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15 Photos that Show What It’s Really Like to Live in Iran

Photographer Samuel Zuder journeys to Tehran and beyond—and finds the hospitality not just warm but downright humbling.

Iran has a beautiful and diverse landscape,” says photographer Samuel Zuder. “But in order to experience the depth of the country, you need to meet the Iranian people.”

On a four-week trip, Zuder found that Iranians were happy to welcome him into a world that exists outside the strict rules that govern public life. “Iranians, especially the younger generation, are very well educated and excited about discussing politics and culture with foreigners—especially Westerners,” Zuder says. “Every day, someone new invited me into their home to share a meal, or offered to show me around.”

Check out photos from Zuder’s trip below.

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    The Many Faces of Iran
    Scroll through the slideshow to travel behind the scenes of AFAR’s November/December 2016 feature “The Many Faces of Iran” with photographer Samuel Zuder.
    Photo by Samuel Zuder
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    The streets of Tehran
    On Zuder’s first full day in Tehran, his host did what any good host would and took him on a people-watching tour of the city’s streets. “I noticed this man’s ’50s-style haircut and his bag,” Zuder says. “He was standing in front of the mirror talking on his cell phone. I think he must have noticed me taking his photograph, because he turned his head to the side and posed.”
    Photo by Samuel Zuder
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    Inside the Grand Bazaar
    It was late in the afternoon when Zuder headed to the Grand Bazaar in Tehran, and many of the vendors were beginning to close up shop. Even so, he spent about half an hour exploring one particular part of it. “I love this location,” he says, “because it looks like an apartment complex. Families walk through, the dealers relax on their carpets—everywhere someone is sitting, having a cup of tea, or eating a snack.”
    Photo by Samuel Zuder
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    Delicious Divan
    Zuder had heard rumors about the food, atmosphere, and design at Divan, a restaurant in northern Tehran that specializes in contemporary interpretations of traditional Persian dishes. After a fresh herb salad with medjool dates and cheese truffles, grouper fish paired with yogurt sauce, rice with leeks, and a glass of saffron-infused rose water, Zuder snapped this photo of an empty corner in the bustling establishment.
    Photo by Samuel Zuder
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    What All the Buzz Is About
    Before landing in Iran, Zuder was unaware of the country’s booming honey industry—in 2015 alone, Iran exported over 5,000 tons of the stuff. “We were heading back to our hotel when I saw rows upon rows of colorful bee boxes,” he says, “so we drove to the farm. There, we met these two beekeepers. I asked them to pose for a few photographs—the entire scene was very peaceful.”
    Photo by Samuel Zuder
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    Get Above It All
    Many Iranians are very proud of Tehran’s Milad Tower; not only is it the tallest tower in the country (and the sixth tallest in the world), but the structure’s 12 floors also include an observation deck, a rotating restaurant, and a number of public art galleries. Plus, the view is tough to beat. “This picture is from the seventh or eighth story,” Zuder says. “From this height, the city looks like it’s made out of Legos.”
    Photo by Samuel Zuder
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    All Carpets Aside
    It was a hot day when Zuder arrived at The Carpet Museum in Tehran, and after seeing many, many carpets at the Grand Bazaar, he opted to skip the museum tour. “For me, the outside of the building was more visually interesting,” Zuder says about the architecture, which was designed by Iran’s last queen, Farah Diva Pahlavi. “I spent a few hours walking around the area, including Laleh Park, and waiting for the perfect moment to take a photo. I find that if you wait long enough, most times something will happen—like this woman walking along the side of the building and the birds taking flight.”
    Photo by Samuel Zuder
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    An Ancient Range
    Zuder spent days driving through the Zagros Mountains, a mountain range that stretches throughout Iran, Iraq, and Eastern Turkey. Not only are the mountains beautiful, but they also double as a constant reminder of the land’s ancient history. Some of the rocks date back to Precambrian times (that’s over 500 million years ago), and the range itself has been a natural border for centuries—take the boundaries of the Persian and Ottoman empires, for example.
    Photo by Samuel Zuder
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    On the Road
    Zuder also passed through a number of small villages on the trip, including this one in Kurdistan. “I took this photo from the car,” he says. “This young man was curious as to what we were doing, and he came over and parked his bike right next to us. I didn’t get his name or his age, but in my imagination he has the nicest bicycle in town and all the other kids are just a little jealous of him.”
    Photo by Samuel Zuder
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    Where There’s Snow . . .
    “When we reached this particular mountain peak, we found a field of snow and pulled over next to this family,” Zuder says about his travels through the Zagros Mountains. “It was the middle of summer, and these people were crazy about the snow—the whole family got out and played, and when we left even the grandparents were standing outside of the car holding hands and dancing.”
    Photo by Samuel Zuder
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    The Allure of Nowsud
    “On our arrival in Nowsud, a village at the border of Iran and Iraq, we saw many men on horseback rushing through the streets,” Zuder says. “We learned that this was a smugglers’ village, and that many people cross the border here to buy and sell goods.” At the local teahouse, Zuder and his friends sat with a group of young men smoking shisha. “Sometimes this man was totally covered by smoke,” he says. “It made the scene a bit mysterious in that you can only imagine what he really looks like.”
    Photo by Samuel Zuder
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    Welcome to Kermanshah
    Zuder and his hosts were on their way through Kermanshah, a province in western Iran, when he insisted they pull over to take a closer look at this mosque. “Bazaars, schools, shops—Ayatollah Khomeini’s face is everywhere,” Zuder says about the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran. “I don’t know how many thousands of times I saw his portrait on my trip, but this was the first time I’d seen it on the side of a mosque.”
    Photo by Samuel Zuder
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    Making Friends in Isfahan
    At an Armenian church in Isfahan, Zuder met a group of students who were sketching the architecture of the building. “At first I thought these two women were twins,” he says, “but of course they were just friends. Because so many people (men included) get nose jobs in Iran, a glimpse of post-surgery tape is nothing special.”
    Photo by Samuel Zuder
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    The Ruins of Persepolis
    “I always wonder about the hundreds of millions of pictures being taken at places like this around the world,” Zuder says of Persepolis, a city founded by Darius the Great around 550 BCE. “I especially like taking photographs at sites like this because of the contrast. Surrounding the ancient ruins you have the modern tourists—hundreds of people rushing around taking selfies with their iPhones, iPads, and cameras, many of them looking bored. It always makes for an interesting situation and a great composition.”
    Photo by Samuel Zuder
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    Past Meets Present
    Just outside of Persepolis is Naqsh-e Rostam, a necropolis built into the side of a cliff where ancient rock reliefs depict images of former emperors, momentous battles, and gods and goddesses. Carved into the wall there are entrances into the tombs of four rulers from the First Persian Empire (aka the Achaemenid Empire), each marked by a large cross. It’s a popular destination for history fanatics—as is its neighboring site, Naqsh-e Rajab. “This camel was purely for tourists,” Zuder says. “I thought the image of it standing there with this strange metal flight of stairs was really bizarre—as if it were at an airport or something.”
    Photo by Samuel Zuder
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    An Unplanned Moment
    Zuder was invited into the home of friends in Ahvaz, an industrial city in southwestern Iran. “This is one of my host’s children,” Zuder says. “She was very into gymnastics and proud of her ballet outfit, her many American Disney posters, and the family pet—a bird named Mira. The bird kept flying away when she took it out of the cage, but just once it landed on her shoulder. I said, ‘Quick! Give me a smile to the camera!’”
    Photo by Samuel Zuder
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One day, while he was shooting in Tehran, a young man and two young women—all students—approached Zuder and invited him for a drive around the city. Twice, they were stopped by the secret police. The first time, Zuder was accused of giving the women cigarettes, and was asked to leave the car and to stop taking pictures. The second time, after being stopped in a public park, “The students argued with the police officer,” Zuder says. “In fact, everyone defended me. An elderly woman sitting on the grass with her granddaughter even asked me to take her photo as a gesture of support.”

“There’s so much positive energy in the people of Iran,” Zuder says. “We in the West only see the headlines, but beneath the surface is a world waiting to be explored.”

>>Next: 7 Things You Should Know Before Your Trip to Iran