You can easily see why Iranian photographer Newsha Tavakolian is a good fit to open the pre-festival of the Singapore International Festival of Arts 2016, The O.P.E.N 2016. With this year's theme of 'Potentialities' — celebrating individuals who challenge contexts and open insights into our world and humanity — the 35-year-old seems to embody a force who's out to change the world's perceptions of the Middle East.

Yet this is far from the case. "If I change some people's mind I will be very happy," says the soft-spoken woman. "It's not my responsibility to change people's mind." Tavakolian is speaking to me via Skype from a cold morning in Lodz, Poland, where she's there to plan an exhibition with a curator. In Singapore, she'll display photographs from her previous series, 'Look', 'Listen' and 'The Blank Pages Of An Iranian Photo Album'.

Since leaving school at the age of 16, the Tehran native has built her name on capturing the lives of people who are often made invisible to the public eye. One of the self-taught photographer's first assignments was the 1999 student uprising in Tehran — since then, she's shared her knack of snapping intimate portraits of those affected by conflicts in countries such as Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Jordan and Yemen.

Closer to home, she's photographed schoolgirls in Iran's Zanjan province, a young woman celebrating the outcome of a nuclear agreement in northern Tehran, and an elderly woman caught in the crowds of a al-Quds day rally in Tehran. Her work has been seen in publications such as National Geographic, Newsweek, the New York Times and Time — such as Time's cover story on what Iran would look like in 2025.



How to get to know a subject

Despite the fact that her work portrays Iranian women, she stresses the point that even as an Iranian woman, the photographer doesn't represent anybody. "Some say I'm a representative of Iranian women," she shares. "But not at all, I don't try to and never wanted to be. I just want to take pictures of people, and try to talk about that person, her dreams, her conditions and how she lives."

When it comes to capturing the lives of other cultures, she knows to really take her time. Tavakolian tries to stay as long as possible to understand the country, get a feel of the society and connect the dots before she takes out her Hasselblad (her small camera of choice is the Canon G16). She politely chides the way foreign photographers who've come to Iran without really discovering the country.

Portrait of Somayyeh, 2015 for 'I Know Why The Rebel Sings'

"One week is not enough to go really deep into society and portray the nation," she explains. "After taking pictures in the street — images might be beautiful — but there is nothing in those photos. You can get those images anywhere. People are really sensitive about how they are portrayed." Her advice? "Read their books, watch their films and then get to know their society and culture."

Tavakolian herself has made a cultural boo-boo in the past. In 2004, she was arrested for entering a cemetery in Saudi Arabia. Keen to photograph the graveyard of one of Saudi Arabia's former kings, she didn't know that women aren't allowed in the cemetery.

How not to be judgmental

While she's established herself as a force to be reckoned with, Tavakolian still has her fears. "I'm afraid to be judgmental about someone," she confides. "That's why I think it's really important to spend enough time with people." She also doesn't like to be sentimental about her work, and not too distant. But how does one find that balance when photographing communities in conflict, such as the young Kurdish women fighters in Syria who've fought ISIS?

"By being patient," Tavakolian answers simply. "Instead of immediately taking pictures, listen. When you listen to the subject, you get more information and it really helps you capture the reality. If you want to take a portrait of someone, you should really get to know the personality and then take the right picture at the right moment."

A young Kurdish fighter in Syria

When I ask whether she likes having her picture taken, she giggles. She hates it.


Why?

"I don't know, there is something. I don't have many pictures of myself and I don't really like to be in front of a camera. I feel very stressed when I have my picture taken."

She's quick to point out that even though she can be really shy, she isn't shy when it comes to photography — and it shows. 

'I Know Why the Rebel Sings' by Newsha Tavakolian will be held from 29 June to 9 July at 72-13. Free admission with O.P.E.N. pass. For more information, click here.