Iranian photographer Gohar Dashti has created a body of work that explores the relationship between nature, human migration and the ripple effects of conflict and social upheaval.
The coronavirus pandemic presents, she believes, an opportunity to remind us of our mutual responsibility toward each other.
With the pandemic creating a collective sense of unmooring from the familiar, what is important is that “it will make us understand that we’re all in the same boat,” she said.
“This is a shared pain,” she told AFP from Cambridge, Massachusetts in the United States, where she has been based for several years.
“I hope that from this situation, we will come to an understanding that the world is one. If a tree is cut in Africa, it impacts the life of someone in France,” the 40-year-old photographer and video artist said.
“It’s good that we understand the relationship between the world, economy and nature and maybe this epidemic has allowed us to think about all these issues again.”
Nature and its relationship to mankind trace a thread through Dashti’s 15-year oeuvre — exhibited worldwide and featured in prestigious permanent collections — with nature often acting as a foil for examining social issues and identity in her large-scale, staged photographs.
Dashti’s own life was marked by conflict and its legacy. She was born in Iran’s Khuzestan province at the start of the Iran-Iraq war that ravaged the oil-rich eastern region that borders Iraq and killed hundreds of thousands from 1980-1988.
One of her series, “Today’s Life and War”, placed a couple going about day-to-day domestic life — cooking, watching TV, hanging up washing — amid the trappings of a battlefield, with tanks and soldiers looming in the background.
Another series, “Stateless”, produced in 2014/2015, features scenes similar to those familiar in news coverage of refugees and migrants but rendered stark and semi-theatrical against vast and towering landscapes.
Touching on ongoing conflicts, she said she hopes people, particularly those in wealthy countries, will come to recognize amid the pandemic that they are not unaffected by the suffering of others around the world.
“What is much more important to me is the view of countries with high economic power. For them to understand that they are not separate […] we all live in the same world,” she said.
“Sometimes we see something like war in the media and think that it has nothing to do with us — that’s Afghanistan’s problem or that’s Yemen’s problem.
“But what’s happening now shows that it has to do with all of us. If a war breaks out in Yemen or in Afghanistan, it also has an effect on our lives, so we can’t stay silent.”
She said her compatriots in Iran, which is facing the deadliest coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East, had rallied in solidarity in the face of the pandemic, drawing on resilience from previous crises.
“Iran, like all countries, was taken unawares by the virus and experienced very difficult conditions and continues to see very difficult conditions. But, really, with the cooperation between people and the commendable efforts of medical staff, they have been able to manage the crisis,” she said.
“In my opinion, the people in Iran have shown a lot of solidarity — one reason is that they are a people that have known crisis.”
Resilience to the anxiety triggered by uncertainty is something Dashti thinks we can learn from the pandemic.
“The conditions created by the coronavirus all over the world teach us how to live with instability,” she said.
“In my opinion, artists and migrants can deal with these situations better. They know how to live and work with an uncharted future.”
Thrown into her own state of uncertainty with exhibitions of her work “Land/s” — a meditation on finding the familiar in foreign landscapes — cancelled or postponed, Dashti is still working on a film about the project, but like many others around the world, experiencing a change of pace.
“I am spending a lot of time with my four-year-old son, giving him lessons. Really, I feel like I have never spent so much with him,” she said. “Another activity that I love is to take walks in nature.
“More and more I think I should pay more attention to and work on nature and its relationship with humanity.”
Image: Iranian photographer Gohar Dashti hopes people will learn resilience from the coronavirus pandemic. (AFP / Hamed NOORI)