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Iran’s hidden gay community

Laurence Rasti documents the people who have fled to Turkey due to their home country’s deathly anti LGBTQI laws

In February 1979, the Persian Empire came to an end. After 2,500 years of a continuous monarchy, Iran became an Islamic Republic governed by Sharia Law – making homosexuality a crime subject to the imprisonment, corporal punishment, and execution.

At its core the issue is intercourse. Any activity outside heterosexual marriage is viewed as a violation of religious law. Interestingly, transgender people are considered heterosexual and will not be persecuted if they complete gender confirmation surgery, which may be partially funded by the state. As a result, Iran ranks as second in the world, following Thailand, for gender realignment surgeries. Many gay men have been pressured by their families to become transgender – or are forced to flee the country in order to save themselves.

Many come to Denizli, an industrial city in southwest Turkey that acts as a transit zone, allowing Iranian refugees to live in a state of purgatory while they wait patiently for a visa to live in yet another country. Since the U.S. travel ban was implemented and Canada stopped accepting Iranian refugees, their circumstances are becoming increasingly dire and difficult. While homosexuality is legal in Turkey, homophobia remains an issue that all LGBTQI people must face. Although free from the Kafkaesque struggles of their native land, the Iranians must remain anonymous in order to protect themselves

“In the beginning, I was trying to find people who would agree to show their face. I quickly understood that the reality of the situation wouldn’t allow me to do that” – Laurence Rasti

It is here in Denizli that Swiss-born Iranian photographer Laurence Rasti began her work. While pursuing her BA in photography from Ecole cantonale d’art de Lausanne, Rasti began focusing on issues of gender and identity. As a first-generation Swiss woman, she began using photography to examine the cultural codes of both the East and the West. Between 2014 and 2016, Rasti made ten trips to the city to photograph men and women driven to hide in plain sight. By befriending the people and earning their trust, Rasti created a series of intimate portraits that were singled out for distinction to the Magnum Photography Awards 2016 by juror Amy Pereira, Director of Photography at MSNBC.

On November 4, Rasti will publish her first book There Are No Homosexuals in Iran (Edition Patrick Frey). The title was inspired by the words of former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a speech given at Columbia University on September 24, 2007. “In Iran, we do not have homosexuals like in your country,” the then President proudly declared, failing to shed light on the circumstances that enabled him to make this claim.

Rasti shares her experiences making this work, offering insights on how to photograph invisible people with compassion, dignity, and respect.

A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH

Since the revolution in 1979, homosexuality is considered as a crime based on the Iranian penal code and lots of homosexuals have been executed since. I don’t know if we can say that it was legal before 1979 as nothing was specified on this but it was still a taboo in society. Most of the time the pressure of the family which is more difficult than anything else.

Because Iran does recognize homosexuality, the government considers gays and lesbians to be transgender, creating a prejudice in both sides. While trans people in Iran are not acting illegally, they are considered to have a mental illness (gender identity disorder) and the cure is the sex reassignment surgery.”

EMBRACE EVERY OPPORTUNITY

“By denying the existence of homosexuals in Iran, then president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad actually pointed out the situation. In a paradoxical way, this helped the LGBTQI community to take advantage of the situation and make their voice heard with the help of the Internet. It’s also why I found it interesting to use this as the title of the book, because he was right. They are not all in Iran as they flee the country.

The idea of the book came quite naturally. I always do interviews before taking photographs, and I was accumulating a lot of pictures and accounts. The book includes 40 portraits, a selection of landscapes and home interiors, and four interviews in both Farsi and English. I thought it would make sense to a book that can be read by Iranians, and by people in the west.”

From There Are No Homosexuals In Iran // Photography Laurence Rasti

BE SENSITIVE

“When I first arrived in Turkey, I knew only one person who I had met through a previous Skype call and didn’t know anything about their living situation. In the beginning, I was trying to find people who would agree to show their face. I quickly understood that the reality of the situation wouldn’t allow me to do that.

I had to respect this because anonymity was still the best protection. Even if they are no longer living in Iran, their families do not know their sexual identity. I realised that I had to deal with this photographically and find a way to capture each individual’s identity without showing their face.

I never knew myself what we would exactly do during the shoot. I don’t think they knew either. I was always looking for new ways to hide their face but I also wanted to make sure that we could represent their individual identities.

We would meet several times before we would shoot, doing an interview that would help me know more about their lives and personalities. This process allowed me to discover other ways of making a portrait, especially through the process of staging them in their homes or in a location. We tried to see which ideas would work best to reflect their personalities.”

From There Are No Homosexuals In Iran // Photography Laurence Rasti

BE PRESENT TO YOUR SURROUNDINGS

“The city of Denizli is an important part of the story as well. It plays an important role in their lives as they must wait here indefinitely – until they are able to get a visa to live in another country. I wanted to show this town where time is like being on pause. We tried to find a place that could echo their life while hiding in Iran or simply places they liked. Even though homosexuality is allowed in Turkey, there are still lots of homophobia and taking some of the couple pictures outside wasn’t easy because we had to wait until no one was around.”

BUILD TRUST, AND KEEP IT

“I don’t know the real identity of many of my subjects. Most of them changed their first name once they arrived in Turkey – not officially but as a new beginning or maybe a protection. It’s why trust was very important, and if we didn’t trust each other, I couldn’t do the project.

Each portrait is a collaboration. Without the courage, help, and friendship of my subjects, none of this could happen. Each person introduced me to someone I had previously photographed. It was an incredible experience that is still not finished because of the friendships I have developed. As an anecdote, I am doing this interview from the USA in the home of one of the people of the book.”

From There Are No Homosexuals In Iran // Photography Laurence Rasti

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