By Sonya Weakley, Staff Writer, America.gov
U.S. photographer hopes "Pictures of You" influences attitudes in America
Washington - If his latest project sparks debate and discussion in America, photographer Tom Loughlin will believe it is a success.
By that measure, "Pictures of You: Images from Iran," described by Loughlin as a "traveling multimedia installation featuring portraits of Iranian citizens printed on translucent fabric," has done well. Comments on the project's Web site and in other publications range from reverent to resentful.
Loughlin, a former product liability and intellectual property lawyer, is the architect and public face behind the project, which is housed in a massive assembly of aluminum rods draped with silk. The frame is 90 feet (27 meters) long, 28 feet (8.5 meters) at its widest point and 27 feet (8.25 meters) high.
Inside and outside, hanging fabric panels - four that are 15 feet (4.5 meters) high and 14 feet (4.25 meters) wide - display photographs that Loughlin, who became a full-time photographer in 2005, and others took in Iran. The exhibit has 10 six feet (1.8 meters) by nine feet (2.75 meters) panels and 12 that are two feet (0.6 meters) by three feet (0.9 meters).
Loughlin said he modeled the structure's wings on a traditional indoor bazaar in Iran. A central circular area, which he said often is mistaken for a mosque, is a common gathering area such as might be found in a Persian home.
A visitor entering the giant tent immediately encounters the suspended textiles emblazoned with the faces of Iranians posing or going about daily life. Sometimes the viewer must brush against the panels to get by them. "I wanted Americans to be able to look Iranians in the eye and see ourselves."
The objective of the show, he said, is to convey "the simple reality that we all are human beings."
THE GLARE OF PUBLICITY
"Pictures of You" debuted in spring 2008 in Loughlin's hometown of Crested Butte, Colorado. It entered the international spotlight in August 2008 at the U.S. Democratic National Convention in Denver, where it was a striking fixture in a designated "free speech" area.
Comments appeared in national and international print and electronic publications and on the project's Web site. In September 2008, a visitor wrote: "Art should always have the ability to rise above politics and propaganda in search of our collective soul."
Politics, however, was the focus of other comments, such as those of activist Ana K. Sami in a guest editorial on DenverPost.com. "Loughlin's unbalanced view of the reality of the Iranian people undoubtedly plays directly into the hands of Iran's ruling elite."
Loughlin said he embraces the discussion. "I recognize that it has political impact," he said, "but the debate starts with simple reality that we're all human beings."
Carl W. Ernst, director of the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, welcomes the humanistic portrayal of Iranians through art.
"American media and popular entertainment typically ... dehumanize Iranians in [a] ... hostile manner," said Ernst, author of Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World.
He questioned, however, the mix of art and politics and "the extent to which you can pursue this project if the humanizing aspect is to be subordinated to policy objectives. That seems to be a potentially major contradiction."
AN OBLIGATION TO ACT
Loughlin said he developed a curiosity about Iran as a young teenager witnessing Iranian students holding Americans hostage in the U.S. Embassy there. He couldn't accept that Iranians were somehow different. "It's always been part of my makeup - the presumption that we are all human beings."
In fall 2006, he visited the country. "I wanted to see it for myself," he said. "I took my camera, but I didn't have any idea it would turn into what it turned into; I thought I might come back with a beautiful sunrise."
What he experienced, he said, was remarkable generosity and kindness. "In traditional Persian hospitality, they are extremely welcoming to guests. A guest is a gift. They want to connect with you."
Through that bond, he perceived a feeling of impending disaster and experienced a sense of urgency to take action. "There was a sense that being bombed was a very real possibility," he said.
He returned to the U.S. feeling compelled to share his experience. "I felt like it was both an opportunity and an obligation to tell a story as a citizen of the U.S., where we have a democracy" that allows free expression.
The challenge was how to tell it. "I knew it wouldn't work as a gallery show. I wanted people to turn toward each other, to be more intimate."
That accessibility also leaves the exhibit vulnerable to vandalism. "It must be powerful if it would make someone do that," he said. "Part of me would be tempted to leave it. Someone carrying so much anger and not being changed by the beauty would become part of the experience."
Loughlin hopes to tour the country and is raising money through his organization, the Manjushri Project, and Fractured Atlas, a private fundraising group. He said he and his wife, Laurie Kindel, invested "more than six figures" to develop the project, and he believes it simply was the right thing to do.
"My sense is that it works exactly the way I hoped it would. I can't think of another way I would do it."
To learn more, see http://www.picturesofyouiran.com/.
About America.gov: U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) engages international audiences on issues of foreign policy, society and values to help create an environment receptive to U.S. national interests.
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