Born to Iranian parents in Geneva, photographer Laurence Rasti arrived at her series The are no homosexuals in Iran quite naturally; it was a progression from her personal work exploring the notion of identity, both connected to her parents’ origin and more universal ideas such as the sexual identity of people. Refugees are not always fleeing war, as the photographer knew when she came across this story towards the end of her photographic studies back in 2014. In September 2007, at Columbia University, the former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad infamously declared “In Iran, we do not have homosexuals like in your country”. Homosexual intercourse as a crime can be punishable by the death penalty in Iran, in accordance with sharia law, making it one of eight countries where gay people face capital punishment. For Iranian homosexuals, choices are limited: they can either hide their real sexuality or leave their homeland with the hope that they might be able to live freely elsewhere. In this series the artist explores the lives in transition of those Iranian refugees who had fled to Turkey seeking sexual freedom.
Rasti’s first lead was an NGO that worked with refugees in Denizli, a small town in Turkey, the knowledge she gained from these online correspondences set the foundation for her work there. Hundreds of gay Iranian refugees transit the small town, putting their lives on pause before they make it to a new host country. In this context of uncertainty, where anonymity is the best protection, this series questions the fragile identity and gender concepts. The photographer elaborates: “It tries to give back to those people a face that their country has temporarily stolen”.
“For me it was important to capture the identity of the person in question without victimising him” emphasises Rasti, a hard feat when anonymity was these peoples’ only protection, “I realised I couldn’t photograph their faces, so I had to find a different way to portray them”. The artist spent time with her subjects getting to know them, building up trust and respect, finding different means of telling their stories. The people she met and photographed became her friends, clear in the resulting portraits of gay Iranian refugees in Turkey that convey an intimacy between photographer and subject, without jeopardising their safety.
With a childhood divided between Iran and Switzerland, the photographer found elements in the stories of those portrayed of something not too dissimilar from her own, a life split between countries and cultural identities. At first Rasti had something wholly different in mind for this project, she envisioned more of a photo documentary exposing the difficulty of the situation and the ordeals her subjects endured. The more they talked, the more she realised that there was more depth to be found exploring a slightly different aspect. Her new friends’ hope to reclaim the identity space of which they were deprived and their love that transcends gender, these were what compelled them to flee their homeland; these sentiments can be felt between Rasti’s portraits of hidden and shielded faces.
‘There are no homosexuals in Iran’ will be published in book form in 2017.
All images © Laurence Rasti