Maryam Eisler is the living embodiment of a global citizen. Having left Iran at the age of 10 in 1978, she would then spend her adolescent years in Paris before moving to the East Coast of the United States to study at Wellesley College, followed by Columbia University. Her early professional life followed a more corporate narrative until she found photography and the arts, her true calling in life. Photography, in particular, has enabled Maryam to explore pertinent topics such as Womanhood (with a capital W) and identity through time, space and place. As a board member of Columbia University’s Global Centers, a co-chair of Tate’s MENAAC Acquisitions Committee, a trustee of the Whitechapel Gallery, an Ambassador for Photo London and a nominator for the Prix Pictet photography prize, Maryam’s work is simply a mirror of her own personal growth as she herself straddles several worlds, redefining her role as a supporter of the arts, an artist, an author, and possibly even an activist, in today’s complex world.
COOLS: You moved from Tehran to Paris at the age of 10; do you remember anything from your time there? It seems to color so much of your work.
Maryam Eisler: The move was sudden and somewhat unexpected due to the political situation in Iran. As such, I did not have a “normal childhood” since I was ‘forced’ not by choice but rather by circumstance into prompted maturity and responsibility from an early age — with those years forever crystallized in my mind. But as a child, you adapt quickly and so life moved on, and I soon learned that I was better off not resisting change but rather embracing new opportunities with positive and renewed energy.
The one constant memory I have of those early post-revolutionary years relate to the times I spent with my mother on weekends discovering the arts in Paris — not a bad place to start one’s cultural life journey! Photographically, one of the first photo exhibitions that really arrested me emotionally in more ways than one was a Man Ray show held at the Centre Pompidou. That I think was my first encounter with a photographic genius.
COOLS: With all the moving you’ve done, there are so many cultures and places that must have surely affected your identity. Did you ever feel like you didn’t belong somewhere and how did you deal with that? As an extension of that, how do you define home?
Maryam Eisler: Every ‘home,’ every move, has enriched my life through the experiences it has afforded me and the people I have been lucky enough to meet along the way. Home for me is really about a sense of place and belonging; it’s about finding an abode where I am given the opportunity to connect with like-minded souls in an open and meaningful manner, a place which enables interesting dialogue and critical thinking, but also a place which offers fertile grounds for inspiration, imagination and innovation. I must say that even though I have moved a great deal throughout my life, I have never lost a sense of my roots. I can proudly say that I’m deeply anchored in Persian culture, but that I have layered and enriched that origin with what life has offered me along the way.
French culture, in particular, taught me how to debate and how to question and doubt, whereas my American education empowered me with a sense of potential and an appreciation for a ‘can-do’ attitude towards life. Today, ‘home’ is London – a true melting pot of cultures and associated imaginative possibilities.
On a personal level, I have a great debt to adventure, a leading principle throughout my life. As a child I always wanted to be an archeologist. Today, I may not be an archaeologist in the literal sense of the word, but I may be viewed as a social archeologist, given my interest in exploring minds, souls and psyches, through both publications and photography.
COOLS: I’m wondering if you think photographic pursuits are always informed by one’s experiences?
Maryam Eisler: Reality is open to both factual and emotional interpretations. How one interprets that reality visually is very particular to the individual in question. I guess that’s what people mean when they speak of the photographer’s ‘eye’ or ‘perspective.’ That’s where emotion and soul come into important play. An image is only effective if and when the photographer is as honest as he or she can be with his/ her own emotion as it relates to the subject matter. And the translation of that emotion into a visual is a very intimate and revelatory process.
COOLS: What do you mean by that exactly?
Maryam Eisler: I mean that the act of photography offers a window into the soul of the photographer, laying her/his every emotion in the bare. The camera is just a technical equipment, a channel whose purpose is to unveil the photographer’s state of mind and transfer that very emotion into a palpable vision.
COOLS: What topics are you interested in exploring ?
I’m obsessed with the Sublime Feminine, the Divine Feminine. I am constantly exploring Woman with a capital W, her role and her place in the universe. Possibly a search for Self.
COOLS: What about the “female gaze” versus the “male gaze”?
Maryam Eisler: When I shoot the female figure, I view her on many levels. There’s Woman as mother, there’s Woman as mother nature and therefore the ‘ Origin.’ There’s Woman as temptress, there’s Woman as sexual being , and Woman as intellectual power. I’m also interested in the purity of the female form and am intrigued by the contrasts of her curvilinear forms with the often jagged environment in which she is placed, a nature which often presents itself in a barren, often hostile manner. The ‘male gaze,’ on the other hand, tends to be more one-dimensional, less complex – that, of course, is just an opinion!
COOLS: So where does it become problematic for you as a woman to have a male looking at your work and interpreting it in a way that’s not how you intended it to be?
M: I think you have to keep the dialogue open. People can have different opinions; to each their own and that’s fine. Art is subjective and that is the beauty of it. I encourage dialogue and debate, as long as there’s respect of opinions from both sides of the spectrum.
What about documentary photography as you have done for your latest publication, ‘Voices East London’? How does that differ from your fine art practice?
Documentary-style photography is a different ball game. When I’m doing fine art photography I have all the time in the world to think, to pause, and to frame. Time is of no consequence. But when I’m photographing a personality in a documentary style, it’s all about performance under time and under pressure; it’s about thinking on your feet, making the most of your environment – which, by the way, you have not chosen- and dealing with larger than life egos! Yet, all the while, you are trying to keep it fresh and creative. In ‘ Voices East London,’ I hope I have managed to convey the fun, contagiously colorful and bombastic creative energy that is unique to London’s creative Ghetto, the East End. When I started off with the project, I was interested in exploring the catalysts that have led to the unusual level of innovation and out-of-the-box thinking that can only be experienced in London’s East End…and I soon realized that creativity, in this part of London, is born out of a constant historical tension between Glitz and Grits, as well as a harmonious cultural layering and meshing that has taken place over time, unique to this part of the city. From the Huguenots to the Irish silk weavers, from the Eastern European Jews, to the Bangladeshi Muslim community of today — all have contributed to the rich and complex culture of the community in question. And with time, the inhabitants of East London have always shown resilience and an incredible ability to adapt, to change, and embrace the new, whilst reinventing themselves as and when necessary, with a wonderful industrious spirit.
Through the portrayal of 80 effervescent storytellers across the spectrum of creativity, from fashion to visual arts, from music to technology as well as cabbies, bums and retired gangsters, too, I hope I have managed to convey a visual and intellectual slice of East London’s creative history. When I asked Gilbert and George why they never left the area, the answer was: “ Why should we when the whole world comes to us? We have the whole universe, every creed, every race, every religion, right here at our doorstep, on Fournier Street, sandwiched between the Church (Christ Church) on one end and the Mosque on the other!”
Today, we live in dangerous times as we are witnessing a serious erosion of tolerance, of acceptance and of inclusivity worldwide. There are lessons to be learned from London’s East End, where somehow, over time, the sense of community and peaceful co- existence have won over differences, and where humanity has taken priority.
COOLS: Why your interest in the arts ?
Maryam Eisler: I’m a believer in art as soft power, enabling dialogue and critical thinking. I’m also anti–regionalisation and anti-labeling, as to me they are equivalent to border creation — both physical and intellectual. And in today’ s world, we simply cannot afford this way of thinking. We should rather be focused on openness and exchange. It should be about achieving goals together, rather than individually. I’m a great believer in using culture to open minds and hearts. I’m also a great believer not only in the open flow of borders but also of ideas. And I am strongly convinced that as human beings, we have more in common than we have differences. So why not bank on that and unleash our potential collectively in order to conquer innovation?
Check out Maryam’s new book here:
Voices: East London (Thames & Hudson; £28), by photographer Maryam Eisler