Tehran is the seat where most of Iran’s artistic community resides and hopes to one day thrive, despite the tremendous censorship restrictions regarding who can perform and under which circumstances. Navigating these restrictions has become an art form itself, while social media sites (at least those that are allowed) are continuously monitored. Iran has very strict censorship rules regarding women’s appearance, and which topics are permitted to be discussed openly. Anything cultural or artistic that has the intention of being presented to the masses must first receive authorization and approval from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance before it can proceed into production. Plays, novels, videos, films and songs all are subject to scrutiny, and which ones are ultimately approved or dismissed is often decided by an arbitrary stroke of an official’s pen. Any plays that relate to politics or religion or refer to sexual issues are not allowed. Women vocalists are not permitted to sing solo in front of a male audience or make records, in part because of a long-standing idea that a woman’s voice will incite sexual excitement among men. Many artists have been forced to pursue their creative freedom by traveling underground (and in some cases quite literally), staging shows in tunnels, caves, homes or isolated fields where officials won’t see them, more so as an act of self-preservation rather than of rebellion. Iranian artists can navigate between the more mainstream and underground scenes as well. For example, it is possible for an artist to take part in an official performance while working on different underground/illegal projects.
Iran has seen faint promises of more civil freedoms since the arrival of newly elected president Hassan Rouhani, a moderate politician said to be in favor of promoting more arts. In January 2014, the band Pallett famously played to a live nationally televised audience, and in April of this year pop star Xaniar Khosravi performed on stage after having been previously rejected by the Ministry of Culture for having a Western sound, leading many to feel that change — albeit a slow drip — may be imminent.
Photographer Jeremy Suyker spent several months in the country following an underground culture of young dancers, painters, performing artists, musicians and vivacious creatives resilient in producing their passions outside the confines of censorship. In early 2013, while doing research on Iranian culture, Suyker received a tip from an Iranian friend in Paris that a dynamic art scene was unfolding in Tehran. He spent months with dozens of artists who welcomed him, not as an outsider to their secret society but as a fellow creative and storyteller reflecting the narrative of their intimate lives and struggles. The vision of what Iranian culture should appear to be on the surface — particularly among the younger generation — is turned on its head and rendered myopic through Suyker’s images.
All photos by Jeremy Suyker