Life on the Dark Side

Life on the Dark Side

Alireza Goudarzi, 2022 Finalist

A project about the daily life of the youth in Iran who dream of a “free life” after the revolution. In society they are forced to follow strict Islamic culture and laws, but inside houses and behind locked doors they break society’s rules and have formed an underground culture of their own.
  1. Ali is the head of a gang in Tehran. There are a variety of gangs which are being formed by many young people. They try to create a sense of power and promote their thoughts by attracting their like-minded people. "We are trying to bring a sense of freedom to our supporters by trying to import and manufacture goods which are banned in Iran," says Ali. “I feel different with this clothing. This has become a part of my identity.”

  1. Yeganeh is 20-years-old. She is trying to check her account on social media. Many social networks are filtered in Iran and the youth have to use VPN to have free access to connect with each other. Selling VPN and anti-filters to people is a crime in Iran and is considered as an action against national security. Anyone discovered doing this is subject to imprisonment.

    1. Card games were banned after the Islamic revolution in Iran, so card games are now sold secretly. Elahe is 31-years-old and got divorced two years ago. She usually invites her friends to her place at the weekends to try to escape from depression. They entertain each other by making predictions about their futures.

  1. Marijuana consumption is very common among Iranian youth. Although using or selling drugs and alcohol is banned in Iran, they are easy to obtain. A high percentage of young people use them to escape the problems in their lives. Mohammad and his friend Somi are consuming marijuana in his place.

  1. Singing is forbidden for women in Iran and no studio is allowed to record any tracks for a band with a female singer. Aida, Mohammad and Amir belong to a band. They use Mohammad’s bedroom as a small studio for recording their music. In Iran, there are many prohibitions against activities with even a trace of Western culture in them.

  1. Women are forbidden to watch football matches in a stadium, but there are many female fans of the sport. Many women watch games with their friends at home or go to cafes to watch it live.

  1. Since the revolution, the Iranian government has tried to prevent the entry of other Western cultures by imposing social restrictions with the slogan "Neither East, nor West.” A number of young people are putting some make-up on each other. They’re getting dressed for a Halloween party.

  1. Male photographers are not allowed to photograph women without the women wearing a hijab. Moreover, pictures taken by studios can be randomly checked by the policemen. Thus many photographers work secretly. Majid, 27-years-old, is a local photographer doing a photo shoot with young models in his home studio.

  1. Atrias is 27-years-old and wants to get a tattoo on his chest. Although tattooing is considered abominable in Iran, many young people are very interested in it. Tattooing deprives people of some certain social rights. A person with a tattoo is considered to be exhibiting anti-social behavior and may have some difficulties in society, including being employed by a government agency or applying for a driver's license.

  1. Dancing is forbidden under Sharia religious law, so dance classes are held secretly. Mohadeseh is 20-years-old and is learning ballet from her best friend.

  1. Priya is 23-years-old. She’s putting on makeup as she gets ready to go shopping. Iran is the seventh-largest consumer of cosmetics in the world, although the police have announced that women wearing lots of makeup may be arrested.

  1. A few young people are waiting outside a café. In the background, a young woman wears a bandage after having had plastic surgery. Iran has one of the highest rates of nose surgery in the world.

  1. The government tries to create unity in Iran by imposing Islamic dress and beliefs on people’s lives. Young people feel repressed and unable to express their real selves, although contradictions can be seen in private and public places. Gilda is from a religious family but she doesn’t believe in wearing the hijab. She’s at a party dancing with her aunt who wears one.

  1. Melika, 22-years-old, is playing with her cat. Islamic law prohibits keeping animals as pets. Under the Islamic government, having a pet is viewed as a sign of Western culture. Pet owners are afraid of taking their pets to a veterinary clinic. Policemen can stop the cars, fine them or might seize the pet if they notice any dogs or cats.

  1. Iran has one of the highest rates of depression, anxiety and violence in the world. Women are twice as likely as men to be depressed. Raha is 26-years-old and says she has no hope for a better future and life. Although she spends a lot of time with her friends, she says life has lost meaning for her and she feels lonely.

  1. At a rally during progressive politician Hassan Rouhani's campaign for president in 2013, young hold a poster of Mohammad Khatami, an Iranian politician who served as Iran's fifth president, and was also a prominent reformist figure. In the early 2000s, he spoke to the United Nations about the need for “Dialogue Among Civilizations” – a pushback against Samuel Huntington’s theory of a “Clash of Civilizations.” Although Khatami is currently banned from audio and video appearances by the government, he has become an influential figure among young people.

  1. “Stay against the US and shout all your anger to this country. This is the real meaning of defending your beliefs.” This has been one of the main slogans promoted by the government since the revolution. Many young people don’t believe in the government’s slogans. Here, a young woman is wearing a t-shirt with a design of the U.S flag. She is smoking in a park, near Vali-e-Asr Street.

  1. Nina is a 26-year-old sociable girl who loves her family and friends. Her family sent her to Germany so she can make a better future for herself. The night before her flight, she faced separation anxiety from her loved ones. This situation happens to many young people in Iran.

  1. In Tehran, cafes have become places that are part-public space and part-safe personal space for many Iranian young people who want to make memories in open areas, and who are willing to engage in this kind of social experiment. Niloufar’s friends have surprised her for her birthday in one of the cafés located north of Tehran. Her family won’t let her have a party with her friends inside their house.

  1. Elahe, 24-years-old, smokes a cigarette in the yard of a café. Smoking cigarettes is not restricted by law in Iran, but many young women are afraid of smoking in public places for fear of harassment from conservative Muslims who consider smoking to be offensive.

  1. Men and women are prohibited by law from having training sessions together. A young group of friends are playing billiards in an underground club.

  1. Tina is a fashion stylist and a make-up artist. She is preparing a model for a photo shoot featuring her new line of her clothing, inside her own house. Restrictions on the clothing industry are high, which why Tina prefers to work from home and for a few special clients.

  1. Women are banned from riding motorcycles in Iran, and the police will not issue them with a license to drive one. Maryam, 29-years-old, loves motorcycles and goes out on one dressed in men’s clothing, so the police won’t be able to identify her gender.

  1. After the Islamic Revolution, Iran’s government has enforced strict Islamic cultural behaviors, including the hijab. Under the previous regime, people had freedom of choice in the way they dressed. Now, not wearing a hijab in public places is illegal, and women can be arrested for not wearing one. When it starts raining, Tahmineh and her friends go on the roof to enjoy the rain. They start dancing without the obligatory hijab.

Photographer's Statement: 

Life on the Dark Side is an intimate, long-term documentary project that attempts to portray truthful images of Iranian youth, beyond the clichéd representations familiar to many in the West. Regardless of all the cultural, religious and political limitations that have become part of daily life since Iran’s revolution, these young people are challenging those limitations as they work to find their own identity and to live independently.


When I was studying in Denmark, I was shocked when I realized how people in the West thought about me and my country. I finally realized that their perceptions had been shaped by more than 40 years of news and photographs that pictured Iran and Iranians in very narrow, specific ways: women wearing chadors, anti-West demonstrations and flag burnings, reports of killings, violence and war. Iranians are seen in the West as fundamentalist people, but the reality of daily life in this country is much more complex and diverse.


Today, Iran is one of the youngest countries in the world – with half of its approximately 82 million people under the age of 30. I realized that this population of young people has rarely been fairly, or truthfully, shown to others.


After the Islamic Revolution in Iran from 1978-79, and with the establishment of the Islamic government, religious leaders took full control of the social, political, and cultural atmosphere of Iranian society. They tried to lead Iranian society towards a radically religious and socially traditional atmosphere. The government has created a cultural monopoly, which insists on identical religious beliefs, prescribed clothing (such as compulsory hijabs for women), and strictly regulated lifestyles.


In a land that can be called an “empire of prohibitions,” any difference can be prosecuted, such as sexual or religious orientations, musical taste and clothing. These young people have to break strict laws to achieve their desired freedoms in their private spaces. However, “being guilty” makes them feel normal. In their personal lives, away from public norms, they try to reduce government pressure and social controls to experience a Western, modern and free life style.


Young people in Iran are very worried about the country’s future. The government’s foreign policy has led to heavy sanctions from the West, which have created serious economic problems in the country. Reformist political groups who support a democratic society and more open relations with the West are the heroes of many young people – but all too often these leaders are imprisoned. Salaries are low for graduates and rents are very expensive. Many young people have started using drugs out of frustration.


The aim of my project is to create a portrait of the daily lives of Iranian youth who are dreaming of a "free life." With this work, I focus mainly on the personal activities of young people in their private spaces where they break society’s rules and can freely and recklessly live their life.

Alireza Goudarzi
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Alireza Goudarzi was born in 1985. He started  photographing since 2007 and has been interested in social documentary photography ever since. In 2018 he received a scholarship from the Danish School of Media and Journalism. Goudarzi seeks to tell the stories of contemporary human beings, the earth, and what is happening on it. He believes that stories are important for our current culture, and that truthful photos can give people reason to change the world around them. He has worked as a freelance photographer with newspapers and magazines in Iran and abroad. His clients include: CNBC news, Bloomberg, , Polka magazine, and WOZ Die Wochenzeitung.