Porchography firefighters

Members of the Orange County Fire Department stand in front of one of the fire trucks.

“When life gives you a pandemic, you make lemonade, or something like that.”

Sia Yazdanfar’s twist on a well-known and often-used phrase, could be considered absurd, or even a little flippant. But, in truth, it’s an accurate — albeit odd — description of how the expat photographer now finds himself. And it’s far from flippant.

After spending more than a decade living in Hillsborough, Yazdanfar decided in 2017 to shake things up a bit and return to his birthplace, Tehran, Iran. While there, Yazdanfar traveled the country, equipped with a camera, and documented his adventure.

He also opened an art gallery called Parsa, named after his stepfather, and featured the work of renowned artists and calligraphers, as well as budding, less-known artists. Even Yazdanfar began exhibiting his photography.

He would return to Hillsborough in 2019 to share with a greater audience the Persian culture, sites and people he had captured with his camera. Yazdanfar hoped to dispel misconceptions and stereotypes about life in the Middle East.

It was during this return, and after speaking with his close friend and former Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens, that a guest show featuring Yazdanfar’s artwork would take place at Stevens’ gallery. 

Longtime local photographer Kent Murray provided the resources of his photography studio to print the photos for the show.

The show’s success led to a follow-up exhibit. It also got the wheels turning in Yazdanfar’s brain to begin planning for more exhibits in North Carolina, Washington D.C., New Orleans and other art markets.

He planned to return to the Middle East to continue his travels and collect more memorable photographs of that journey.

But then, the coronavirus happened, with the potential of infecting millions in the Middle East and the United States. Flights were canceled and borders shut down, upending Yazdanfar’s plans and leaving him stuck in the U.S. ever since.  

So, Yazdanfar took his soured plans and made lemonade. He began taking pictures of friends and acquaintances on their porches in Hillsborough, putting a human face on a situation everyone is going through.

“I thought, lets put a little twist on it,” he said. “Once I got started, it expanded beyond five or six families. It grew to 10. I go over to take photos of a family and their neighbors would want me to do them. Now it’s up to three dozen families. So, it’s gotten to a lot more people. Ultimately, when all of this has passed, I’d like to get everyone I’ve taken photos of into one photograph.”

Yazdanfar’s photography project, which he calls Porchography, captures ordinary people adjusting to an absurd time. The subjects are given very little instruction other than to be as they want to be photographed. There are those who are snapped in formal attire, while others in pajamas. Some bring drinks. Some play guitar or sit on their motorcycle. Many bring their dogs. There are well-known faces and lesser-known faces.

Each represents a method of coping with the effects of a pandemic. And the project has given Yazdanfar something to do with his time.

“I’m due to be in Iran right now,” he said. “I’m the guest artist for the Last Friday Art Walk. Based on photography I’m supposed to be doing right now in Iran.”

The Persian photographer tells his subjects to set aside about 20 minutes for the photoshoot, but he admits it often takes longer depending on how the people want to be photographed. Yazdanfar is patient, sometimes spending several hours with the families.

He respects social distancing guidelines, often taking photos from sidewalks or from the middle of the road.

“One of the benefits of this project is that I’ve gotten to see a lot friends and people,” he said. “I’ve even been a messenger for people. Someone will say, ‘Are you going to see so-and-so? Send them my regards.’”

Yazdanfar still has family in Iran and admits he’s had to patch together living arrangements betweens friends and renting a place to live. He is self-employed as a photographer. While he may be a man without a country, he is sustaining his ventures in two of them, continents apart.

Regardless of this, he remains positive and is excited about the response he has received for his Porchography project. 

“It’s never lost on me how lucky I am,” he said. “I am possibly the luckiest person I know. I’m not saying that to be pompous. Stuff just happens to work out in the end for me.”