MIT’s Center for International Studies opened a photo exhibit showcasing life in the Republic of Iran on February 3rd. The exhibit, titled “IRAN: WOMEN ONLY” includes work from photographer Randy H. Goodman’s time in the Republic during three historical moments: the hostage crisis, the Iran-Iraq war, and the signing of the Iran nuclear agreement. On February 26th, a reception and gallery talk will be held in MIT’s Lucian Pye Conference Room.
From 1980 to 1983, Goodman toured Iran and its warzone, covering news for CBS-TV and TIME magazine. In addition to photographing politically significant figures such as the Ayatollah Khomeini, she captured Iranian women, from schoolgirls playing in the streets to university students involved with holding the U.S. embassy hostage. 32 years later, she returned to the country, photographing the women of Iran at turning point that is the signing of the Iran nuclear agreement.
It’s no secret that the authoritarian regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran is especially oppressive to women, where they face injustice in the legal system, segregation in public spaces, and compulsory modesty laws (with harsh punishments for failing to comply). Yet the status of women in the country is often said to be contradictory, as they enjoy relative freedom in many spheres that other women in the region do not, and make up a large majority of college students. The exhibit highlights these contradictions, framing the underlying ferocity of Iranian women within the patriarchal state.
Unfortunately, the venue did little service to Goodman’s exhibit. Displayed in MIT’s Center for International Studies, her photographs share space with flyers and office furniture, which detracted from the power of the images.
The exhibit includes both black-and-white and color photographs. Goodman also makes smart use of texture in her photographs of prayer services (in both 1981 and 2015), where a monochromatic expanse of women in prostration fill the frame. One photograph features a female driver of an eye-popping lime green “Women’s Taxi,” and in another, identical green taxis pepper the traffic in Vanak Square, providing contrast in the sea of yellow taxis and black cars. Many photographs place an emphasis on the color green, perhaps a symbol of the Iranian Green Movement following the 2009 elections.
A photograph titled ‘Embassy Girls’ shows young college students at the U.S. embassy in Tehran smiling and sharing food. In a note on the side, Goodman details how the girls became embassy women, one rising to become the first female Vice President of Iran. Another was responsible for painstakingly translating the shredded embassy documents, which were then published as a book in Iran and widely distributed. Goodman along with journalists William W. Worthy and Teresa A. Taylor later sued the FBI after their copies of the book were seized at Logan International Airport.
Goodman’s photography is intimate without being heavy handedly so. Many photographs feature women sharing closed-lipped smiles and knowing looks with the camera, as if revealing a secret to the viewer. One image is exemplary of this. The subject stands on a “Women Only” bus, looking into the camera, though her eyes are obscured by glamorous large-framed sunglasses. Her compulsory hijab is pushed back, like many women in Iran now wear it, revealing her hair, and several other women’s scarves in the background are bedazzled– far cries from the plain chadors of the 80s. ‘In Transit’ is the title, an appropriate name for a photograph exemplary of an exhibit that captures the blurring of fundamentalism with modernity during yet another transitional period in Iran.