that can exist between a photographer and their subject. “It is an unresolved ethical question of who benefits from such projects – the protagonists or the author. For these reasons, taking the time to really listen to your subjects seems essential.”
Indeed, this question is often difficult to answer with any degree of certainty, but we can observe in this instance an exchange of sorts. For a community fleeing a country in which their existence is frequently denied, photography can remedy a loss of identity. Rasti’s portraits give them back a sense of self, capturing them in a moment of pure self-expression, unfettered by fear. And in return, Rasti is given an opportunity to question her role and the role of photography itself in highlighting important issues and supporting marginalised groups. Reflecting on this, she says: “Now, I would do some things differently, thanks to all that these people have taught me. I pay more attention to my place as a photographer and artist, to my choice of project, to what I can offer with my work, and how I can use it to benefit the people concerned.”
Daniel Milroy Maher is a London-based writer and editor specialising in photographic journalism. His work has been published by The New York Times, Magnum Photos, Paper Journal, GUP Magazine, and VICE, among others. He also co-founded SWIM Magazine, an annual art and photography publication.