An embracing couple is captured in front of a narrowing, leaf-covered path. Slightly off-center in the composition, we see one figure’s back, while the other figure is facing us, gazing confidently in our direction, one arm cradling the lower back of her partner, while the other hand just above showcases outstretched fingers, one prominently displaying a dark wedding band. This captivating work is a standout in artist Fazilat Soukhakian’s ongoing photographic series Queer in Utah, which stages powerful and intimate portraits of same-sex couples.
Indeed, the art of Soukhakian, a celebrated photographer and scholar, examines issues of gender and national identity through work that directly confronts some of the most significant social and political issues of our time. Soukhakian’s spirit of activism is a constant in her works, often relishing in the perspectives of those disregarded or under-valued by their nations, societies or religions.
Soukhakian began her career as one of Iran’s premiere female photojournalists, known for her unflinching accounts of gender segregation and discrimination in a heavily patriarchal society. At play in her work is what she describes as a “a combination of a theoretical and historical understanding of space combined with the creation of human-interest stories.”
The artist credits her home nation as an indelible influence on her artistic outlook. “Living in that part of the world, where you have to constantly struggle with a lot of social and cultural discrimination, you get used to looking at your life as a battleground,” she says.
In addition to her practice, Soukhakian has served as assistant professor of photography and photography area coordinator at Utah State University since 2015. Prior to moving to Utah, she received her M.F.A. (2013) and Ph.D. (2018, in architectural history and visual studies) from the University of Cincinnati. Before moving to the United States in 2011, she received a Bachelor of Fine Arts (photography) in her native Iran, at Tehran University. Along the way, Soukhakian has exhibited her work internationally and garnered many prizes for her compelling and timely photographs, which reveal layers of meaning beyond their surfaces, inviting a form of empathy and curiosity about their subjects that leaves an unmistakable impression.
Over the past few years, Soukhakian has exhibited work in Budapest, Florida, San Francisco, Portland, and Ohio. Her work has also made waves in local exhibitions, including Demarcation (traveling exhibition curated by Granary Arts, 2019) and Women to the Front: Perspectives on Equity, Gender, and Activism (curated by Nancy Rivera and this author for the Rio Gallery, 2020). Her work resides in the collections of the State of Utah Alice Merrill Horne Collection, the Rare Books Collection at the J. Willard Marriot Library (University of Utah), the Snow College Karen H. Huntsman Library Special Collections, the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art at Utah State University, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, and Savannah College of Art and Design.
A remarkable standout in Granary Arts’ Demarcation — an ambitious survey of contemporary photography in Utah as a dual exhibition and publication — is Soukhakian’s “Forbidden Hair,” 2016, which uses a biographical moment from the artist’s childhood to make a larger statement about gendered beauty standards in traditional Muslim societies. Here, Soukhakian has photographed human hair pinned to a wall with a nail. The upwardly cascading locks crescendo in a triangular fashion before teetering out at near the nail focal point, made even more dramatic when placed atop a bright, white background. The photograph is a response to a moment in Soukhakian’s childhood when a teacher chastised her for entering a public space without her head covering, voicing in front of the class that Soukhakian would be hung in hell by her hair.
In August 2020, Soukhakian debuted An Anonymous Battle, a solo exhibition at Snow College’s Karen H. Huntsman Library, which will be on view until June of 2021. This exhibition features a number of striking photographs of a female figure, clad in a traditional Islamic burka, engaging in modern tasks such as sitting on a motorcycle, reclining with two dogs, and skateboarding. Soukhakian gained her inspiration for this series from a fascinating schism currently underway in many Islamic societies between traditional gender roles and rapid modernization.
As the show’s press release describes it, “a younger generation of mostly educated women, newly aware of their rights and powers gifted to them through a glance into modernity, has catalyzed a growing struggle between traditional and contemporary gender roles and identity.”
2020’s Women to the Front featured three photographs from Soukhakian’s Queer in Utah Series, including the work noted at the outset. The exhibition sought to commemorate local female artists whose work comments on the legacy of the suffrage movement, which celebrated its centennial in 2020.
Beginning in 2019, Soukhakian set out with a very simple premise: to document the lives of same-sex couples living in notoriously conservative Utah.
“This series is about my shock that in the 21st century in America, there are places where communities are being discriminated against because of their sexuality,” she says. The artist admits that the scope of American discrimination took her by surprise upon moving to Utah in 2015.
“This was something I was really naïve about when I moved to America. I know I lived in Iran, which [is known for] a lot of discrimination and social issues, but my idea as a young 26-year-old just out of college is that I’m going to America to feel complete freedom, to feel like there is no discrimination here. I was shocked when I arrived in Utah, [and] immediately I was exposed to the idea that people were losing their jobs because of their sexuality. I was also exposed to young people that were thinking of suicide because they grew up in this faith that they have a lot of respect for but felt that they no longer had a place [within it].”
Though Soukhakian admits that the series is not meant to be overtly political, the individual works make an undoubtedly pointed statement about their subjects. Namely, the portraits of couples in a variety of settings normalizes such relationships and effectuate the ordinary and touching nature of their unions. The battle for many LGBTQ activists has been to achieve just that — the normalization of so-called “nontraditional” families.
What unites the works in this series is the intimacy of the shared connection, a visually tangible language of love captured by two people fully engaged with one another. And while Soukhakian captures candid scenes of great warmth, the works gain their enigmatic power from the fact that in many of the photographs, at least one figure gazes directly at the viewer, arresting us with an unavoidable gaze as if to compel us to acknowledge their presence. This is significant, for the marginalized often fight for the very right to exist as ordinary and as human and not “other.” This fight is notable in a state in which the LGBTQ community and the LDS Church have an embattled history.
Though the battle for full acceptance rages on, Soukhakian’s work on this series has given her reason to be hopeful. “I think the LGBTQ community are very brave, especially this new generation who are even bolder than the previous generation. I think that even five years from now, things will change even more and that the community will be even more accepting.”
Soukhakian’s other ongoing photographic series is called Defiance, an international project which highlights innovators whose actions challenge oppressive or antiquated belief systems in their native countries. “I was very interested in looking at communities that think outside of the box, without [whom] we would never see any real change,” she says.
She recalls meeting and photographing a woman in Japan who teaches seminars on female sexuality and empowerment, action which resulted in her arrest. “It’s interesting how from one culture to another, there are different standards. An act that would be criminal in one setting makes someone a hero in another. These brave people want to bring changes but in a very different and unique way,” Soukhakian says.
For Soukhakian, the ultimate goal of Defiance is about “bringing all these stories together in one place to [create] a sense of empowerment to every community.”
Soukhakian says she hopes to bring this sense of empowerment to her students too. She sees teaching as a vital way to encourage her students to see their own potential, including championing activism within their own lives. “When I moved to America, my assumption was there shouldn’t be many problems here,” she says. “There is a lot of talk here about freedom, particularly political freedom and the right to do whatever you choose, but I quickly realized this isn’t entirely true.”
It’s this realization that compelled Soukhakian to consider how individual struggle can serve as an inspiration for one’s creative process. “Everybody in their own life has some sort of huge struggle to go through. I tell my students constantly that this is what life is about. You don’t have to live in Syria to go through a war zone. I encourage them to think about it and that it’s OK to question it. As an educator, our job is to push them. This all starts with your own life,” she says.
Like most of us, the world paused in 2020 for Soukhakian, as she modified her international art projects and teaching to the shelter-in-place necessities of COVID-19. “For my own creative work, it’s been very challenging to do projects relating to human stories. All of my work relates to humans — [which involved] contacting them, flying to their country, grabbing coffee, setting up the lighting and taking photographs and that just hasn’t been possible.”
“For a while I wanted to be respectful. I didn’t know if people were comfortable, so for 5 months, I stopped producing. For Queer in Utah, I was able to continue working with people but for Defiance, that project [has] completely shut down. I had to cancel travel to Prague and Ireland and had plans to photograph in the Middle East and all those [plans] are shut down for now,” she says.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic proved devastating to the arts in many respects — including closures of galleries and museums and widespread economic hardships — for many, it was also a time to re-focus and re-prioritize one’s own craft. Despite all the uncertainty, Soukhakian says she appreciates these opportunities for reflection. “It was good timing to review my project’s ideas. I’ve had time to read more and a lot of museum shows are online right now, as well as a lot of workshops that would normally take place in New York City or L.A., I can attend. It makes me feel like I’m part of something I wouldn’t have access to before,” she says.
This re-focusing was also imperative when it came to her teaching philosophy, as her photography students were among the millions affected by a sudden adjustment to their everyday routine. Mid-way through the Spring 2020 semester, she and other faculty across the state were forced to switch to remote learning. “It’s been a challenging balance with teaching and my workload. The workload is much more for online courses,” she says. This is particularly difficult to navigate with studio-based courses less adaptable to online learning.
Despite these difficulties, the “students adjusted very well, and I learned a lot from my classes.” Some efficient practices may even survive a post-pandemic classroom. “Interestingly, my students taught me that we do not need to waste a lot of materials.” In her photography courses, students were traditionally required to produce prints for the class critiques. Now that these critiques have been taking place on Zoom, Soukhakian realizes it is not environmentally friendly to print out each version of a work in progress and may, in the future, require such prints only for the final works. “It makes sense that we can talk about a student’s work in progress over Zoom without having to make prints for each stage,” she says.
Ultimately, the artist’s own struggle to balance the stresses of the pandemic gave her empathy for what her students encountered. “We need to be understanding to their situation and understand it’s not an easy time to produce or read or write. They’re not at their best energy at this point and it’s not their fault,” she says.
Now, as Soukhakian looks ahead to a post-pandemic world, she is eager to begin traveling again to commence work on the Defiance series. Until then, we are fortunate to have avenues through which to enjoy her work, including online exhibitions and in-person viewing at Snow College. Utah is fortunate to have Soukhakian’s remarkable perspective — one marked by international notions of perseverance and activism, notions which 2020 brought into renewed focus.
Anonymous Battle, Snow College’s Karen H. Huntsman Library, Ephraim, through June 4, 2021. You can find the virtual exhibition for Women to the Front: Perspectives on Equality, Gender and Activism here.
Scotti Hill is a lawyer, art critic, and curator based in Salt Lake City. She has contributed to various publications and serves as an adjunct professor of art history at Westminster College. She has a Master’s Degree in art history from the University of Utah.