Iris Cohenian is a Jerusalem-based photographer working with Israel Framed. Iris was one of our first photographers, and we have been consistently inspired by her work. Some of our favorite photos by her are Women of Valor and Jaffa Sunset, and you can see her entire collection here. In order to learn more about Iris, we asked her a few questions. Enjoy the interview!
Q. You are an Israeli of Iranian descent. Could you tell us a little bit about how your family ended up in Israel and what it was like growing up in the 90’s?
A. I actually never lived in Iran, as I was born in Israel after my family left the country. In 1979, there was a religious revolution in Iran [when the Shah was overthrown]. In the aftermath of these events, attitudes toward Jews worsened, and it became extremely difficult for my family and the Jewish community.
At a certain point, my family made the decision to immigrate to Israel, but the government banned Jews from leaving. The story of their escape is one of extraordinary courage. My father obtained official certificates that granted permission for my mother and brothers to fly to Turkey for an urgent family visit. By falsely guaranteeing their return, my father risked potential punishment and death. My mother and brothers left the country, while my father stayed behind.
Afterwards, my father disguised himself a Muslim Hezbollah activist (this story itself will take up a lot of space, so I won’t go into details here). Using this disguise and a forged passport, my father was able to escape from Iran. My family reunited in Turkey and after visiting the Israeli Embassy, they came to Israel. The first thing my parents did when they arrived was to kiss the ground in gratitude. All of this happened in 1987, a year before I was born.
I do not remember anything special about growing in the ’90s in Israel. My childhood was fun and simple. This was a time when children did not have electronics to entertain themselves. We played in the yard with a ball every day after school, all the children of the building – we played ball games, tag, hide and seek. It was innocent and wonderful.
When was the first time that photography interested you? How did you decide that this was something that you wanted to do professionally?
I think I always enjoyed taking pictures, and I used to play with an analog film camera even when I was very young. However, I didn’t take photography seriously until the beginning of college. I planned to study engineering, and about two weeks before the beginning of the school year, I canceled my registration for personal reasons. I suddenly had an empty year ahead, and I needed a creative way to occupy myself.
It was a difficult year for me for a variety of reasons. I dealt with multiple crises that shook my confidence and challenged my faith. After many moments of uncertainty, I realized that I needed to do something that would enrich my soul and express my spirit. I decided to enroll in a basic course of photography. I bought a small camera and began to photograph everything.
Since then, I have become addicted. Photography is one of the best things that ever happened to me. It heals me completely and it moves me every time. I love the fact that there is always an opportunity to learn and improve. It’s just fascinating. When was the actual moment when I decided to go to college and official study it as a major? I honestly do not remember. It was a gradual decision.
You studied in art/photography school- describe what that was like. Challenges? Influences?
I attended Hadassah College in Jerusalem, a phenomenal program. The best thing about photography school is the group-based learning. You get incredibly inspired by your peers and the feedback you get brings your photography to new levels. Photography school made me more confident as an artist and really allowed me to get in touch with my inner talents.
What kind of camera do you use? What are the advantages?
I shoot with a Canon 7D. It is excellent!
The biggest advantage is that it is insanely fast and it’s great for street photography and photojournalism (can reach 8-9 frames per second!). It is an extremely sensitive camera and the picture becomes grained fairly quickly, so it takes a very careful eye to use it properly.
How would you describe your photographic style? Is there any school of thought or specific photographer that inspires and leads you to produce your excellent quality of work?
I think of myself as a documentary and journalism photographer. Though I have a variety of styles in my portfolio, I love to photograph current events such as protests and demonstrations (See: Women of the Wall). It is invigorating to capture the energy of these events.
Documentary projects are different and run at a much slower pace. However, when I work on these, I get to meet wonderful people and portray amazing stories. In general, I think documentary photography is an extraordinary social medium.
The photographer that inspires me most is Noam Moskowitz. He is an extremely talented Israeli photographer. I think he was one of the major influencers in my decision to study photography. Another talented individual is Itai Anghel. He is a senior news correspondent in Israel who covers wars and conflict zones. I took several courses taught by him and learned both technical and storytelling skill from him. Both Noam and Itai are great inspiration for me.
What is the photography community like in Israel? Do you belong to any groups?
There are many photography communities in Israel, both professional and amateur. And besides, everyone is a photographer these days, even if they are just working with their phone. I see this as a blessing- it’s fantastic that other people enjoy photography, and that they have the opportunity to speak a visual language.
I don’t belong to a specific community, although I work in informal settings with many of the people I met in photography school.
What is your favorite spot in Israel to photograph?
I guess the answer is clear… Jerusalem! Everything is happening here: good and evil, joy and sadness, old and new and natural and urban. Jerusalem offers magnificent visual scenes that no other place can compete with. And it’s amazing, because anything is possible here. It is no coincidence that everyone is fighting over this city… it is extraordinarily beautiful. I’m a little biased, after all, I was born and raised here, but I think my personal acquaintance with this city only benefits my photographs. Lately, I am working on a project in the Old City.
But if I am honest with myself, I am more captivated by the people of Jerusalem more than anything else.
What message would you like to communicate to the world about Israel, Zionism and the Jewish People?
Wow, what a question. There is plenty to say… Perhaps I’ll just say that though Israel is a small country, it is lovely and beautiful. It contains all the best things that the world can offer, and despite all of the challenges, life here is beautiful and people are mostly happy. Everyone is welcome to visit. I promise to give you a personal tour 😉