For a professional photographer, the moment was like something from a dream.
Hoda Afshar, 31, had returned to her native Iran with the intention of capturing hidden or unknown facets of life, eight years after migrating to Australia. “I wanted to see how my vision has changed, being an outsider and insider,” she said. That vision, encapsulated in an atmospheric image of a young boy on a misty mountain pass, is the winner of this year’s National Photographic Portrait Prize, beating 43 other finalists, chosen out of a record 2500 entries from across Australia. The Melbourne photographer said capturing the boy on an old-school film camera was entirely fortuitous, after she happened on a mountain village she had never heard of. “It exists above the clouds about three hours’ drive up a mountain and you get to this heavenly, dreamy sort of village that I have to say is like a forgotten place, and there’s no electricity, no technology, nothing – people have a different sort of lifestyle,” she said. After walking around for several days and documenting the landscape, she found herself in a mist-filled forest, and followed the sound of bells on a flock of sheep. “Suddenly I saw Ali standing in the middle of the fog, and I just asked him if I could take a photo,” she said. “He didn’t move, he stared at me … The thing is that Iran has so many different dialects, so I wasn’t sure if he was understanding what I was saying, but he didn’t move.” She took one more frame, and instead of responding, Ali held out his hand, which was filled with berries. “He kept saying ‘alooche’, which means little berry, and then he ran off, swinging off the trees, picking little berries,” she said.
She later found out that in the village, the cleverest children were sent to schools in the city, while the rest were made to stay, and became shepherds. Ali was one such child, a fact that, for the three judges at the National Portrait Gallery, added another dimension to his open, curious gaze. Afshar said winning the prize was “career changing”, and said she planned to channel the $25,000 prize money back into her practice. Guest judge Nikki Toole, a former competition finalist herself, said she was particularly impressed with the dream-like quality of the work. “Hoda’s use of composition is a real highlight of the work. It has a beautiful cinematic quality.”