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Escape from Visual Clichés

A new book on contemporary Iranian photography 

ImageTeheran can easily measure with Western metropoles of contemporary art. The book  "Iranian Photography Now" shows the exciting ambiguity and how modernity grapples with tradition in the work of Iranian photographers

October 2008 Editor Rose Issa obviously was in a cheerful mood when she collected the pictures for her new book. On one hand she succeeded in editing an iridescent gem for the coffee-table, on the other hand the art historian playfully tried to document the wide spectrum of contemporary Iranian photography. The collection shows the range from tradition to controversy young points of view.

For her series of photographs ‘Qajar’, the Iranian photographer Shadi Ghadirian dressed young women in early 20th century clothing, and photographed them holding Western objects that had been smuggled into Iran. In one portrait a woman stands with a ghetto blaster on her shoulder, in another a seated woman holds a can of Pepsi.

The images exemplify the way in which Ghadirian, who turned 34 this year, explores through her photographs the paradox between the conservative role of women in Iranian society and the impact of modernity.
Her follow-up series ‘Like Every Day’ consists of a number of patterned chadors with the woman’s face in each case replaced by a household item such as an iron, a teapot, a rubber glove or a cheese grater. Ghadirian says this series was “inspired by my own experience of married life: vacuum cleaners and pots and pans found their way into my photographs.” 

ImageSince 1999 Ghadirian has exhibited widely internationally and her photographs are in several major public collections including the British Museum. She is one of 36 Iranian photographers who are celebrated in a new book, “Iranian Photography Now”. Edited by Rose Issa, a London-based curator and producer of contemporary visual arts and film from the Middle East, the book is produced by the German art book publisher Hatje Cantz in association with the Prince Claus Fund Library of the Netherlands. The 236-page volume has superb quality reproductions of photographs.

Martin Barnes, Senior Curator of Photographs at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, writes in his preface that the multiple viewpoints of the works of the photographers are “appropriate for these fractured times – and fitting for a country where collisions between personal, social, religious, and political life can be emotive, troubling and complex.”

Some of the photographers are long-established, such as Shirin Neshat, and the film-director Abbas Kiarostami. Others are newer talents, some still in their twenties. What distinguishes them all, according to Issa, is the originality of their vision, whether documentary, artistic or conceptual. “All the images in this book challenge us to reconsider the complexities that influence life in Iran. By addressing the personal, national, and international issues affecting their country, these photographers clearly express their love for the land, its history, and people.”

Some Iranian photographers are fascinated by old photographs. Omid Salehi’s poignant ‘Legacy’ series harks back to his childhood, when his grandfather would take him to his little ironmonger’s shop in the Shiraz bazaar. Over the years the shopkeepers Salehi had got to know died, and he noticed that their sons would display framed photographs of their fathers on the walls of their shops. ‘Legacy’ shows these photographs hanging in shops specializing in items such as carpets, thread, clocks, household goods and shirts.

In Newsha Tavakolian’s series ‘Mothers of Martyrs’, individual mothers hold portraits of sons who were killed during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Every Thursday and Friday the mothers still visit their sons’ graves in the Beheshte Zahra cemetery south of Tehran.

The title of Fereydoun Ave’s series ‘Endangered Species’ refers to the Zoroastrian community. Ave delved into his family’s photographic records spanning three generations, and found that “the photos suggested an epic, family-drama soap opera.” In his composite images, he “wanted the feel of film posters of the 1940s and 19550s, with a lot of cinematic effects such as fade-ins and fade-outs.”
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He was also influenced by Chinese ancestral portraits with their stylized format of piling rows of people on top of each other. The calligraphy in his memorable images comes from his grandfather’s account book. Ave, born in 1945, is currently the artistic director of the 13 Vanak Street Gallery in Tehran and of the Ave Gallery in Dubai.

Malekeh Nayiny, who has lived in Paris since 1991, also finds inspiration in family photographs. In her ‘Updating a Family Album’ images she uses computer technology to add color and fresh life to reassembled group pictures of her relatives.

Bahman Jalali, born in 1944, and his photographer wife Rana Javadi have since 1999 edited Iran’s first quarterly photographic journal, Aksnameh. Jalali, who teaches photography at Azad University in Tehran, collects and publishes old photographs of Iran and encourages his students to get inspired by these photographic traditions.

Sadegh Tirafkan, who works between Tehran and Toronto, superimposes image of young people on images of old Persian miniatures and contemporary pictorial carpets in his series ‘Whispers of the East’. In the series, ‘Zourkhaneh‘, he pictures young men wrestling in front of a large black and white photograph of wrestlers from the past.

The traditional gymnasium known as the zourkhaneh is also the focus of female photographer Mehraneh Atashi’s series ‘Bodyless’. “This is where religion, tradition, and virility – all qualities of the Persian hero – come together,” she observes.

Women are well represented in the book, both as photographers and as subjects. Shirana Shahbazi, who lives in Zurich, recalls that when she realized she did not want to become a photojournalist, the question remained as to whether it was possible to create photography in Iran that could escape the country’s visual clichés. “My aim was not to question existing images and replace them with a new statement, but rather to think about how images are made and interpreted.” Her series ‘Goftare Nik’ or ‘Good Words’ , which has been exhibited in several countries, captures the physical landscape and faces of modern-day Iran and their relation to tradition.
The photographer and filmmaker Mitra Tabrizian lives in London where she lectures in photography at Westminster University. Her first major UK show, ‘This is That Place’, was held over the summer at the Tate Britain Gallery. Tabrizian’s series ‘Borders’ , combining fact and fiction, focuses on Iranians in exile and their untold stories.

The cover image of “Iranian Photography Now” is a picture from the series ‘Party’ by one of the youngest photographers featured in the book, Amirali Ghasemi , who was born in Tehran in 1980. In this series, and its sister series ‘Coffeeshop Ladies’, Ghasemi whites out the faces of his young women subjects “so that the media cannot misuse or manipulate their identities”.

Iranian photographers have long made major contributions to international photojournalism. The photographer and documentary filmmaker Keveh Golestan was tragically killed in 2003 when he stepped on a landmine in northern Iraq. “Iranian Photography Now” includes some of Golestan’s nightmarish visions from the Iran-Iraq war and surreal images from his series ‘Qajar’.

Photojournalist Abbas, born in 1944, took many key photographs of the Iranian revolution in 1979-80 but has lived in Paris since then. The book includes pictures from ‘Iran Diary’, taken when he returned to Iran in 1997 for the first time in 17 years. They include images of three women in chadors riding as passengers on a motorbike driven by a young man, and of women in chadors paragliding. Chador-wearing women in training at the Women’s Police Academy appear in Javad Montazeri ‘s photographs. In one shot, they abseil down the outside of a building.

Photojournalist Abbas Kowsari’s ‘Rohian-e Noor’ or ‘The Wayfarers of Light’ pictures, taken in Khorramshahr, portray the visitors known by that name who go to the killing fields of the Iran-Iraq war every Persian New Year. There they tell stories about their dead children and scratch testimonials on abandoned tanks.

“Iranian Photography Now” is a remarkable testimony to the creativity of Iran’s photographers. One can only hope that some of the open spiritedness, sensitivity and wit of many Iranians, that is reflected by this sample of the country’s visual artists, will be allowed to express itself within the country’s political system.

Text: Susannah Tarbush

"Iranian Photography Now", herausgegeben von Rose Issa, Hatje Canz, 39,80 Euro

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