Deprived of Sexual Identity - Photographing the Gay Community of Iran

Raised in Switzerland of Iranian parentage, Laurence Rasti discovers her identity by examining societal attitudes to homosexuality in the country of her heritage.

© Laurence Rasti, from the series, There are no homosexuals in Iran

Laurence Rasti found it difficult to like photography at first. "It was only after I realised that photography could bring me closer to my identity that I started to love photography. For some people, photography is a passion, either because they like the medium or the fact that you can capture a particular moment or event. I like photography because it allows me to communicate something," explains Rasti.

She was born and raised in Geneva, the daughter of Iranian ex-pats who would travel to Iran every summer to visit family. Immersing herself in Iranian culture in short annual bursts, those holidays would come to define much of Rasti’s work. "When I was 12, I was in that phase when you are not a child anymore, but not really a teenager either. All my friends at school were spending their summer swimming in the Mediterranean Sea in Spain or the south of France. I too was at the sea - the Caspian Sea.

© Laurence Rasti, from the series, There are no homosexuals in Iran

"You can imagine how jealous I was of my friends: I wanted to go to swimming too, but I knew I couldn’t wear a swimsuit. I was wearing long shorts and a T-shirt, and someone came over to tell me that I had to put more clothes on if I wanted to go for a swim. I was very frustrated, having to put on more clothes just to go in the water when other kids my age didn’t have to. It was so perplexing, but I understood at that moment that I was considered a woman, not a child any more, and the rules of behaviour would never be the same - not just in Iran, but everywhere."

Her interest in photography crept up slowly. She originally studied graphic design professionally and then took a gap year to travel. Her travels took her to Iran, "and that’s when I realised that the country of my parents’ birth had an important place in my life. I wanted to start again, to go to university and study law this time, then maybe get a job for an NGO. But it didn’t work out, so I applied to art school to continue my graphic design studies."

"I applied to Ecole Cantonal d’Art de Lausanne and Pierre Fantys, the head of the photography department, saw the photos of Iran I had included in my portfolio and said my photographs were better than my graphic design work. It was hurtful in a way, but it was also exciting, because I hadn’t considered photography as a possibility until then," Rasti remembers. "That’s why it was hard to like photography at first, because it wasn’t part of the plan. Even so, I would never go back to graphic design, even though it influences my photography in many ways."

© Laurence Rasti, from the series, There are no homosexuals in Iran

"Before my project, Il n’y a pas d’homosexuels en iran (There are no homosexuals in Iran), I was working on a project about gender and the limits of femininity and masculinity, but then I decide to focus on homosexuality. Apart from the political aspect of the work - homosexuality is punishable by law in Iran - what interested me was the opinion of Iranian people. I couldn’t tell my family that I had gays friends here in Switzerland; they just didn’t understand. Gay rights, gay marriage - the way of life in Occidental countries is so far removed from Iranian way of life. I didn’t even know the real situation for homosexuals in Iran before starting the project. It’s when I got in contact with one of the refugees in Turkey that the work really started to open up."

"I don’t think I can change the world with a photographic project. Photography is powerful in many ways: it sits somewhere between informing, like photojournalism, and art, which can be more abstract. But in both cases it communicates a universal language, without any boundaries. So, it was more a way to give a voice to the people who had to flee because of their sexual identity and to hide themselves for many years because they loved someone of the same gender."

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Laurence Rasti is an Iranian photographer currently living in Switzerland. Her work reconsiders the habits and codes defined by different cultures in order to understand the power of gender in our societies. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Donatella Montrone is a freelance production editor and journalist based in London, United Kingdom.

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