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.
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