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A student-curated exhibition challenges notions of Iran

Inspiration frequently comes when we least expect it. For Maryam Kashkooli, a fourth-year student studying economics and mathematics, it came in the form of a TED talk.

Kashkooli was born in Iran. While she has lived in the United States for most of her life, she has a deeply rooted connection to Iran — it is an imperative element of her identity. When she found herself explaining the reality of the country to her friends and peers whose, she realized that most of their perception and understanding were heavily influenced by the western media. Kashkooli decided to do something about it.  

While watching a TED talk titled “Iran from a Different Lens” by Maryam Ghadiri, Kashkooli found her platform. Like Ghadiri, she wanted to use photographs to show people the true Iran through her eyes, and the eyes of aspiring Iranian photographers. Kashkooli wanted to share all of the elements of her culture, not just the political ones. She wanted to enlighten people to the power that media holds in limiting perception, by showing her audience pieces of Iran they had never seen before.

The produce section of the Old Bazar in Rasht, Iran. Part of the “Challenging Notions: Daily Life in Iran” exhibition. Photo by Kasra Kashkooli, provided by Maryam Kashkooli.

“I think art allows the viewer to make their own decisions without any sort of biases or clouding, you’re just taking it in, especially with a photo,” Kashkooli said. “I liked that there was no media and no politics. You could just look at the art and make your own decisions.”

With the help of the Office of International Programs (OIP) and its director, Orlina Boteva, Kashkooli got to work putting the exhibition together. She first contacted her cousin, who lives in Iran, to see if he would be willing to share his photos. Then he put her in touch with other Iranian photographers and so the exhibit grew.  

“I think that, in a very human way, we understand culture through our senses. So when looking at art, and how people see the world, we get an incredible opportunity to understand more about the place or people we are looking at,” Boteva said. “Through her descriptions and choices, she really brought a lot of life to these photos. When you look at U.S. media and policy, many countries are looked at through one lens — violence. She really wanted to show the faces of Iran. I loved how she picked photos which depicted Iran in a way I hadn’t really seen before.”

On Monday, Nov. 6, the OIP welcomed her photography exhibit, titled “Challenging Notions: Daily Life in Iran,” to the second floor of Estabrooke Hall as part of their International Education Week kick-off. International Education Week returned to campus this month after a 10-year hiatus. In celebration of its revival, the event was expanded to two weeks of scheduled events. The exhibit is still up for viewing until replaced with another exhibition.

A young girl carries wood in the small rural village of Saraghaseed in Iran. Part of the “Challenging Notions: Daily Life in Iran” exhibition. Photo by Marjan Mosharaf, provided by Maryam Kashkooli.

“Finally getting to put the photos up and seeing them on the walls, that was really nice,” Kashkooli said. “As I walked a group of people through it, and they asked me a lot of questions. It was cool to see how interested people were. I hope that people leave with a more open mind about Iran and the people who live there, and maybe think twice when things happen in the media. Take things with a grain of salt because nothing is what it seems.”


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