An individual journey

Sarah Wovcha poses for photographer-filmmaker Jila Nikpay’s series “Heroines’ Portraits.”

Photo by Jila Nikpay

For Prospect Park artist Jila Nikpay photography-film is a means of connection

Throughout much of her work, locally based photographer-filmmaker Jila Nikpay portrays female protagonists who are negotiating physical and psychological boundaries.

Themes such as displacement, feminism, love, war and body image, among others, surface in her black-and-white photos and films, again and again, testifying to her experience as an Iranian expatriate torn between cultures.

Last month, the award-winning artist, whose work has been exhibited in such places as the Minnesota Center for Photography and Walker Art Center, relocated from the Downtown artist co-op Traffic Zone to a studio in Prospect Park. While the quiet studio she recently renovated appears to be a peaceful setting, her work is intense, brimming with drama.

That is evident in some of the titles alone, such as “Against Gravity,” “The World in Between” and “Passage to Oblivion.” They are visually stunning works that feature theatrical lighting effects, ghostly silhouettes and plenty of symbolism. Figures are alternately spectral, bold, nomadic and vulnerable.

Her work is about the individual’s journey, she said, and her main characters exude “a deep longing for love and freedom while surrounded by fear, doubt, and insecurity,” according to a statement on her website.

In “Passage,” for instance, darkly clad Middle Eastern women stand or walk through shadows while diligently bearing a root, or they appear as angels or are nearly entirely swallowed by blackness.

Nikpay’s photos embody an entire narrative in and of themselves, as opposed to being a moment frozen in time. Additionally, she often comes back to the same subjects over and over.

Nikpay draws from her own life; some years ago, she was forced to leave her country, as a result of her opposition to a growing Islam movement. Well after the revolution had fully taken hold, Nikpay safely revisited her homeland, where, ironically, she found herself a foreigner.

The landscape was enshrouded literally and figuratively by a “dark and sad” veil, which became a required part of women’s wear. Before she left, she was slighted by a group of women who caught a glimpse of her hair peeking out of her veil.

“They feel it’s OK to correct something about your body. That alienates you from your country. The veil is becoming a political tool,” she said.

Hence, she created short films such as “Shroud and Torrent,” in which she critiques things that are taking place in her country. Later, the idea of the veil took on a different form in her work, when, on a whim, Nikpay began wrapping big sheaths of the same confining fabric — and nothing else — around her models to convey “body knowledge.”

Some of the women got nervous about their husbands’ reactions. “I started realizing that women here are inhibited about their body too… it was an international phenomenon,” she said.

With that, she developed a “Body Image” workshop; women photographed each other draped in the fabric, providing a unique way to explore themselves. They were supportive, saying things like, “My face is so inexperienced. I love your wrinkles,” said Nikpay. “The opposite of what you would normally hear.”

Out of that workshop came a collection of photos of women who have struggled with breast cancer in the book Heroines. Nikpay’s next Body Image workshop will be offered through the Minnesota Center for Photography this March.

In general, Nikpay says she strives to photograph “inner realities.” It means taking the time to get know someone, to be able to tap his or her energy, she said, pointing to one photo of a young blond-haired boy.

Despite his deceptive stillness, “That’s a very active child,” she remarked. “I like serious looks on children. The American emphasis on being happy is so phony.”

Children are freer than adults, she said. When standing before the camera, “They don’t care where their arms and hands are. Adults don’t know what to do with their arms … they’re always worried about making mistakes with their bodies.”

Portraits are just as much about the photographer as the sitter, however, she points out. In her classes, she teaches students to achieve “oneness” with their subjects. That is, to go beyond simply attaining a likeness, but to search for something deeper that connects photographer and subject. Once you engage a subject, “It’s like finding treasure, said Nikpay. “The soul shines through in those in-between moments.

Nikpay’s slow-moving films are also portrait-like. She prefers to work with “real people,” as opposed to actors. Nonactors are less self-conscious and don’t arrive with certain expectations about the film, she said.

Right now, her 8-minute film, “In Waiting,” wherein she portrays war as a childish game, is in preproduction stages. Nikpay, who uses traditional 16-millimeter film, shoots with an old-fashioned 4-inch by 5-inch large-format camera, which she is attracted to for its simplicity. “It slows you down. It makes you think of every movement you make,” she explained.

Music, poetry, spirituality, aspects of American and Iranian culture, in addition to how she spends her spare time, influence her work.

Graphic designer George Peters, who lives in Golden Valley, has taken a lighting and portraiture class with Nikpay, both of which he said have made him a better artist. “She really gets to the essence of her subject in portraiture work and beyond veneer,” he said. “She pulls out what’s not obvious.”

In the lighting class, she shows how “use light to bring out a personality and enhance the drama of the photo,” he said. “I really like the fact that 10 people look at her work and interpret it in 10 different ways, like with lyrics to a song. There’s so much symbolism.”

To learn more about Jila Nikpay or her upcoming classes, visit

last revised: January 3, 2008