This was the premiere of Turbulent, one of the first videos I ever made. We were at the Whitney Museum’s Philip Morris space in October 1998; Eugenie Tsai curated the show. The photo marks the beginning of what would become a long collaboration and friendship among all of us in the picture. The video went on to be very successful—it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 1999. For every one of us, life changed after we made this video together.
The man on the far right is the cinematographer, Ghasem Ebrahimian. He just shot my latest video, which I’m showing at the Broad this fall. Next to him is Bahman Soltani, the producer. Then Arita Shahrzad, who I ended up collaborating with on my photography series, “Women of Allah.” She has an incredible face. The woman below her is Azin Valy, an architect and one of my best friends. Next to Arita is Shoja Azari; he played the male singer in Turbulent, and became my partner. Then there’s Sussan Deyhim, the female singer, and her husband, Richard Horowitz, a musician and composer.
Before I made Turbulent, I was in Turkey and saw a young blind woman singing on the street. Her voice was tremendous, and there were all these people gathered around her. I stood there, devastated by her music; it was so emotional. What was really provocative for me was that she couldn’t see her audience. I came back to New York and thought I’d like to make a two-channel video with one man, one woman—one with an audience, one without. I developed the idea into more of a sociological piece about Iran and how women are forbidden from singing in public.
I had to find the right singers. Sussan was an old friend of mine, and she had just moved to New York. Shahram Nazeri, one of the most renowned classical Iranian singers, sang the part of the man. We—Sussan, Ghasem, Shoja, and I—were all together, trying to figure out who could lip-synch the male part. We needed someone Iranian, and we all looked at Shoja. He said, no, no—not me! But we just had him try. We had only $20,000 for the whole project. We shot over two days in a high school on the Lower East Side. The minute it was over, we couldn’t separate—me and Shoja, romantically, but everyone else, too. We had so much in common, being Iranian, being artists in the diaspora. We became a unit. It was an amazing turning point in my personal life, and a breakthrough in my artistic career.
—As told to Leigh Anne Miller
This article appears in the September 2019 issue, p. 18.