Acts of Resistance in Iran

June 4, 2024

In Iran, photography has long documented acts of resistance. However, when the camera first arrived in Tehran, only a few years after the new technology had been invented, photography became the preserve of the elite. The Shah, the ruler of Iran, was one of the country’s first great photographers, capturing images of his palatial surroundings and his many wives.

But as Iran’s political situation changed, so did the subjects photographed. The protests supporting the Constitutional Revolution in the first years of the 20th century were documented through film: the camera was being used to spread images of uprisings against the ruling elite who had once monopolised the power of photography. The events of the later 20th century, most notably the struggle against the Shah in 1978-79, were then captured by the photojournalist Abbas, among others. Once the theocracy of the Islamic Republic replaced the monarchy, the protests which soon erupted, some in support of the rights of women, were notably depicted through the lens of Hengameh Golestan.

(Left) To Oblivion, 2016, by Sheida Soleimani. (Right) In Turn, 2023 by Hoda Afshar. Installation image by Jo Underhill

During Iran’s most recent wave of protests – the Women, Life, Freedom movement – photography equally played its role. The outburst of resistance which swept across Iran followed the killing of Mahsa (Jina) Amini by Iranian security forces in September 2022, after she had been detained for so-called ‘improper’ dress.

It was the power of a photograph which sparked the intensity of feeling in the response to Mahsa’s death. Millions around the world saw the image of her lying in her hospital bed, before her death. A second photograph caught her parents in each-others’ arms in a bleak hospital corridor and produced a wave of gut-wrenching sadness, and anger. The journalist who took that photograph and reported Mahsa’s death, Niloofar Hamedi, was imprisoned. If these photos were the sparks for the protests, photography of the protests which followed provided further fuel.

Instagram, Twitter and other social media platforms provided the means of sharing these images far and wide. On Twitter, the hashtag associated with Mahsa Amini’s death became the most used ever. The young Iranians, women and men, girls and boys, on the streets were armed with their smart phones, ready to record their resistance and send images of it scattering across the globe.

Anonymous images, courtesy of Hoda Afshar

Iranian artist Hoda Afshar produced a work in response to the movement by collating and reproducing these anonymous photographs of the protest, demonstrating the power of the image. Currently on display in Acts of Resistance: Photography, Feminisms and the Art of Protest is a second group of works which Afshar has produced inspired by Women, Life, Freedom. Entitled In Turn, the work has a quiet power to it. Emphasising the solidarity that so often comes alongside resistance, Afshar celebrates the women of her homeland through tender moments of support, in this case, the plaiting of hair. As well as being on display at the South London Gallery, this work can also currently be seen as part of the current Peace Prize Exhibition at the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo.

In turn, 2023. Hoda Afshar.  Installation image by Jo Underhill

Returning to Acts of Resistance in South London, the exhibition features work by Iranian-American photographer, Sheida Soleimani. To Oblivion is a series created by Soleimani in 2016, to mark the lives of women who had been unjustly arrested, imprisoned, and executed by the Islamic Republic. Here she has also emphasised the key role of the photograph – searching out the images which help to identify these women: images often supressed by the regime.

Detail from ‘To Oblivion’ by Sheida Soleimani. 2016. Installation image courtesy Jo Underhill

Soleimani has also made work prompted by Women, Life, Freedom. On display at SLG alongside To Oblivion are posters which she made to mark and remember those arrested or killed during the protest movement. The V&A also recently acquired another work produced by Soleimani directly in response to Mahsa Amini’s death. Part of her Ghostwriter series, the image is built in her distinctive low-tech, collage style, incorporating copies of Amini’s brain scans, overlaid with an image of her hand to which Soleimani has added a burning white headscarf. The image was first included in the Eyes on Iran exhibition, displayed outside the UN office in New York in 2022.

Mahsa, photograph by Sheida Soleimani, 2022. Musuem no. PH.385-2023. Acquired with the support of The Parasol Foundation Women in Photography Project and the Sarikhani Family

Alongside the other works on display at Acts of Resistance, the works of Hoda Afshar and Sheida Soleimani combine activism with art to show how photography can enact change. The Women, Life, Freedom movement holds significance inside Iran as the most important moment of resistance the country has seen since the 1979 revolution. Globally, we can look to it, and the photographs which record it and respond to it, as a women-led movement built through feminist acts of resistance.

Poster by Sheida Soleimani

Acts of Resistance is at South London Gallery until 9 June 2024.

The exhibition is a collaboration between the SLG and the V&A as part of the V&A Parasol Foundation Women in Photography Project, made possible by the generous, ongoing support of Ms. Ruth Monicka Parasol and The Parasol Foundation Trust.

1 comment so far, view or add yours


The passage tells the story of how photography in Iran has been used to document social and political change:
Early Days: Photography arrived in Iran shortly after its invention, but only the elite, like the Shah, could afford it. Shifting Focus: As political movements arose, like the Constitutional Revolution, photography became a tool to document protests against the elite. Later Struggles: Photojournalists like Abbas captured the fight against the Shah in the 1970s. Women’s Rights: After the Islamic Republic took over, photographers like Hengameh Golestan documented protests for women’s rights.
In short, Iranian photographers have used their cameras to challenge authority and show the changing face of their country throughout history.

Add a comment

Please read our privacy policy to understand what we do with your data.


Join today and enjoy unlimited free entry to all V&A exhibitions, Members-only previews and more

Find out more


Explore our range of exclusive jewellery, books, gifts and more. Every purchase supports the V&A.

Find out more