Bronx native and photographer Randy Goodman has a new photo exhibit at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. Called "Iran: Women Only." It explores how women's lives have changed between her first visits to the Islamic republic to document the hostage crisis at the American embassy in Tehran, and her most recent visit in 2015, the year then President Obama signed the multilateral Iranian nuclear deal. “Spotlight New York” host Vivian Lee chatted with her about her journey understanding Iranian culture and capturing meaningful glimpses of everyday Iranian life with her lens.
VL: In November 1979, the U.S. embassy is stormed, and American hostages are taken. What were you doing at that time?
RG: I had just completed a master's degree in political sociology with the emphasis being on social political changes and, in some cases, revolution. However, my interest was in Latin America. But quite unexpectedly, a journalist that I had worked with while I was doing my master's degree said, “I’ve just been asked to go over to Iran to cover a delegation of grassroots [organizations] of Americans who have been invited by the people at the U.S. Embassy -- those Iranian students holding the hostages -- to have a person-to-person dialogue about what led up to the embassy takeover.” And he just very casually said, "Do you want to be the photographer?" So it was an opportunity that I just couldn't say no to.
VL: You didn't hestitate?
RG: To be honest with you, Vivian, I didn't. I felt bad having to tell my parents that I’d be going. They didn’t try to stop me. But at that age, at 24 -- my daughter is 24 today -- I remember how adventurous and how casually you might be about your own safety.
VL: So as a budding political sociologist and journalist, you're running to the story. What was it like being there as an American, and as a woman?
RG: We were guests in Iran, and when you're a guest, you are treated very well. [The embassy occupiers'] purpose was to show us what had led up to their decision to occupy the U.S. embassy with the intention of maybe staying for 24 hours or so -- never an intention of occupying it long term. In private, late night conversations with some of them in our hotel, they said quite honestly, some of this action was in part modeled after the US anti-war demonstration occupations. I befriended one of the women, you know, in that group who was more regularly with us. And when I went back in 2015, I ended up sending her an email prior to my arrival, and she immediately sent me an invitation to meet with her in her office. She’s now the vice president in Iran for Women and Families Affairs.
VL: How did you decide to focus on women?
RG: In the early 1980s, I covered everything: the war zone, breaking news, the second anniversary, the third anniversary of the takeover of the U.S. embassy. But when I returned in 2015, I wanted to know, how had Iran changed? Do you change? How had the people I knew then -- what kinds of things had happened to society? And looking back at my historic images, I realized there were so many about women that it would be a nice pairing. So it wasn't an intentional pursuit of Iranian women when I was over there.
VL: What were the differences you noticed between the time that you were there after the revolution had happened and 2015, when you decided to go back?
RG: Iran has this dialectic, you know. Back in the '30s, there were laws that forbade women from wearing the hijab in public. And you know, that was difficult for very religious, conservative women and men…but then when the revolution took place, and it became the Islamic Republic of Iran, it was a more complicated situation. It is true that the hijab was imposed. But the interpretation of why women were wearing what they were wearing is much more complicated. Initially, after the revolution, women would wear the chador in the streets as an expression of anti-Western sentiment -- that they no longer had to be the sensual woman or the woman whose body was commodified to sell products. If you look at Iranian women today, you can see the contemporary, the modern, Tehran -- and the way women have shown the influence of the Internet and satellite dishes, looking at Western and European films -- Tehran is a metropolitan city with a sprawling population, and the women are in all aspects of everyday life. I think what's most important for Americans here to understand is that women find ways to achieve in many aspects the life that they want to achieve. And I think a lot of the images that I show are evidence of that.
VL: You’ve taken thousands of photos. How did you possibly curate them for this exhibit?
RG: It’s called picking your faves! Most recently, I’d been reviewing my Iran collection with the hope of trying to figure out whether I would assemble them into a book. These images really need to be out of my archive and into the public [eye] so that people can have their own references to Iran in that particular time period.
VL: Which one is your favorite?
RG: A photograph of young women wearing headscarves sharing a meal that’s prepared in a communal pot. These are some of the Iranian women who took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran…they were very kind to me. We were very close in age. They -- you can see they’re giggling. It’s not a comfortable situation for them…It was very touching for me, because they let me cross the line and to come into their private space.
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