The Other Living
The dramatic impact of images in Iran is contingent on their unique melding of artistic intent and political commentary. As a first time visitor, something that immediately struck me while travelling through the streets of Tehran were the large scale visuals of printed hoardings running along the height and length of buildings. At first it almost seemed to be a way of creating a public art forum within a neighborhood by using property as a surface for rousing social consciousness. But as I traversed from the outskirts towards the center of the city, the purpose of this imagery seemed to get gradually clearer. Some of the gigantic images are of Ayatollah, or those of the shaheed, martyrs who have lost their lives in battle. Their sheer size and conspicuous placement along the main corridors of traffic, demands a constant acknowledgement of their overbearing presence. To an outsider, such as myself, these images present a telling first impression.
For a country that has had a rich history of photography, ranging back to the Qajar era in the early 19th century, Azadeh Akhlagi in the series ‘By an Eye-Witness’ provides visual references to moments in Iran’s history that till now only existed in eyewitness records, news reports or most strongly in the collective memory of the people. Since no previous public photographic record existed for these incidents, Azadeh’s meticulous recreations of acts of state or state-induced violence help in providing an almost hyper-real visual, not only to the memory of the resident viewer but also to the visitor. Her haunting images of death – be it tragic deaths, assassinations, tortures or suicides – present a unique combination of fabrication and fact, through a temporal melding of photography and history. For people viewing these images, her visuals become surreal incarnations of the actual event, further emphasized by Akhlagi’s disclaimer that these are ‘her’ perspective(s) on history, justified by her presence in each photograph as a silent spectator, anterior to the developments occurring within the image itself.
The strong presence of staged imagery in contemporary Iranian photography makes me think about how the craft of image making reacts and moulds itself to its concurrent socio-political scenarios. For instance, Newsha Tavakolian, one of Iran’s most celebrated photographers, started out her career as a photojournalist covering national and international news for local as well as reputed international publications, but has presently decided on redefining the terms of her engagement due to external changes. The tense political scenario after the elections of 2009 and the resulting restrictive impact on journalists’ work, eventually led Newsha to embrace art photography or more specifically staged portraiture. She then produced a series of portraits of female Iranian singers in a body of work titled ‘Listen’. Her work addressed the issue of the ban on female Iranian singers trying to enter the profession independently or sing as solo artists. What cannot be documented in the real world may be reconstructed through fiction, though always drawing inspiration from real time events and issues. As Rose Issa, editor of the book Iran Photography Now says, the line between reality and fiction is blurred and they are exploring a new realm of ‘real fiction’.
Amir Ali Ghassemi in his work ‘Party/Tehran Remixed’ shows interior scenes of ‘unsanctioned’ parties in Iran, with young urban Iranians socializing, as they would in any other country, with women wearing dresses and the party goers/protagonists indulging in a drink, a dance or a cigarette. Though a seemingly innocuous subject, his images blank out any areas of exposed skin on the subjects, so as to protect their identity. The work, by this very nature, is typical of being produced in Iran and is a poignant commentary on the current situation and lack of opportunity and freedom for the Iranian youth. Babak Kazemi’s image, from his series ‘Alice in the land of Iran’, shows a young girl floating over Tehran with a suitcase in her hand. The image signifies the desires of the Iranian youth to travel to places around the world so as to seek better opportunities – but as the girl depicted seems to be unconscious, the assumption is that this is a dream.
The constructed images by the artists are a depiction of the schizophrenically different life that most Iranians lead in the confines of their homes as opposed to their public identity. Perhaps it is the only photographic record of the ‘interior’ that alternates reality, which could signify the desire to be the mainstream. These fictitious narratives, drawn from the real world, may in time constitute an archive of images that may be the most telling and truthful accounts of the current situation.
By an Eye-Witness by Azadeh Akhlagi Azar Shariat Razavi, Mostafa Bozorgnia, Ahmad Ghandchi, 7 December 1953, Faculty of Engineering, Tehran University, Tehran 2012