On Traveling to Iran as an American Street Photographer


Photographer Brandon Stanton has generated quite a bit of attention in the photo world through his project Humans of New York, which features thousands of portraits that form a visual census of the city. His goal is to capture 10,000 portraits of New Yorkers that are associated with points on a map.

Stanton recently visited the country of Iran to shoot similar portraits of its inhabitants. He tells us that by visiting the country as a tourist rather than a press member, he was able to get a “remarkable amount of access” in order to create a beautiful collection of intimate street portraits.

Here are some of the images captured during the trip, along with some of Stanton’s thoughts on what it’s like to travel to the country as a street photographer:


The US Government has a lengthy travel warning for Iran. While not advising you to ignore this warning, I do advise that you balance it with direct accounts of Americans who have recently visited the country. These accounts are generally filled with superlatives— the country is beautiful, the history is rich, and the people are eager to demonstrate their almost-sacred commitment to hospitality.


Americans are especially loved. This was noted in every travel account that I read, and I can confirm the fact. You will be smiled at, waved at, invited to meals, and asked to deliver personal messages to Jennifer Lopez. American music, movies, and media are thoroughly consumed by the people of Iran. Like all countries, there are many different viewpoints, but the vast majority of people will associate you with a culture they admire and respect.


I was by no means starry eyed. I’m well aware of Iran’s modern history and government, though my portraits pointedly contained no mention of either. Some of the government’s policies are unfortunately impossible to ignore: Israelis, for example, are not allowed to enter the country. You cannot even enter the country if you have an Israeli stamp in your passport.* I mention this only because it’s well publicized and relavent to travel. I’m avoiding all other critiques, because I am foremost a photographer, and these issues are well-trodden by Western media outlets.


But I can tell you this: for two weeks I mingled with the culture, people, and scenery of Iran, with almost no interference from the government. (A privilege admittedly denied to Iran’s citizenry) I enjoyed the advantages that a tourist receives in any country. Like all countries, Iran has a strong economic interest in insuring its tourists enjoy themselves. Everyone in an official capacity will be very eager that you enjoy your stay. The unfortunate reality is that our two governments have hostile relations, so you will not be allowed to stay in Iranian homes, or go off on your own with Iranian friends. But you will be given extensive freedom to tour the country.



Because you are an American, you will be assigned a guide. But this will be an unexpected blessing. The guide is trained in tourism, and is by no means a government “minder.” Beyond insuring that you adhere to the guidelines mentioned above, their job is to educate you on the history and culture of Iran. Assuming you have no interest in journalism or espionage, the guide will facilitate and expand your experience. In all likelihood, he/she will become your friend. My guide was Mohammad Eslami. If you plan on travelling to Iran, I recommend contacting him.



You will need a visa. This is most easily achieved through AITO, a tourism agency linked with the Foreign Ministry. In all likelihood it will be approved within 2 weeks. Your visa will need to be retrieved from the Pakistani embassy in Washington DC. (Though I believe you can arrange for it to be shipped.)


Lastly, travel to Iran is extremely cheap right now. It is a darkly beneficial effect of the recent currency devaluation. In very few places can you currently see more, for less.


I’ll close with the common cliche: Iran’s government is not its people. You can greatly enjoy a country, while at the same time disagreeing with it’s government. Travel is not advocacy of ideology or policy. Travel is travel, and it’s the single greatest contributor to understanding between cultures.


You can find the entire collection of images and text over on the Humans of New York Website (the posts are tagged ‘iran’).

Image credits: Photographs by Brandon Stanton and used with permission

  • John Goldsmith

    I enjoyed the article and the photographs, particularly because they show Iran in a modern light rather than cliched black and white, gritty images. I, too, visited Iran in 2007 as a US citizen. My route was a bit different than Brandon’s as I was coming through Canada where I am a Permanent Resident. Thus, I was able acquire my VISA through the Iranian Embassy in Canada. I also didn’t directly have to seek a guide, though perhaps times were slightly different five or six years ago. That said, I was visiting with my wife as part of a conference and there were numerous Iranians with us for some but not all, portions of our visit including a visit to Tehran and Mashhad.

    The trip was an eye opening experience I repeat the sentiment that the people of Iran are not the government. They were open and friendly. Of course, that’s not to say I didn’t have any issues and I do recommend foreigners follow governments laws and guidelines, including not taking pictures at the airport, where I had a tough talking to by a man in camouflage with a rather large automatic rifle strapped to his back. Thankfully, I was with a federal politician at the time who came to my aid.

    When I returned to Vancouver from my trip to Iran, I posted my experiences and some photos (including some of those cliches). If anyone is interested, it’s here:

    Thanks Brandon and PetaPixel!

  • Syuaip

    thanks for posting. lovely photos from seems a lovely trip.

  • Reza

    I’m Iranian and I live in Iran And I can assure everyone that coming here as a tourist is way more fun than what you may think. There is no abandoned places for tourists, no Strange rules and nothing else. Just if you can stand This “Hijab” thing (which is as seen in the photos is not as extreme as you may thought before) and having no beer, Iran would be the place to go.

  • Kaveh

    One of the best article I’ve ever read about Iran, nice photo indeed.

  • Michele

    I loved this article and photos. I have a profound attachment for Iranian
    people because I had the privilege to mix with them for 7 years. Although I’ve
    never been to Iran, my first love was an Iranian man. And this was almost 25
    years ago. I’ve learned a lot with them. And they have respected my culture
    (I’m Canadian) as much I have respected theirs. The time I have spent with them
    is one of the dearest experience in my life. It has truly enriched it. Great

  • Mansgame

    Nice try Ayatollah Reza. Iran IS beautiful but make no mistake: There is a certain amount of risk involved to be a tourist whether one is American or an expat.

  • bgrady413

    Wait, wait, no beer? Forget it, no place is THAT beautiful or friendly to offset no beer. Scratch Iran off my list of places to go.

  • Reza

    :)) Dude f**k Ayatollahs. Actually Americans are so welcome here ( as mentioned In the article). remember he fight is between governments not people.

  • Reza

    Unfortunately it’s illegal. But being illegal isn’t equal as being unreachable ;)

  • Marcus Lyra

    Typical asshole action don’t you think?

    Cool are those stupid fatass american, consumming more than an avarage family to keep theirselves fat or fitness as their magazine cover-dreams.

    A culture, a whole history and people cannot be judged by those “funny” comments.

    At least Iran is free from this stupid people based in a simple beer castration project.

    I’ll send this ideas to my government.

  • zahra

    hi… i really happy because you com to my country ٍ Iran، please come here again and visit my town (Ardabil) it is really beautiful … :) thank you for your pictures .. we really love American people … best wishes for every kind people in every country :)

  • Sonia

    I am Sonia and strongly recommend you to travel Iran in March(21) because it’s new year Eve there and a perfect weather will expect you along with an unforgettable cheap Travel. It’s a nice country with 4 seasons.You’ll be safe everywhere because they carry no weapon (even a knife).

  • sina

    thank michele

  • mitya

    You are an idiot….

  • Ahmed Reda

    Great article!

    I went to Iran last summer (Tehran, Mashhad, Nishapur and Qom). It was one of the best trips me and my camera has taken together. I enjoyed it so much, I’m going there next week!

    Don’t believe all the hate against this country. It”s almost as large as Europe as a whole, and you will find a lot of different people. But in general, they aren’t going to bother you.

  • zay @

    very nice article, it shows the real Iran to those who wont believe on inside of Iran.

  • Tahereh

    Hello. thanks for your pictures. They are so beautiful. Please come here (Iran) again and come to my city, Gilan. There is really so beautiful and you can see lovely blue sea, and simple and so kind people here. Thanks again for showing reality about iran, my home :)

  • harakim

    Oh… alcoholics. :)

  • Chris deChicago

    Messrs. Zhang and Stanton:
    Can you elaborate, please, on the following statement in this article: “Because you are American, you will be assigned a guide . . . .” I am an American who would like to travel in Iran with my 12-year old son during the week of his school vacation in April. The statement that “you will be assigned a guide” makes it sound like the Iranian government would arrange a free guide (whom I would be happy to tip well if he is a good guide), but from pre-trip research I believe that the Iranian government allows an American to tour Iran only as part of a guided tour for which one is required to pay. So, although it appears that travel in Iran would be inexpensive were we able to travel independently like I prefer to do (hiring a guide just where a traveller would benefit most from a good guide’s ability to bring history to life), for us I think travel in Iran would be expensive. The cheapest one week tour I’ve seen so far is $700, which would be $1400 for the two of us unless a child aged 12 would not need to pay or would pay much less than an adult. $200 per day is not inexpensive. We traveled around Europe for almost a month this Summer and by staying in hostels or rented rooms, by buying meals mostly from street vendors or markets or places catering to locals rather than tourists, and by walking or taking public transportation and making arrangements myself as we journeyed, I spent much less per day than it seems we would on a guided tour of Iran — plus the cost for our flight to Europe was much less than would be our cost to fly to Iran. Is there any exception to the rule requiring Americans to go on a guided tour? For example, at school my son is studying “The Ancient World”, which is part of the reason I’d like to take him to Iran. Is there a guided tour exception for travel related to one’s academic studies? Or, what about if we were to do some sort of volunteer work during part of our trip? Might there be a “volunteer exception”?