Fazilat Soukhakian is an Iranian artist, photographer, scholar, and storyteller whose work depicts the stories of bravery and strength of those marginalized by society, highlighting the act of overcoming struggle and inspiring others. She is currently an Associate Professor of Photography at Utah State University. In our interview, we talk about following dreams, challenging injustice, and creating a better future for LGBTQ+ people.
You started your career as a photojournalist in Iran, and became one of very few female photojournalists. Can you tell me about pioneering this career within a tremendously patriarchal society?
I did have a few examples of very strong female photojournalists around me, which gave me the courage and vision to start my career as a photojournalist when I was only 22 years old. It took me a while until I was able to prove myself as a female photojournalist working almost exclusively alongside men in the field. But I believe that this time was the most important period in my photography career, giving me a vision on what I wanted to do with photography. Being right in the center of the capital and documenting the governmental workings, I witnessed the inequalities, and I knew I wanted to portray them with my camera.
That’s inspiring. And what brought you to the USA in 2011?
From my experiences working as a photojournalist in Iran, I realized the characteristic of photography as a tool of power where you can record, portray, and express your concern for social injustice, and inequalities. I realized how photography could be so powerful that it is considered a threat for those who benefit from this injustice. I wanted to learn more about this medium, so I decided to get my master’s degree and be in a place where I could freely practice photography without a constant risk and worry of getting arrested or being threatened for any project I would work on.
How did you find yourself creating the Queer in Utah photo series?
As a photographer dealing with social justice issues, born and raised in Iran; the country that still punishes the LGBTQ+ with the death penalty, I always felt extremely helpless that I was not able to reflect on this issue to showcase the challenges that my queer friends and community in Iran, were dealing with (the risk was too high).
After moving to the USA, I was shocked to find out that the LGBTQ+ community in certain regions of the United States goes through similar struggles and challenges of discrimination and suppression. The Queer in Utah project was started after witnessing people from my new community in Utah struggle with depression, sometimes even injury by self-infliction. Friends that had to choose between their faith and desires, all rooted in a system of self-doubt from a clash where faith and sexual orientation can’t seem to harmonize.
Growing up Mormon, this is something I can really relate to, and appreciate. What do you hope to achieve with this work?
My photographs simply portray these beautiful people in their pursuit of love in a society that considers their identity and desire to be something to feel guilty about, yet they resist in their own individual ways. I can only hope that, by sharing these stories, it inspires others in similar situations not to lose hope and to feel empowered towards their own love pursuits. Ideally, I hope to contribute a small part towards the normalization of the LGBTQ+ community in the conservative setting of Utah with this project. This project is evolving as the Queer community in Utah's situation is changing due to the fight of this community and the many activists working towards a better future.
Currently, the series is on view at the Metaverse Gallery of FOTOEVIDENCE, where the project has been well received and viewed by many people from across the world, which is amazing. It is a very important time to highlight this subject, as the LDS church has recently backed a bill that supports same-sex marriage. I believe now is the time to push harder for real change to happen.