A City, A Land, A World, introduction to PRIVATE 58, by Behzad Nejadghanbar
The collection of photos you can see here covers a broad spectrum of tastes, concerns and outlooks, which may at first sight seem irrelevant. Yet, sorting and carefully comparing the pictures will reveal a common perspective shared between the photographers of these collections. Perhaps a short introduction to Iran’s History, Geography and Social situation will help the viewer better relate to the collections: the name Iran means the land of the Aryans and the country is officially known as the Islamic Republic of Iran. Located on the South-western corner of Asia and in the Middle East with a surface of 1.648.195 square meters, it is the 18th largest country in the world. In 2011 the country had a population of 76 million. The capital and largest city, as well as political centre of Iran, is Tehran. Iran is bounded by Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkmenistan in the North, Afghanistan and Pakistan in the East and Turkey and Iraq in the West, while in the South the shores of the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman serve as boundaries. In the North the Caspian Sea has its shores. Both of these shorelines are among the most important natural oil and gas reservoirs in the world. In 1979 the country was transformed from a constitutional Monarchy into an Islamic Republic by the Islamic Revolution. The national religion is Islam and Farsi is the official language. The nuclear program and the international sanctions in response to it, as well as the difficult situation of the political climate in the aftermath of the 2011 presidential elections, have put the country in a special – and quite distressful – state. However this year’s presidential elections (in June 2013) and the coming to power of the new president with his slogan of “Prudence and Hope”, have calmed the political and social climate, and the country is experiencing improvement in its general situation. Still the Iranian society is learning from its experiences and struggling with many a problem. These social and political happenings, the rich and proud history and the wide and varied geography of the country and the variety of viewpoints and perspectives seem natural, and it is exactly this effect that makes the work of the photographers here, with all their variety and similarities so intriguing.
The eight-year war between Iran and Iraq from 1980 to 1988 left more than a million dead, and is the longest classical war and the second longest war of the 20th century, after Vietnam. Therefore, it seems impossible to create a collection of Iranian photographers without a few examples that deal with this phenomenon. The difference in perspective between photographers contemporary with the war and after it is radical. And now, moving away in time from this devastating catastrophe, after 25 years, citizens and photographers experience the war in new ways, and of course often see it as war in general. Here, Mehdi Monem’s “Civilian Victims of Iran-Iraq War” very clearly visualizes his viewpoint on war. His photographs take a look at the victims of the Iran-Iraq war, and are the result of 14 years of hard and commendable work, trying to show the wounds that war inflicts on the body of society. The photographer shows the civilian victims of stray landmines, left behind after the conflict has ended. The finesse of the pictures and their focus on life going on in spite of the difficulties is praiseworthy. The sadness in the pictures is devastating and helps the photographer to reach his goal of creating a collection with lessons to be taught. The empty space left behind by missing limbs and eyes that have gone in blink, but without a purpose and with a great deal of pain catches the eye.
Mohammadreza Soltani Tehrani has travelled to Khorramshahr in Southern Iran, in order to show the effects of war. This city lies close to the border and the sea and has access to the vast oil and gas reserves and thus is a very important place. Before the revolution, Khorramshahr was among the first cities to embrace the modernity leaking in from the West and was thriving with life. The war plunged the city into a terrible nightmare and for twenty months the city lay besieged by the enemy. A huge part of the city was destroyed by the invaders and people were forced to flee their beautiful city. The anniversary of Khorramshahr’s liberation is a National Holiday. The name means The City of Happiness and is more than just a city. The name evokes feelings of steadfastness and victory and Iranians cherish its name with pride and happiness. Yet Soltani creates a very real and tangible image of Khorramshahr, quite discrete from these abstract emotions. A city with a great deal of the country’s natural resources, but with people who have to live in hardship and often lack clean water and have no access to the natural gas obtained in their vicinity. After so many years, as Mohammadreza Soltani portraits, the wounds of war still remain on the city’s face.
Shadi Ghadirian is another of Iran’s famous photographers whose past collections on the war called “Nil, Nil” and “White Square” are well known, but her latest collection seems to deal with something even more personal. She pictures women in the reclusion of their own homes, spinning webs and making their own world ever smaller. Shadi Ghadirian is known outside of Iran, beside her work on war, for her focus on Iranian women. This time around, she portraits women indoors, without a reference to time and in reclusion and silence, women spinning webs in front of a source of light, as if hopelessness, daily routine, inertia and sadness of Iranian is the focus of the photographer. She lifted the veil of women and gave them modern utensils to hold in her “Qajar” series, but this time she is looking at another side of modern women. What is the meaning of standing abreast the light and leaving daily routine in Shadi’s latest series? Is she again calling out in anger, but with new words? Is she simply trying to create a personal experience? It seems that with her focus on the “Iranian” epithet, she has taken a step forward towards a more international outlook and has opened up for more interpretation than before, and this is exactly what separates this collection from all of her previous work.
Gohar Dashti is yet another photographer who is known for her staged pictures of the Iran-Iraq conflict. This time in her collection “Slow Decay” she turns her lens and her stages towards the daily life of contemporary Iranian city-dwellers. The pictures feature people and stains of blood, indicating some interaction between the subjects. The pictures are strongly static and obey all rules, and resemble family photos, but a sense of horror and a curiosity towards the underlying reason of the spilled blood is undeniable. The viewer will search photo for photo after a reason, unknowing that the reason lies outside the frame. Here, as in Ghadirian’s collection, the elements in the pictures are separate from time and space. Perhaps she is pointing the viewer to something greater and more humane. Seeing the huge printed photos of this collection emphasizes the slow aspect of the collection and was very pleasing to this author. The people in the pictures want to convey a meaning, but not with words, but with their inaction, slowness, the cold stares they cast at us.
Now, Alireza Fani’s “A Memorial For Today” also makes use of inertia and inaction to critically look at, and question, the contemporary human being. Even though the pictures’ general form convey a global perspective and prevent a simply Iranian message, singular and very Iranian cues appear in the pictures. The people in the pictures seem frozen in a moment, perhaps even asleep, unable to connect to their surroundings and each other. The pictures appear as if the subjects were just about to begin doing something when they froze and failed to do what they set out to. This inability seems to have permanently stricken all and has slowly infected the whole lives of the people. There is no reaction or objection and eyes fail to see the obvious truth. Just as Shadi Ghadirian’s “Miss Butterfly” tried to escape to truth by jailing herself, Fani’s inert and sleeping subjects have fallen out of touch with reality at some point in time. Perhaps this collection can be taken as an evidence that the Iranian society is trying more than ever to look at itself, criticize itself, and no society can walk the path to reform and betterment, save by self-critique and stepping up to make up for failings, and here collections such as Fani’s gain their worth.
Ebrahim Noroozi is yet another well known photographer, whose current collection gained him the World Press Photo Award in 2013. His choice of subjects focuses on the bitter and rough problems of society, namely the phenomenon of acid-throwing in this collection. A drug-addict man, upon learning that his wife wants to leave him, first threatens her to throw acid upon her face and finally, one day while the wife and their infant child are asleep, he goes on to finish his maniac plan. People’s efforts enable the woman and child to come to Tehran from their rural home, for the girl’s eyes to be operated. In the past years, this kind of crime has diminished in Iran, but still women are harmed, often by acid, on the basis of a man-centric and possessive view, a plight that is lingering in Iran and beside tough enforcement of the law needs a great amount of awareness-raising by civic organizations. The effort of photographers such as Noroozi to show this problem to the world is praiseworthy and it has to be said that in order to obtain photos like these, the photographer will have had a hard time.
Hamed Sodachi is looking at another social plight that strangles large cities such as Tehran. He has sought out those citizens who in their plight have no place to sleep but the public buses of the city. Prostitutes, working children, street merchants, drug addicts, run-away girls and new immigrants to the city make up this class of society. Tehran has a handful of homes and shelters for such people, but a variety of problems, from capacity and basic amenities to the lack of enough social workers and psychologists in the recent years have added to the number of people suffering such. The photographer, only by picturing this bitter and repulsive truth of our society, wants to reveal a part of his city that normal citizens turn away from. By picturing the unwholesome sleep of some of city’s inhabitant is perhaps trying to wake up another part of the citizens. The subjects of Fani and Sodachi are all asleep, but one cannot help but wonder if it is the same kind of sleep?
Some of the other photographers aim at the national and historical memory and heritage of Iran, each from their own, distinct perspective. Hossein Fatemi has travelled to the Northwest of the country and the results of three years and twelve trips to Lake Urmia have been gathered here. Drought and environmental mismanagement have put this lake in danger of drying up. The water level of the lake has dropped by six meters and scientists warn that the released salt could drastically impact the climate and environment of this part of the country. It is this salt, that has of old turned Lake Urmia into a health bath, and people from around gather in spring in summer to relax on its shores beneath the sun. Hossein Fatemi’s look has aesthetic qualities and does not simply document, picturing people who gather on the shores. While the pictures do not directly look at the current problem of the lake, but a collection like this will in future times serve as an evidence for a lake of which little more than a name might remain, and thus has its special value. The strong aesthetics of the pictures and their eye-pleasing quality further add to this value.
Hamid Janipour is showing his artistry in his documentation of the ancient “Pir Shaliyar” ritual in parts of Iran. Iran like any other multicultural and multiethnic society is brimming with rituals and mysteries all around the country, especially in Kurdistan, where many photographers have worked throughout the years. The festival that Hamid Janipour is depicting is upheld in winter in Kurdistan, over a fortnight, with dance, music, offerings, which the photographer documents in detail. The black and white photographs help the viewer focus on the main subject and details, while at the same time giving the pictures a nostalgic, historical quality.
“Public Bath” is a part of a not-so-distant history of Iran, which is still quite alive in small towns and rural areas. But in larger cities, especially Tehran, with the sudden advancement of modernity and a change in lifestyle it is fading away and giving place to swimming pools, saunas and Jacuzzis, which are of course used for different purposes and serve recreation. Still, some of these baths still struggle to stay alive in older, more traditional and also poorer parts of the city, but it seems the insatiable appetite for modernity will swallow them sooner or later. Peyman Hooshmandzadeh is a well-known documentary photographer in Iran. He has taken his curious camera to its confines in order to preserve at least part of this memory. He has documented elements, parts and rituals of this place, so threatened by forgetfulness. The inertia, slow passage of time, inter-human relationships and also the architecture are very interesting to behold.
Some of the photographers in this collection simply document the daily personal life of themselves. Elahe Abdolahabadi’s panoramas of Isfahan are interesting insofar that she has forsaken the Iranian and Islamic architecture the city is renowned for and instead of a tourists’ perspective is looking at the city from a citizens’ point of view, portraying people of the city living their daily lives. Her pictures are, in her own words, a slice of reality, but this sliced reality sits squarely in her frames without any lack, and this makes his collection unique. By simply toying with a white sheet placed behind her subjects, Elahe draws attention to this slice of reality, while at the same time not dodging the reality all around. That is, the sheet helps to focus on the subjects but also draws attention to objects not in front of the sheet. This collection gathers a wealth of sociological information on details of daily life, human relationships and even the clothing of normal citizens.
Among the collections Roya Noorinezhad and Kiarang Alaei’s with their absence of human subjects are notable, while they are very distinct themselves aiming at different objectives. Roya uses intercity train windows as frames in order to express the urban daily routines. While the elements and objects we see in her frames are trivial, the collection as a whole clearly conveys movement in space and time as well as a bored repetition. The individual pictures are pleasing in their aesthetics and in their absence of human subjects.
Kiarang Alaei’s “Even When We Do Not Know” features the absence of humans in a bitter perspective, showing objects of daily life that have been left behind instead of their owners. As the artist put it “I removed humans from my frames, as for me, lack of something raises more questions than its presence.” In his pictures a certain feeling of loss is present, and the lack of humans imparts a sense of fear. This collection, as some of the others here, does not point to a certain time and location, but simply looks at the social challenges of the contemporary human. At the same time, there is also a dark humour present: a camera that is stupidly and stubbornly watching something or someone full of silence, non-movement, oblivion, and thus questioning the basic reason why cameras exist. The camera seems like a warlord without an army refusing to accept the bitter reality of defeat.
Sara Naimpour has the most personal of the photo series here. It is the only collection to feature the photographer in the frame, though the epithet self-portrait does not seem to fit, as by purpose the photographer is only part of the scene, and not the most important subject. Yet as the name of the series conveys, the photographer is revisiting places of fond memories, be they only public scenes of a city. But her framing and placement and her own presence implies a feeling of personal belonging. The pictures as a whole seem to tell a story, which helps the personal aspect of the collection, but the localities and spaces are familiar to Tehran’s citizens, specifically the younger generations, who may relate to the photos more than expected.
The collection in PRIVATE is a photo-story of personal concerns, documentations and reports by some of Iran’s contemporary photographers. The photos of this issue cannot and do not presume to be able to paint a complete picture of the country, but at least show a corner of the challenges people and artists face today and as such it is a worthy and important collection, set to endure. Without doubt, Iran’s new foothold in a changed political and social situation will make sure that we will soon enough see photographs with a wholly different air and feeling.