What a Portrait of an Iranian Surfer Reveals about Western Fantasies of the Middle East

The Italian photographer Giulia Frigieri wanted to profile a young Iranian surfer. But there was more to the story than her images revealed.

There’s a particular photograph that emerged last year, appearing in major publications around the world and winning a 2019 Portrait of Humanity prize. It’s a portrait of a slender young woman in a flowing blue scarf, against the backdrop of a blue sea and holding a blue surfboard. Her dark features and hair beautifully contrast the vivacious blue of her long scarf, which is blowing just enough to create the shape of a shark fin. Apart from the serendipitous aesthetics of the photo, the “wow factor” is in the fact that she is a hijabi surfer. It’s the improbability of it that fixes our gaze.

The photograph, of an Iranian woman posed on the coast of the Gulf of Oman, is by Giulia Frigieri, an Italian anthropologist by training whose photographic practice is driven by her interest in issues relating to women and youth. She has traveled to the Middle East several times in pursuit of these stories and created series on the young and hip in Oman, the tattoos of traditional Berber women of Morocco, and Surfing Iran, in which Frigieri shares the story of Shahla Yasini—the young woman in her award-winning photograph. The seventeen photographs available from the series on Frigieri’s website—shot in medium format on a Rolleiflex camera—were taken in the village of Ramin, in a remote part of Iran’s southern coast near the city of Chabahar, about a hundred kilometers from the Pakistan border. Chabahar, until recently a no-go area that required permits and special dispensations for visitors from outside the province, is now being remodeled into a tourist destination. The area is dogged by poverty and the prolific smuggling activity of a border region; it’s a deeply traditional place, making the notion of women surfing a very unusual one.

Giulia Frigieri, Shahla Yasini, the first Iranian female surfer, 2017
Giulia Frigieri, Shahla Yasini, the first Iranian female surfer, 2017, from the series Surfing Iran
Courtesy the artist

When Aperture asked me to write about Frigieri’s work, specifically Surfing Iran, I found myself triggered. As someone whose own practice has questioned the politics of representation of Iran through press photography, the series seemed a prime example of what I refer to as “so what?” photography. Yes, we have sportswomen who must play their sports in hijab. Yes, there are youth in the Middle East who like to do as youth do in the West. So what? My conversation with Frigieri was framed by this sentiment, and a bitter aftertaste that the “wow factor” for Western media consumers is pegged to Iranian women’s struggles to bend the rules of modesty to their will.

But I couldn’t have known how much more I would stumble across.

The Middle East is a paradise for photographers, a place where visual contradictions are often explained by tensions between tradition and modernity in a region dominated by Islam and its varying degrees of imposition on personal freedoms, especially of women. These contradictions attract Western adventurers and journalists who regard their passage through our part of the world as a katabatic journey, a metaphoric descent into the underworld, from whence they will emerge stronger, if only they survive to tell the tale. Their stories provide catharsis for their Western audiences back home, who can feel good about having surpassed the backwardness of this region in their achievements of modern, progressive, and egalitarian behavior—sentiments that deserve closer examination as many in major US and European cities rise to protest against the racism and othering that still exists despite this progress. This habit of regarding the East through an exotic lens creates a deep resentment among the “natives,” who feel their lives are the subject of smug voyeurism and a big bounce platform for journalists on a flying visit.

Giulia Frigieri, Boys after a day of practice in Ramin Beach, 2017
Giulia Frigieri, Boys after a day of practice on Ramin Beach, 2017, from the series Surfing Iran
Courtesy the artist

This spring, when I spoke with Frigieri, a thirty-year-old graduate of Goldsmiths in London, she was in quarantine in Abruzzo, Italy, and I was locked down at home in Tehran. Why, I asked her, is the image of a woman surfing in her hijab such a spectacle? After all, brands like Nike have begun manufacturing sporting hijab garments to accommodate Muslim female athletes. Frigieri told me she had followed in the footsteps of Easkey Britton, an Irish surfer who, in 2013, traveled to Iran to surf where no one had surfed before. On that trip, Britton selected and trained two local women—Shahla Yasini, a diver and lifeguard, and Mona Seraji, a snowboarder. In the process, Britton introduced surfing to one of Iran’s most neglected areas. She also made a documentary about it, Into the Sea (2016).

Giulia Frigieri, Shahla and Shams, 2017
Giulia Frigieri, Shahla and Shams, 2017, from the series Surfing Iran
Courtesy the artist

On Frigieri’s website, her image selection for Surfing Iran displays a series of portraits of Yasini. But apart from a couple of landscape shots that give us an idea of the young woman’s environment, Yasini appears as a truncated character without any life or backstory. She’s just a surfer in hijab without connection to a wider community. In the last of the selection, she stands next to a young man, with a surfboard between them. Stiff bodies with a stiff board. The caption to this photograph reads: “Pioneering an incredible movement, Shams and Shahla are the protagonist[s] of this new scene which sees young men and women of Iran both equally involved in supporting surf as empowering force, a tool for a change. Working towards a better future and new possibilities for young people of Iran, the new generation is putting together a new powerful tool that is going to forecast ‘waves of freedom.’” This text would seem to express a simplistic optimism about the struggle of Iranian women and youth in breaking social barriers on a daily basis, but is the native only redeemed by fulfilling the expectations of the visitor? Is the visitor only redeemed by heralding changes that mirror the ideals of the viewer? Is surfing evidence of freedom?

What Frigieri’s very tight selection of photos does not tell us is that she visited Iran three times. In the course of each trip, she became closer to her subject, and a friendship was forged. The images posted to her website, from Frigieri’s first trip in 2017, were originally published in Huck magazine in 2018, and later picked up by publications such as Vogue Arabia and La Repubblica. In 2018, Frigieri made a second trip to bring Yasini a new surfboard. Even though the authorities had allowed Britton to teach the sport and make a documentary, by Frigieri’s third visit, the storytelling possibilities had completely changed in the small fishing village of Ramin, where surfing had taken off.

Giulia Frigieri, Shams driving a motorbike to Ramin, 2017
Giulia Frigieri, Shams driving a motorbike to Ramin Beach, 2017, from the series Surfing Iran
Courtesy the artist

“When they started, everything was much freer,” Frigieri explained. “By the time I arrived in 2017, the government-controlled association had been created, but men and women were still surfing together. By 2019, Ramin had become very popular for surfing, with workshops and tours. With popularity came control. I was told not to take pictures of men and women surfing together.”

Even on her first trip, Frigieri encountered difficulties getting permits to work. Yasini came to the rescue, accompanying her to the southeast of the country, chaperoning her so she could take her photographs. Frigieri stayed with Yasini and her family, who are originally from Zahedan, but who now live in Tehran. By her third trip, in 2019, Frigieri had become familiar with the twists in the politics of sports in Iran, and with the vulnerability of women like Yasini—not just to traditional mores, but also to the patriarchal establishment that determines the fate of a female athlete who fails to comply with their rules and whims.

Giulia Frigieri and Shahla Yasini, Iran, 2019
Courtesy the artist

During our conversation, Frigieri revealed that she had taken many more photographs of Yasini during their developing friendship. When Frigieri shared the wider edit, I was moved to see Yasini’s world expanded with the detail and specificity that should characterize a documentary series. We see Yasini pick up Frigieri from the airport, at home with her family without the ubiquitous hijab, on the water with other surfers—of both sexes. Yasini is revealed as a figure with a personality navigating a complex world. But why are these photos not on Frigieri’s website? What drove Frigieri to edit her stories with such a heavy hand?

I called Yasini, who had recently relocated to Chabahar and started a job in marketing. She catches the surf on her one day off, on Fridays. She immediately understood my reaction to the photograph. “The idea of a documentary showing Iranian women surfing with hijab was attractive to the authorities when Easkey came for her project. It showed that hijab is not a limitation,” Yasini said, referring to a popular slogan about the mandatory use of hijab, which was established after the 1979 Revolution. “But when Giulia tried to take photos, we faced some serious obstacles wherever we went in Chabahar.” The sport was now being regulated, and Yasini, an early member of the federation, had fallen out of favor for reasons that she preferred not to discuss.

Giulia Frigieri, Shahla gets fully covered according to Iranian standards of dress codes to go surfing, 2017
Giulia Frigieri, Shahla gets fully covered according to Iranian dress codes to go surfing, 2017, from the series Surfing Iran
Courtesy the artist

“I live here and have to abide by the rules,” Yasini added, explaining the absence of photos showing her in her everyday environment. “Giulia shouldn’t be criticized. She should be thanked, because I asked her not to publish some of the photos.”

Frigieri had agreed to respect the wishes of a subject bound by rules and forced to self-censor. But was there a way that she could have edited her photographs to accommodate Yasini and the Iranian authorities while sharing more of the story with the viewer?

I called on two pioneering women in Iranian photography who know how to navigate the rules: Newsha Tavakolian, Magnum’s first Middle Eastern woman photographer; and Simindokht Dehghani, the owner of Ag Galerie, one of Tehran’s most progressive spaces for new photography. I asked them both to look at Frigieri’s photographs and suggest new edits of the Iranian surfer story. The results were revealing.

Giulia Frigieri, Shahla shaking hands with her friend Reza in Ramin Beach, 2017
Giulia Frigieri, Shahla shaking hands with her friend Reza, Ramin Beach, 2017, from the series Surfing Iran
Courtesy the artist

Tavakolian, who has worked for more than twenty years as a press photographer, noted that in her own work, she was sensitive to images that might get the subject into trouble with the Iranian censors, who would not accept any photos of women without their hijab. In her edit of Frigieri’s photographs, she omitted the more intimate shots of Yasini at home without her hijab. (Tavakolian, who was one of three judges on the jury of the 2019 Portrait of Humanity prize, had relied heavily as a young press photographer on the hijab as a shorthand to signal her location, but she later developed a more nuanced approach to her storytelling through staged art photography.) Dehghani, who represents photographers whose practices span both the documentary and the more abstract, chose shots that would tell the story of the person and the place. Her selection restored some of the more personal shots and added some poetic touches—but only one of Yasini without her hijab, one where her face is obscured from view. Clearly, art photography in Iran can circumvent rules that the news photographer cannot ignore.

Giulia Frigieri, Shahla Yasini with her parents, Tehran, 2017
Courtesy the artist

Personally, I would have added the photographs taken of Yasini’s family. After all, it was Yasini’s parents’ acceptance and encouragement of their daughter’s desire to try something completely new that forms the backbone of the story. They fill in the picture of an Iranian family deflecting the restrictions imposed on their female offspring—like many families in Iran. That is why there is such a difference between representations of Iran and Iranians in indoor versus outdoor spaces.

In a photograph from Frigieri’s last trip to Iran, the photographer poses with Yasini: they are swimming, and Yasini takes a selfie. The photographer has entered the frame, fully reversing the gaze on the other. It’s the very heart of this story—a friendship between two millennial women from different geographies, both courageous enough to step outside of comfortable norms. Yet, ironically, it was an image Frigieri deemed unsuitable for publication—because of her greater understanding of the circumstances of her subject who, by allowing her into her private sphere, had also extended to her the censorship that governs her world.

In the end, we are left with an eye-catching portrait: at best, reminiscent of a fashion shoot; and at worst, an unintentional promotional poster that obscures the story of the young woman surfer—a story that might have provided a more textured understanding of Iran, a country whose image is stultified by repetitive clichés, perpetuated both by outsiders and its own government.

Giulia Frigieri and Shahla Yasini, Hormuz, Iran, 2019
Courtesy the artist

I had to accept that without Britton’s sense of adventure to share the sport that Yasini loves, Yasini may never have learned to surf, which she says changed her life. “I had experienced the depth of the sea through scuba diving, but surfing is like being on top of the world,” she said. Without Frigieri’s decision to follow this story, we may never have seen the eye-catching, blue surfer-girl photo—and I, for one, would not have known that there was any surfing in my country. The katabatic journey is perhaps not always a simple story of redemption for the traveler; it can be the story of gifts exchanged. Here, the gift is the freedom to surf the waves, not just for an Iranian woman, but for a whole new generation of Iranians. Yet all of this is obscured by the Western gaze on a hijab.

After Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” and Roland Barthes’s “punctum,” we need to find a name for this kind of othering that plagues photography from faraway places. These photos tend to be tyrants—they obscure as much of the story as they try to tell. Let’s call it the “obscurantist moment”: a photographic mirage that pretends to show you something but fails to reveal the full story; the moment when photographers fall prey to the power of clichés. This happens not only in Iran, but anywhere that history has created a concrete, cookie-cutter viewfinder of a place in the Western psyche. For photographers who connect deeply to their subjects, the obscurantist moment creates a dilemma. What they cannot show must be told through honest and detailed captioning, and they must resign themselves to the fact that no one photograph (or even a series) can ever tell the full story. Their photographs must not be reduced to Western fantasies or local propaganda; they are mere portals into complex circumstances.