New Rules Photographer Sheida Soleimani on playfulness and the stories worth telling

Cover Image - New Rules
WordsGem Fletcher

Experiential storytelling is the driving force behind Sheida Soleimani’s work. Sitting at the intersection of art and activism, she creates theatrical three-dimensional tableaus, hand-built in her studio. Each set is a vessel for critical perspective, unpicking the complex power dynamics and competing political narratives between the SWANA region and the West. The result is a patchwork of perspectives attempting to seduce the viewer into reckoning with their cultural blind spots. What is unique about Soleimani’s practice of resistance, refusal and critique is that it is accompanied by repair, care and compassion; the artist is also a federally licensed wildlife rehabilitator—a practice inherited from her mother—with an intake of 1,042 animals in 2023.

This feature is part of “New Rules: Navigating photography’s unfixed future,” our downloadable guide to the ever-changing photography industry. The full guide can be downloaded below.

Gem Fletcher: What motivates you to tell the stories you do? 

Sheida Soleimani: The stories worth telling are often fugitive; they cannot be found or filtered. Because of my and my parents’ backgrounds, the fugitive stories that appeal to me the most are those of political refugees, individuals who have been harmed by governmental systems, or animals who have been harmed by human-made infrastructures. 

You worked entirely alone prior to “Ghostwriter”. I’m curious if collaborating with them has influenced your storytelling in any way.

1,000 percent. There’s something really interesting about working, not just with my parents but with people who aren’t part of the art world. People in the art world have such an expectation of how things should look or how direct things should be, and I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in playfulness. 

I think the type of play I’m exploring is new to me. I’ve always been playful in my work, using collage and the construction and flattening of spaces. But in “Ghostwriter”, it’s this almost primarily childlike energy coming out. I’m reverting to being a kid because they are my parents, and it’s interesting how we play off each other and work together.

As your parents are political refugees, there is ongoing concern about their safety. How do you negotiate the practical and emotional aspects of this collaboration?

Protecting their identities is extremely important for their safety. It’s also really important to me to think about phrenology and physiognomy. People read individuals by their understanding of race or societal background, and so, any time that I photograph my parents, I’m also putting them on display. In that process, I want to shield and protect them, so I keep their identities somewhat private. You can’t see their faces but their bodies are legible. There is an inbetween happening. 

Outside of making work, it’s also vital to ensure that they remain safe. My mom’s never going to go back to the country. My dad has always wanted to go back to participate in protests. He’s still very active in protesting and helping people on the ground. Many individuals are still captured and taken back to Iran; that’s why all of the photos of him in the series are a lot more shrouded than those of my mother.

One of the things that I value so much about your work is that while your activism involves resistance, refusal and critique, it also includes repair, care and compassion. That complexity is the lifeblood of your work. Could you talk about that impulse to balance both?

I’ve discussed how the art world and academia are toxic spaces. I enjoy being a part of them, despite their faults or flaws. But watching my mom do the care work [with birds] as a child, I recognized that as a lineage of care that she was passing down. Care work has allowed me to disconnect from academia and the art world. I’m not saying that art and teaching can’t make a difference, but it’s so rare that we see our work in those realms make a change. 

While my animal rehabilitation work does not provide instant gratification, I can make a difference in these animals’ lives. Witnessing birds that have been in captive care rejoining the world gives me a real feeling of success. I get this high that I don’t get working in other fields. So, the care work is caring for them and caring for myself. However, it’s tricky negotiating it all with my practice. 

Many of your projects address political corruption, human rights and geopolitics between the SWANA region and the West. The work provokes the viewer to confront their blind spots. Can you talk about that?

It comes from being a kid who grew up in post-9/11 America. We lived in the Midwest, and there were no other people from the greater SWANA region. I grew up in a very heterogeneous, heteronormative white space, and even in the public education system as well as the private, no discussion of history was happening outside of the United States that wasn’t Eurocentric. That created so many blind spots for the people I grew up with. 

Post 9/11, people confused Iraq and Iran as the same place. People’s ignorance was rampant, and it remains to be so. I think ignorance is bliss for many people. Comfort is preferable to being uncomfortable and learning new things. Being raised in that context has led my work to try to tackle that mentality.

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The stories worth telling are often fugitive; they cannot be found or filtered.

Thinking about this resistance to discomfort, how do you approach the dynamics between the story and the audience?

When I think about changing perspectives and who looks at my work, it’s honestly not the people I would like it to reach simply because they are generally not art-goers. The people who interact with my work are from some sort of intelligentsia or have some understanding of art or education, and they enter museums and galleries. The thing that's shocking for me is that even though many of these people are highly educated, their understanding of the issues I’m speaking of is completely nonexistent. They have the same level of ignorance as those I grew up with. I want my work to burst that bubble a little bit. 

I think of you as an optimist, but I hear your cynicism creeping in…

I love that you think of me as an optimist! I think my strategies in trying to subvert or Trojan horse people into looking at my work come from my cynical side. Essentially, people always want something transactional. I’m too cynical to think that people spend time learning more. There are some people, but it’s very rare. So, what’s an easy way to get someone to pay attention to something? Make it like candy. I want to act like I’m rewarding them with something beautiful or hot, and then, before they know it, they’re learning about something.

I always consider your work radical, not just in story but also in form. You utilize a rich array of strategies, from appropriation to the aesthetics of advertising photography. How do you charge the work with these tactics?

I think it’s about playfulness. Using the aesthetics of advertising is about seduction and reward. For me, assemblage and building spaces are about escaping the dominant narrative and shaping an alternative. That, to me, is so liberating. 

It’s also about humor, right? Humor is so important to your storytelling…

Humor is a great way to disarm your viewer. If you can get people to laugh with you, you’re more likely to get them to think alongside you. One way that my Bubba always taught me is that you’re far more likely to dismantle your opponent by getting them to laugh and disarm before you launch an attack.

Maximalism is important to your practice as well. Could you talk about that?

These stories are so intense that everything feels maximalist. I tend to pile everything on in my work. Much of that has come from processing that I understand things through being overwhelmed, so I’m trying to mirror that onto my viewer.

You are a generous and prolific speaker committed to cultivating public forums to discuss your work. Why is that so generative for you?

As an artist, I feel there’s also a duty to discuss the work. Maybe not everyone has the tools, so you must give the viewer a way to unpack it. In discussing the work, we’re leaving breadcrumbs for people. It’s also inviting people to be part of the conversation instead of alienating them. There’s a way to also disarm people by discussing things openly, which I’m interested in. 

Sheida, why is it so vital for you to do your work?

It’s to get people to consider something besides themselves. It’s important for me because I was raised by people harmed by government infrastructure. Their wounds, whether they be psychological or physical, are still visible. Growing up with that in plain sight and my parents constantly trying to fix everything, I think it gave me the impulse to fix and repair. If you have been tortured, brutalized, or ripped from your country, some things can’t be mended. 

When I think of the birds, these are creatures that are wounded or maimed because of human-made infrastructure, the very same way that government infrastructure harms its citizens. I feel like I must help them. It’s heartbreaking work in both cases because you’re looking at broken creatures and people all around you, and you’re powerless, even if you try to fix them. The larger problem is that the human-made government infrastructure is not going away.

Do I think art can change the world? I don’t. I’m too cynical to believe that. But I think that if I can bring up issues in my work that make people aware of their footprint or their participation in things, maybe we can, little by little, move towards a more equitable world. Do I think that that’s going to happen in my lifetime? No fucking way.