And the wind carried me to the wild water’s edge.
I first came to the work of Melbourne-based Iranian artist Hoda Afshar through her inclusion in the exhibition Primavera 2018: Young Australian Artists at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. The exhibition—which asked ‘Why is identity important today?’—used an image from her video Remain (2018) in its promotion. I was prompted to contact her. My dialogue with the artist resulted in including works from her photographic series Remain (2018) in my exhibition The Shouting Valley: Interrogating the Borders Between Us at Auckland’s Gus Fisher Gallery the following year. This series of portraits of Manus Island detainees includes one of Behrouz Boochani, the Kurdish–Iranian writer, filmmaker, and human-rights defender. Boochani would come face to face with his portrait for the first time in my exhibition, after arriving in New Zealand following six years of unlawful detention on Manus Island.
Following Remain, Afshar embarked on her project ‘Agonistes’ (2020), which comprises video and photographic portraits of nine whistleblowers tasked with enforcing troubling Australian government policies, in areas including immigration, the military, secret intelligence, youth detention, and disability care. These former government employees witnessed profound injustices that compelled them to speak out, putting them in danger. Despite the introduction of policies to protect them, whistleblowers are increasingly undermined by gag orders and other methods of control, making legal action, including imprisonment, a real threat.
In Afshar’s video Agonistes, a young woman recalls seeing a Facebook advertisement for a working holiday in the Pacific. Thinking it sounded like an adventure, she rang the number listed and was sent to Nauru Island within three days. No one explained what the job would entail, and it was only on arriving there that the nature of the job started to become clear. “We knew we’d be working with refugees but we weren’t really even sure what a refugee was at that stage,” she said. Witnessing refugees attempting self-harm, starvation, and suicide, she began to collect incident reports and used hidden cameras to record what she was seeing. She recalls meetings where staff were reminded of the confidentiality agreements they had signed, preventing them from speaking out. They were also told that their social-media accounts and private messages to family members were being watched, deterring them from sharing any details with loved ones.
As Afshar notes, “I remember asking some of the refugees if any of the Australians working in the camps tried to help them by complaining about conditions in the camp. They said there were a few people who tried to complain or change things, but they were immediately dismissed and sent back to Australia with the threat of two years’ jail time if they spoke about it, because they signed a deed of confidentiality with the government.”
In the video, individuals recount what prompted them to speak out and the profound effect it had on them. They speak of ruined relationships with family and friends, and the mental strain they continue to endure. Consisting of extreme close-ups, the film reveals their anguish through the contours of their skin. Focusing on individual facial features to mask the whistleblowers’ true identities, the film flips between the individuals and their stories. Quivering lips and flinching hands become symbols of their fractured experiences, and lend the film an aura of unease as their stories are finally voiced. One whistleblower tells how she became vilified on both sides—by those whom she expected to deny her experiences and those whom she thought she was helping. She uses the phrase ‘active blindness’ to describe those who determinedly don’t listen and don’t see. As another whistleblower says, “There is a fight to find language to talk. There is an absolute fight to push these words out and to even know there are words in my head that can come out.”
For Afshar, each new project is “born from the previous one.” So, when considering both Remain and Agonistes, it is pertinent to recall Afshar’s photographic series ‘Behold’ (2015), an intimate portrayal of a group of gay men in a bathhouse, whose location is never disclosed. Unable to express their desires in public, the bathhouse was a place where they could touch and just be. The bathhouse no longer exists, making Afshar’s photographs a memorial to a safe space. While exploring themes of concealment and secrecy, Afshar’s approach to portraiture in Behold includes a performative aspect. Here, her subjects purposefully pose, choosing their backdrops and positions, asserting their own agency in front of the camera—an approach shared with her Remain portraits.
The relationship between film and photography is central to Afshar’s practice, with both mediums being used in her projects. In her portrait series for ‘Agonistes’, Afshar used 3D-scanning technology to create photographic portraits of the men and women who featured in her film. Referencing the sense of surveillance they encountered, she used an array of 110 digital cameras to scan their faces. The resulting portraits have the appearance of marble busts. Fixed in time, they convey a haunting presence, linked, but not inextricably, to their filmed counterparts.
Afshar’s new book project Speak the Wind (2021) combines landscape and portrait photography, and was shot in the islands of the Strait of Hormuz in her native Iran. There, locals believe that winds can cause harm or illness, which can only be cured through a ritual.
While rarely spoken about, this belief permeates their culture and resonates in the surreal landscape, where winds have carved out strangely shaped valleys and statue-like mountains over aeons. As a documentary project, Speak the Wind feels like a departure for Afshar, perhaps a moment of solitude that speaks to cultural memories and shared beliefs. However, central to this project is her continued desire to record the invisible, or to make the invisible seen. This is at the core of Afshar’s practice, one that is forever timely and, in many ways, introduces and reminds us of what can be easily overlooked.
Writing this following the media frenzy over tennis ace Novak Djokovic’s arrival and departure from Melbourne, I am reminded of his stay in the same hotel where hundreds of asylum seekers have been held, some for years, by the Australian authorities. As Djokovic’s supporters fretted about the conditions he endured and whether he was able to maintain his strict diet, I thought back to the day I met Behrouz Boochani and to the efforts of everyone who helped secure his freedom, and to the many more men, women, and children whose freedoms are being fought for now. And it is by looking to Afshar’s practice that conversations central to justice, truth, and visibility continue to abound, and the significance of those conversations remains.
Header image: Hoda Afshar, photograph from the series ‘Speak the Wind’ (2015–2020)
Hoda Afshar will be speaking in August, at Te Papa, Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, as part of Photobook/NZ, Covid permitting.