MEET SUNNY SHOKRAE
Join us for a dialogue with Brooklyn-based Photographer, Sunny. We talk about inherent traditions that live long past her childhood in Iran, what she looks to capture in each photo she takes and where she dreams of living in a perfect world.
Tell us about a notable memory from your upbringing, relating to anything, maybe something that continues to shape the way you think today?
I was in Iran until I was five so I have a lot of fragmented memories from then, like… eating fresh strawberries from our garden, sleeping on our roof and driving my grandmother crazy anytime I wet the sheets, playing with street cats that would find their way into our backyard, my aunt sitting me down to talk to me about being a good person and doing good deeds, getting on a plane for the first time to move to America and thinking it was the best place ever because I saw McDonalds and Barbies everywhere. Realizing I was different once I started school here, beginning to get embarrassed of my background, taking a long time to reverse those subtle feelings of shame and embarrassment from being told I was different and then fully owning it x10 to the point where I regrew my unibrow :).
Before you made the transition into photography and beginning your studies at ICP, you had earned a degree in politics and sociology. Surely these two aspects must continue to crossover in your work, tell us more?
They are one and the same for me, photography for me is a study of people which is essentially what sociology is, and politics is the world we live in which informs my specific point of view, visually or otherwise.
Your photo-diary entitled “Origins” depicts a life so incredibly raw and pure, what did this photo series mean to you?
Leaving Iran at such a young age keeps me very tied to it, I have this unattainable life and love story with a country I barely know but it pumps through every inch of my body. I love the idea of Iran, I love its landscape, I love its food, its culture, its language, its people. I fantasize about living there but know it probably would never work out the way I imagine it would. I don’t fit in anywhere…that’s what happens when you’re raised between two places. I’ve traveled to Iran a handful of times, each time in a different vulnerable period in my life where I’ve related to it in a whole new way. The last two times where in 2006 and 2010. I think my photos from 2006 got me into the ICP program and 2010 was the year after I completed that program and I wanted to absorb everything and tell a story and steal these moments and do Iran justice. I need more trips and time there to complete whatever it is I’m trying to do because so much of it is a collecting process. It's an intuitive reaction, an urge to fill the gaps and the feelings of longing I have for Iran. There is a humanity there that exists nowhere else. I wish I could go back every year.
Within your work, what photography moves you the most?
An honest gaze, an element of surprise, a feeling of relatability or connectedness.
In recent years, you’ve directed short films, I Came and Ode to Dad in collaboration with the Iranian Musician and Artist, Rahill Jamalifard. What encouraged your work with Jamalifard?
I met Rahill and felt an instant connection, we were so comfortable around each other and encouraging and it felt like she was an old friend. Her experience with identity in America really mirrored mine and so I felt the best way to begin making meaningful video work was through telling the story of someone like myself, ultimately, so that I could tell my own story. Luckily when I approached her she had some personal tracks she was working on and I listened to some of those and decided to start with what spoke to me the most at the time. The rest was based on intuition, fragments of childhood memories and pure emotions.
You spent the first part of your life in Iran before moving to Southern California, what elements of Persian culture have you upheld and brought over to New York?
I try to set my Haft Sin for Nowruz every year and celebrate the traditions of the 2 week long celebration. My home is filled with textiles, rugs and glassware that bring me back to growing up. I have a toddler who I try to speak Farsi with as much as I can and I play him children’s songs in Farsi so both him and I can practice. I try to be a gracious host, we have people over all the time for dinners, to hang out, whatever excuse we can get. I keep Sangak bread in my freezer so I can always have a noone paneer. We have photos of my parents & grandparents framed and hung up on our walls. Once in a while I will burn Esfand and there are always pistachios available for snacking.
What is something you are yearning to experience?
Traveling to Iran with my young son and white husband.
What is something you have loved for a long time?
Plant life and the way light streams in to a window.
Maimoun comes from the Persian language word meaning to welcome guests into your home. If you could invite anyone to dinner in your home, who would it be?
Ruth B Ginsberg because I want to thank her for paving the way in the most graceful and impactful way, Shirin Neshat so I can pick her brain and hug her for being the Iranian black sheep that set a different standard for what I could be, Georgia O’Keeffe because she is the coolest ever, Fran Lebowitz because she is direct and real and raw and hilarious, Kathleen Hanna because she got me through high school, and Jerry Garcia for my husband.