Black and white photograph of man and children looking over the river at NYC skyline

“Silent Yearning” (2021) | Zohreh Zadbood / Courtesy of the artist

Zohreh Zadbood is a writer, photographer, and multimedia storyteller. Born in Iran but currently living in New York City, she’s someone who notices things that other people don’t, like the intricate design of floor tiles and ceiling beams, bathed in wayward light, or a brief expression of intimacy between strangers on the street. An average-looking plant on a windowsill, in the eye of Zadbood’s camera, possesses a secret, wild ferocity.

Good art can transform the way we see the world, making the ordinary glow. In a recent poem, Zadbood paints a fulsome portrait of a moment of exhaustion and desire between two people with a few sensory-rich lines.

Zadbood is a student in The New School’s MFA program in Creative Writing. She experiments with integrating AI into her art, was a finalist for the Envision Kindness 2023 International Photo Contest, and has a poem forthcoming in the Kenyon Review.

Alexia Underwood recently spoke to Zadbood over Zoom about how estrangement from one’s homeland can inform art and make you see the world around you more clearly—and how poetry can transcend language.

Alexia Underwood: You’re a poet and a photographer, and you also studied filmmaking in Iran. Can you talk a little bit about how you got started in your artistic journey?

Zohreh Zadbood: I’ve always been very passionate about storytelling. In the summer of 1993, in Tehran, when I was a little girl, I made a paper doll, a character called Farhad, who wore a suit and had a mustache. I drew him on a piece of paper and cut him out of cardboard and he was the first character in a series. My sisters and I would narrate different, complex stories using these paper dolls. Later, I studied computer engineering at college. [I became] a developer of new tools and pursued art through a filmmaking program. My career as a professional photographer and writer began in those years. 

I did some research and learned about some of the innovative and exciting things happening in New York, and decided it would be an amazing place to learn and grow as an artist and find a broader audience for my work. I applied for a master’s degree at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts, where I learned about new media art. I’ve continued to build my identity as a storyteller by studying fiction and poetry at The New School. 

Through this time, I retained a strong passion for telling stories in various mediums … When I think about bringing a story to life, I’m always looking for the medium that would be the best to convey that particular message. Stories bring people together; people of different nationalities and backgrounds can read the same book and feel similar things. They can have similar discussions or feel enlightened in a similar way about social issues, for example. It’s a way of connecting people and connecting with people.

Underwood: That seems true. Speaking of other cultures and nationalities, you grew up in Tehran, but you’ve been living in the US for about seven years. Has this played a role in your creative development? Has this distance from home manifested itself in your art?

Zadbood: It’s interesting how art helped me to endure the distance, the years of being away from home. It helps me find meaning in this distance. It’s been really hard to be away from my parents, from all my close friends. This has made me more observant, and also introspective—the fact that I’ve been out of my comfort zone and had to face a lot of challenges in this respect.

When I began my new life here, I thought a lot about the similarities and differences between my background and my work experiences compared to the other artists around me. Eventually I realized that I have a unique perspective and this helps me connect with new audiences.

Everything I write, either fiction, poetry, scripts, or my visual storytelling through photos—I love to dive into the deep levels of how people interact with each other, their emotional relationships, whether these work, or not, and how one’s character factors in. When you’re connecting with that deep layer of thoughts, concerns, emotions, you’re witnessing, I think, human character. So, no matter what nationality or skin color you are, or what language you speak, you’ll see a human being, and can connect with them. Much of the feedback I’ve gotten on my work is about how universal it is.

Underwood: Are there themes that are repetitive in your work, and if so, what are they?

Zadbood: I like to explore themes of love, attachment, healing, homesickness, and solidarity. Sometimes I also write about self-love. In my documentary-style street photography, I try to capture the vibrant essence of city life, and fleeting moments where emotions are revealed. I aim to draw attention to unnoticed stories that fit into a broader narrative about solitude, belonging, and the beauty of the present moment.

Underwood: You’ve mentioned that Persian poetry has influenced your work in the past. Can you say more about that?

Zadbood: Persian poetry is a treasure. I never thought that I would be interested in poetry in any other language, but when my soul encountered English poetry, I felt a new magic. My love for Persian poetry is woven beneath the soul of my love for English poetry. That’s how it’s influenced my work. It’s not something visible, but I can feel it inside myself. Once I was reading poetry at a bookstore in Brooklyn and one of the audience members who was familiar with Persian poetry told me that when she heard my work, she felt like she was hearing a Persian poet read poems in that language. It was one of the best compliments I’ve ever received.

Underwood: When you write, do you write in both Persian and English?

Zadbood: For lot of my work, I write an English version and a Persian version. It’s kind of surprising for me because when I write something in English and then attempt it in Persian, it goes a totally different way. It’s exciting how language can affect things, and make it a new piece, in terms of word choice and details. I really enjoy the experience of writing in both languages.

Underwood: Do you directly translate your work from one language to another, or do you start fresh with the same concept in mind? And do you feel that your voice changes depending on what language you use?

Zadbood: I use both methods. I think the difference is that I had all those years of experience of writing in Persian, so when I switched to English, my stories or poems began at a higher level of proficiency; it’s not like I had to start over from scratch in a new language. It’s been a long journey of learning and experimenting, step by step. But I feel like I have the same voice in both.