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Mutedfawn / Nedda Afsari

The arthouse photographer mixing fetish with feral fashion

Muted Fawn is the LA-based artist whose brutal, wild work blurs the lines of fantasy and fiction

The photographs of Muted Fawn (real name Nedda Afsari) look like stills from some lost feminist arthouse horror film. Think a California ghost town ruled by fetish models who moonlight as serial killers and are starting to get bored of it. Twin Peaks and Czech new-wave flicks (with Greek Weird Wave cinematography) immediately come to mind, but there’s something more cold-blooded about Afsari’s work, something more foreboding, brutal and feral, but also calculatingly editorial. Like if a fashion designer directed a snuff film.

Occasionally dreamy and nearly always full of dread, Afsari’s violent, erotic and provocative photos aren’t quite fetish and aren’t quite fashion, but are something that lives excitingly on the edge of both boundaries.

Afsari, 34, is based in Los Angeles and began teaching herself photography as a hobby about eight years ago. She has shot the likes of “drone-metal-art-folk” chanteuse and fashion goth Pinterest staple Chelsea Wolfe, lingerie designer and FKA twigs favorite Yeha Leung and artist/model/dominatrix Maidenfed. We caught up with the line-straddling, genre-beheading photographer to talk photography, feminism and classic horror.

Describe your photography for us in the form of that egregiously abused drag-slang characterization, “Serving realness.” What kind of realness does Mutedfawn serve?

Nedda Afsari: Realness to myself. I’ve felt pressure from society to fit in and do what others perceived as the norm. Luckily I was given the opportunity to explore my own ideologies and what I found to be more in tune with who I am. I’m grateful for that and have been able to use my photography as a creative outlet that makes me very happy and keeps me sane.

You have worked with such charismatic, commanding presences like Chelsea Wolfe, Foie Gras, Maidenfed and Yeha Leung. As a self-described “pretty shy” personality, what is the dynamic like during a shoot? Do you direct your subjects or is it the other way around?

Nedda Afsari: I’m definitely not shy when I’m behind the camera. I try to make the dynamic and environment of my shoots as relax and fun as possible. I enjoy working with people who have something creative to bring to the table and not just me directing what I want. I love collaborating with such individuals. The ladies you mentioned above, along with many others I have worked with, are all strong women expressing themselves in a variety of different ways, which I really admire.

You only photograph women. Is this a rule of thumb for your photography? Why do you choose not to photograph any men?

Nedda Afsari: I feel like every woman has a certain side to them that they don’t necessarily portray to the public such as their sexuality, fantasies, fears, aggression etc. I enjoy picking those sides apart, and also feel I have an easier time expressing my own subconscious visions and feelings, which better translates when I’m photographing a woman. With that said, I do also photograph men. Lately, I’ve been photographing musicians and live shows. I tend to get bored quickly, so I like to work on different types of photography.

“A dream-like portrait on the set of Dario Argento’s film Suspiria, wearing a YSL gown and surrounded by hundreds of cats” – Muted Fawn when asked what it’d look like if she photographed herself

Are there any experiences you had growing up or as a woman that inform your work?

Nedda Afsari: I spent a portion of my adolescence growing up in Iran, where I faced a sudden culture change and felt a great deal of suppression. I felt as though I was limited in the ways I could express who I really was, as the culture and society around me threw judgment and certain things were just not acceptable. Ever since I moved back and as the years progressed, I’ve been able to take my experiences from that time and express myself in my work.

Your photography often features your subjects in erotic poses or situations — sometimes dominant, sometimes submissive, sometimes fucking with such binaries. There’s been a cultural debate on sexual objectification vs. sexual empowerment (especially of women) and which bodies are “allowed to be sexually empowered while others are inherently objectified. What are your thoughts on this matter?

Nedda Afsari: My work is not meant to send any one specific message. If someone articulates my work as empowering or objectifying, all I can say is that my work can invoke different emotions. The message the viewer internalises from my work is what they feel inside when they see these images and depending on the person, one will see one thing and the other will see another.

Who and/or what inspires your work? I think of your photography as “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night directed by David Lynch and John Willie's demon child.” Is that anywhere close or was I completely off the mark?

Nedda Afsari: That’s a pretty accurate description actually! I’d also add Guy Bourdin’s fashion films to that mix. So many different things inspire me. Classic horror films, fashion photography, music, and my lucid dreams are all areas I pull inspiration from at the moment.

You clearly have some photographic kinks—brandished knives, masked or faceless women, the desert and full-body suits made of materials like lace and plastic. What draws you to these motifs and do they have any personal significance?

Nedda Afsari: Some images do have personal significance and some don’t. I’ve always gravitated towards things that are a bit more eerie, edgy, and invoke some type of curiosity.

We began with realness, let’s conclude with fantasy. In one interview, you said you sometimes live vicariously through the women you photograph. If you were to photograph yourself, what would it look like?

Nedda Afsari: A dream-like portrait on the set of Dario Argento’s film Suspiria, wearing a YSL gown and surrounded by hundreds of cats sounds nice.