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A gay Iranian photographer's journey of survival

A self-portrait featuring a banner bearing the face of Mahsa Amini. He proudly displays this banner during a protest held by Iranians in Istanbul against the oppressive Iranian regime. Photo by Shabani.

Ashkan Shabani shared his personal journey as an Iranian photographer and a member of the LGBTQ+ community in a Zoom interview with Global Voices. He also shared some of his experiences within the community while residing in Turkey. Selected photos are showcased throughout the article, providing a visual representation of his journey. This interview has been edited for clarity. Written by Mariam A. & Arzu Geybullayeva

In 2020, as the world battled to survive the COVID-19 pandemic, Ashkan Shabani faced his own battle for survival. For 13 years, he concealed his true identity as a gay man, living in secrecy, with his family in Iran. However, the delicate balance shattered when his father discovered him with his boyfriend of eight years. What followed was a nightmare, transforming his life from unfulfilled duplicity to a desperate fight for survival. He was faced with two options: a mental institution or death.

I hadn't seen my boyfriend in a long time due to the quarantine restrictions, and in a moment of misjudgment, I made a grave mistake. I invited him over, knowing that my parents were not at home. My father returned home earlier, catching us both off guard. Shock and panic surged through me. I instinctively urged my boyfriend to run for his safety. My father's fury erupted, and he beat me mercilessly. At 26 years old, I felt powerless to stop him. Growing up with relentless beatings and constant humiliation made finding the courage to fight back incredibly challenging. My father presented me with two choices: commit myself to a mental institution where I would be subjected to electroconvulsive therapy to “cure” my homosexuality, or face death. I chose to flee.

For over four decades, Iran has denied the existence of LGBTQ+ individuals, creating a bleak reality where their mere existence is met with the constant threat of execution. Same-sex relationships are widely stigmatized, and official policies severely restrict the community's ability to live normal lives. As a result, the LGBTQ+ community in Iran faces systemic suppression, discrimination, family rejection, and legal obstacles. Navigating a troubled childhood

Shabani was born in Iran, near the Caspian Sea, and grew up in a deeply conservative environment. His parents exerted a suffocating level of control over every aspect of his life, dictating his clothing, his activities, and even his social interactions. However, the most agonizing aspect of his upbringing was the abuse.

I suffered from extensive childhood abuse at the hands of my parents. My father would use sharp objects to cut me when I didn't pray, study enough, or play according to his expectations. To this day, the scars on my hand serve as a reminder of the pain I endured. He would force-feed me hot pepper and inflict burns on my skin by heating spoons on the stove. He suspected that I was different…Perhaps too different.

A self-portrait of Ashkan and his partner in a serene place in the northern jungles of Iran by the Caspian Sea. Photo provided by Shabani.

Being different was something Shabani himself struggled to comprehend. As a child, his behavior didn't align with societal expectations for boys. Instead of engaging in “typical” activities such as playing soccer or with toy guns and cars, his preferred games involved what were perceived as feminine pursuits such as preparing food or playing house with girls.

In elementary school, I felt something was off, but I couldn’t understand what. This made it incredibly hard to accept myself. I felt completely alone, with no one to seek guidance from and no information. To make matters worse, I was constantly being beaten up by my family who were trying to hide my nature from other family members. I was clueless and believed I was the only person experiencing these feelings. I would pray to God, begging Him to change me. During high school, I gained access to the internet in an internet café. Initially, the Persian database was limited, but when I started searching in English, it opened up a whole new world. I learnt the word gay, and then I realized my own nature. I learnt that there were many people out there just like me. It was a revelation to realize that I was not alone. From that point on, I began using platforms like Yahoo, Messenger, and Facebook to connect with others, to find people who shared similar experiences.

A glimmer of hope in troubled times

After fleeing from home at the age of 26, Shabani lived a nomadic existence, constantly on the move from one city to another. He resorted to sleeping in parks and public spaces, always trying to stay one step ahead. However, his well-connected father seemed to have an uncanny ability to track him down, sending him menacing threats of finding, raping, and killing him with the help of his uncles. It was a perpetual cycle of fear and desperation.

But amidst that chaotic life, an unexpected life changing opportunity presented itself. He was awarded a USD 18,000 scholarship to study photography with Ed Kashi, an acclaimed and award-winning photographer from New York. Shabani soon revealed his dire situation to Kashi, who responded with genuine sympathy and support — a kindness that Shabani had seldom experienced before.

Ed was incredibly supportive. He and his wife would call me every day, becoming the parents I never had the chance to meet. At the same time, my own mother began sending me hurtful messages on Telegram, telling me that I was no longer her son and expressing her wish for my death. Reading those messages, I felt a deep despair that led me to contemplating killing myself. I found myself standing on a bridge in southern Iran, ready to end it all. At that moment, Ed called me on WhatsApp video. We were both crying, but he changed my mind and gave me the idea to leave Iran. I sold my camera and bought a plane ticket to Turkey. I left my homeland, my entire life was condensed into one suitcase, my laptop, and a cherished old camera that I still have to this day.”

From the frying pan to the fire

Unfortunately, Ashkan’s troubles did not end once he arrived in Turkey. He faced homesickness and heartbreak, as his partner broke up with him shortly after he left Iran. Moreover, he faced a new reality of discrimination, harassment, and fear in Turkey, where there has been an increased hate speech and violence targeting the LGBTQ+ community.

When I first arrived in Turkey, I settled in a conservative neighborhood where I encountered constant hostility. People would stare, push me away when I tried to board the bus, and hurl offensive words and obscene gestures [at me]. The discrimination I faced was primarily due to my nationality but amplified by my sexuality. The most horrifying experience of discrimination I encountered was in August 2021, when I was documenting the wildfire in South Turkey. I was capturing images when the police approached me, checked my press card and documents, and confiscated my camera. They demanded access to my mobile phone and discovered my sexual orientation while browsing my pictures. That's when the mocking began, with one officer subjecting me to humiliating touches. They forced me into their police car and abandoned me in the heart of the fire, in a location inaccessible to cars.

In the lead up to the May general elections in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Minister of the Interior Süleyman Soylu targeted the opposition alliance for supporting the LGBTQ+ community. On May 2, Soylu made headlines by threatening to ban a TV commercial for “evoking lesbianism.” Last year, a song about love between two men drew backlash from Turkey's conservatives, who argued the video had no place in their country.

Queer, Life, Freedom

Despite these challenges, Shabani remains determined to fight for the freedom and equality of the LGBTQ+ community in Iran and around the world. His passion is fueled by the Woman, Life, Freedom movement, and the hope of one day returning home, where he can live without fear of persecution and discrimination.

Ever since I became a photographer, I've felt an urge to make a difference. I yearn for people to understand us and to accept us. The women in my country, Iran, have inspired me with their ability to bring people of all ethnicities together and stand up for their rights. I know that I'm lucky to be among the few who escaped this tragic fate. Many others like me end up committing suicide or getting killed at the hands of their own families. I want to ensure that these things never befall anyone in the Middle East, regardless of their location, be it Afghanistan, Syria, Egypt, Iran, or elsewhere. To those facing similar experiences, my advice is to remember that they are not alone and to let go of fear. I am ashamed of myself for not standing up to my parents and my friends when I was younger. However, now I feel an incredible sense of liberation, as if a heavy burden has been lifted. Although I am uncertain about what the future holds, I cannot return to Iran or stay in Turkey, but for the first time in my life, I am not afraid. I feel free.

Second publication by courtesy of Global Voices, Original-Text


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