Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best Tortoise experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help, let us know at memberhelp@tortoisemedia.com

Saturday 1 June 2019

Photo Essay

Between two worlds

How Iranians in America struggle to keep tradition alive and cope with a new culture in exile

By Hossein Fatemi

Finding themselves more than 7,000 miles from home, the people of the Iranian diaspora in the United States constantly have to navigate a web of complex cultural, political, religious, racial and social issues and identities.

In a nation of immigrants, individual experiences are often lost under the label “immigrant” or “refugee”. The individual lives, all unique, and the faces, aspirations, personal stories and moments of intimacy and vulnerability that are part and parcel of immigrant life can get brushed over.

Iranians are, of course, a varied bunch, practising different religions and bringing unique traditions with them from their native country. The “diaspora” really comprises many hundreds of thousands of individuals and sets of experiences.

Iranians across the United States have carved out lives for themselves in the messy overlap between East and West, living realities unseen on television and unconsidered by politicians and policymakers.

Second-generation Iranians live with hyphenated identities, caught between two homelands, never fully feeling at home in either.

Too Iranian for America, too American for Iran, their unique sense of self comes from feeling caught between two worlds. It is manifested, unfiltered, through clothing, art, self-expression and vibrant personalities.

A relatively recent immigrant himself, the photographer Hossein Fatemi has documented these tensions and how identities are expressed in the intimate, private lives of first and second generation Iranians living across the United States.

Two Iranian-Americans, Maryam, behind, and her friend Sama, front, in downtown Los Angeles.

Shayan, aged 34, sought asylum in the US in 2003. He studied law in Iran and America and is now an attorney, specialising in criminal and immigration law, and international human rights.

The Sabean Mandeans are followers of an ancient gnostic religion originating in Iran and Iraq. Here the Genzebra (leader of the congregation) baptises a bride in the Guadalupe River, in Texas. John the Baptist is a revered figure in the religion.

Bahare, an Iranian-American migrant, smokes a hookah (water pipe) at a shisha bar.

Sabean Mandeans perform a traditional wedding ceremony. The groom is seated with the priest. 

Aida and Atoosa, two Iranian-Americans, hug as they say goodbye.

Kurosh is an Iranian-born member of the US Army, who has served in Afghanistan. With him is his fiancee Tanaz, another Iranian immigrant.

Iranian-American women relax and spend time together in a bedroom.

Golsa with her Persian cat. Born in Iran, she moved to the US aged 18 to study. Six months after graduating with a BA in Design from California State University Long Beach, she is spending her last month in the US before moving back to Tehran.

Parisa blows out smoke from an electric cigarette at a friend’s apartment in downtown Houston.

Attorney and gay rights activist Sepideh with actress Ashley Shyne.

Brothers Shayan, right, and Arash Aptinfar, left, prepare to wrestle with each other in their backyard.

Dr Sassan, an Iranian-American migrant, holds a gun in his backyard. Gun ownership is banned in Iran.

Shervin Arya, an Iranian singer, in Evanston, Chicago. He was born in Tehran and started a singing career when he was 16 before continuing it in the US.

Negin playing with her two huskies at her home in Chicago. Born and raised in Tehran, she now lives with the rest of her family in the US.

Naser Ahmadi, originally from Kurdistan, was studying psychology at Tehran University at the time of the 2009  uprising against the government. “Like many other students in Iran, I was trapped in the regime’s brutal faceless bureaucracy… I got arrested, spent 45 days in prison and was prevented from continuing my school without being given any reason.”  He left Iran in 2010 and spent 22 months in Turkey as a refugee. He now lives in Pasadena, California, where he is studying sociology.

A follower of the Zoroastrian religion makes tea at the California Zoroastrian Center  during celebrations for the birthday of  the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great.

Arya is 28-year-old a filmmaker who left Iran never to return when he was 16. He now lives and works in New York. His debut feature film Happenings of the Eighth Day was released in 2014.

Fatema, a young Iranian-American migrant, hangs up balloons on her wedding day.

Artist Sahand Heshmati Afshar was born in the port city of Bandar Abbas before leaving Iran to study fine arts in the US.

Zoroastrian women at the California Zoroastrian Center with offerings of baked food for the birthday of Cyrus the Great.

Mary Apick was a child star in Iran, appearing in television shows, feature films and plays. She moved to the US in 1977 and works as an actress, producer, director, writer and composer.

Jewish-Iranian women close the bookcase for the Torah at the end of a service at their synagogue. 

A group of Iranian-American women relax in a park during Thanksgiving.

Arash Rahbar, a professional bodybuilder, with his mother. He competes successfully in the “classic physique” category.

Iranian-Americans dance at a Halloween party in a nightclub.

Iranian-Americans celebrate the Persian New Year at the Nowruz Festival in Chicago.

Two Iranian students, Tara and Soroush, celebrate their wedding in Lincoln Park, Chicago.

Iranian-American students at their Friday prayers in a park.

Iranian-Americans eating traditional food at a dinner party in Los Angeles.

Sadegh and Sassan, two Iranian-American friends, share a night-time Jacuzzi.

Maryam Sajjadi is an actress and freelance makeup artist.

Aryan Modares, a singer in the band Penta, gets his makeup applied by a friend at a villa in the Black Mountains, North Carolina.

Sepideh Rezvanian was born in Tehran in 1991 and stayed until she was 25. She studied chemical engineering and is a professional swimmer. After her marriage, she and her husband moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin for his education. At present she is a housewife but plans to return to her studies.

Hoda Katebi, left, who runs JooJoo Azad, a political fashion blog, with Roya, right, a painter who moved to the US in 2016.


Hossein Fatemi was born in Iran in 1980 and is currently based in New York. He started working as a photographer in Iran at the age of 17, working in Lebanon, Georgia and Afghanistan before moving to the US in 2013. His work has been exhibited across the world – from Chicago and Perpignan to Bangladesh – and his photographs have featured in the New York Times, Foreign Policy magazine, Time and Spiegel, among others.


All Photographs Hossein Fatemi/Panos Pictures