Before I answer this question, let me tell you this. My very first exhibition was in the Dutch village I grew up. My photos were exposed at the local art fair. I was close to my work all day, talking about my photos. In the afternoon my brother visited me. I was standing next to my brother when visitors asked him how he made those photos in Iran? He politely pointed at me. The people’s faces looked surprised. After being quiet for a moment they wanted to know how a woman could go to such a dangerous country all by herself? They couldn’t imagine that I made photos of Iran. I’m not kidding you, this situation repeated itself multiple times during the fare.
Also, in later exhibitions in Amsterdam and exposing my work on Instagram, Linkedin, and Facebook the question ‘have you been to Iran?’ popped up frequently. Even when I meet people, the first question they ask most of the time is: have you been to Iran? For the record, I make all photos by myself and my photos are made in the Middle East.
Bale (yes), I went to Iran
So, the answer to the question is yes: I’ve been to Iran. Actually, I’ve been to Iran multiple times and I’ve seen all corners of the country. From the religious sides of Mashad to the cosmopolitan part of northern Tehran and the friendly people of Bandar-e Kong to the warm desert of the Kaluts. I walked at the bazaar of Kerman, was lost in the streets of Tabriz, and have enjoyed the beautiful surroundings of Howraman. And many more.
The first time I visited Iran was while writing my final paper at university. When finishing my master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies I wrote my thesis about the geopolitical situation between Israel and Iran. Yes, I know that’s a tricky subject, but it was descriptive and definitely worth exploring.
Anyway, in my opinion, you can not write about something you haven’t seen or experienced yourself. That was the reason I decided I needed to go to Iran. And I did. After being graduated I decided to combine my knowledge with photography. Subsequently, I started making art photography and visited the country more times.
Bale, I’m a woman
So yes, I’m a western woman and I went alone to Iran multiple times with nothing more than some basics and my camera. I didn’t book a guided tour. Actually, I arranged everything myself. From the hotels to taxis and currency exchange. I used public transport only. Along the way, I learned some basic words of Farsi, because English is not widely spoken. I met many Iranian people and I tried to do the daily stuff local people do. In practice that means I went to bazaars, luna parks, the zoo, teahouses, museums, picnic places, and suburbs of the big cities, to name a few.
I didn’t have any negative experiences. Of course, the situation was different than in any Western country. I wore a headscarf, long trousers and shirts because of Islamic law. To be honest, there have been moments I forgot to wear my headscarf when I left the hotel room. Simply because I wasn’t used to wearing one. That was the only ‘problem’ I had with clothes.
As I mentioned before, in Iran English is not widely spoken. That makes communication or navigation challenging at some points. Because of that, it was impossible for me to take local busses in the big cities. The metro on the other hand was easier.
The last puzzling point for me was the distinction between man and woman. Both sexes are strictly separated, yet in practice, the distinction is not so strictly. As an outsider, it’s hard to understand this point.
What you should know
The reason why I was able to do all this is, is because of the Iranian people. As I experienced it, the people living in Iran were always very welcoming and friendly. I ‘spoke’ many people along the way. That means we used translation apps, emojis, photos, and broken English and Farsi to understand each other. Surprisingly that worked out very well. People were always open to contact and always helping. I’ve been invited to many people’s homes to eat and drink chai with the family. Those were experiences I will never forget. In special women were eager to have contact and take care of me. There hasn’t been one single moment that I felt in danger in Iran.
If there’s one thing I think you should know about Iran, is that politics and people differ a lot. Unfortunately, Iran is most of the time negative in the news. Politics, Islamic forces, anti-USA, anti-Iran slogans, and violence are dominating the media. Without a doubt, the modern history of Iran is intense. You could easily make the suggestion that everything Iranian is dangerous when you put all the information together.
Fact is, that this hasn’t got anything to do with Iranian people. The assumptions and character of the Iranian people differ significantly from Iran’s image in the mainstream media. There’s a big gap between politics and the Iranian people. The character of the Iranian people is friendly and welcoming. And that is the reason why I was able to go to Iran multiple times as a woman alone.
One disclaimer I have to mention here is that I have a European passport. That means I’m able to get a tourist visa for one month and move freely in the country. Inhabitants of the USA and UK will have a government guide with them if their visa request is approved.