Notes On: Persian photography
Iran is home to one of the world’s oldest civilizations and the blossoming of Persian literature, philosophy, medicine, astronomy, mathematics and art became major elements of Muslim civilization. But it was due to Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, King of Iran from 1848 to 1896, that photography took relevance in Persian culture.
Naser al-Din Shah Qajar was very interested in painting and photography, so he became one of the first Persian photographers and patron of photography, establishing a photography studio in Golestan Palace. He was the first Iranian to be photographed and has a patron of photography he had himself photographed hundreds of times.
This fact is quite interesting, as he made a cultural revolution doing so: Islam never approved portraits or depictions of humans to avoid vanity and worship, opposite to Catholicism, also patrons of arts, as I wrote on the “Crossing Borders” notes. Islam had it quite clear, but with the discovering of photography it seems that few rules changed allowing portraits as far as they’re not for worship reasons (nor immorality, hatred or satire) – only for good purposes, like remembering someone or medical studies. So Naser al-Din Shah Qajar explained, or excused: while painted portraits could be creative and make the portraied one better or worst, photography was real, so it was just a print of a reflection, the same as we can see if we put a mirror in front of us. Photography was then a reflection: a mirrored image.
Since then there are many Persian photographers turned into portraiture, but keeping the work in the most classical way: following the rules.
However, there are few of them who crossed the borders, and start creating photography, as artists, using photography as creative mean to rise their statements, mostly political.
To point out some who rose up from the standards: Shirin Neshat, Shadi Ghadirian, Gohar Dashti, Mitra Tabrizian. Yes, 4 Iranian female photographers are probably the most revolutionary ones in Persian contemporary photography. Also the fact of being woman is quite curious, as most male photographers kept caged into the classic form of portraiture, female had the need to break it, for sure due to cultural and religious “castration”, or more restricted rules towards women.
Shirin Neshat lives in New York City and is among the best-known Persian artists in the Western world. She has lived in the United States, in self-imposed exile from her native Iran, for most of her adult life. This experience, of being caught between two cultures, dominates Neshat’s creative work: each of her pieces offers a glimpse into the complex social, religious and political realities that shape her identity – and the identities of Muslim women worldwide.
Neshat takes photos of Iranian women and uses symbolism to convey messages about the role they play in their society. A common theme is that she uses sacred or well-known Iranian text written in beautiful calligraphy and paints them directly onto her subjects, in way saying what the women cannot say. Her photos are all about giving voice to the women of Iran. The use of guns in most of her photographs bringing the violence in the lives of Iranian women and the pain that it causes to them and their families.
Traditionally in Iran it is forbidden to bear the bottom of your feet, so writing calligraphy on exposed feet is controversial. Neshat references a range of historic and contemporary metaphors. The portraits, displayed in three groups—the Masses, the Patriots and the Villains—are enhanced with drawings and Arabic text, including contemporary poetry by Iranian writers, prisoners and also from the Shahnameh.
Shadi Ghadirian. Challenging the international preconceptions of women’s roles within an Islamic state, Tehran-based artist Shadi Ghadirian’s photographs draw from her own experiences as a modern woman living within the ancient codes of Shariah law. Her images describe a positive and holistic female identity, humorously taking issue with the traditional roles by which women – both in the Middle East and universally – have been defined.
“The Ghajar dynasty ruled Iran from 1794-1925; and from its inception photography was popular with the elite, documenting women as well as men. The images from this period tend to share stylistic devices: people are posed, usually as individuals rather than groups, in the very elaborate settings of their homes, often sat next to or holding prized possessions or objects of status. In photos of this period, women were permitted to be pictured in less formal dress within the privacy of their homes, and some members of the Shah’s harem were even photographed in tutus in accordance with his predilection for the ballet. Though Ghadirian’s images replicate the settings and traditional costumes of this time, her women are presented in a much more modest way in their postures and poses, in adherence to more ‘contemporary’ custom.
Inspired by 19th century photographs from the Ghajar period – the first portraits to be permitted by religious law – Ghadirian carefully reconstructed the opulent style of these images with the help of many friends: borrowing antique furnishings and costumes, commissioning the painted backdrops, inviting them to pose in the images. Picturing each woman in a bygone era, each scene is jarringly interrupted by the presence of contemporary products – a phone, boom-box, hoover – pointing to a culture clash of tradition and progress. The women stare out from the photos with an unnerving directness, detached from their environment, and confident within themselves.
Ghadirian’s Untitled from the Ghajar Series is shocking not only for its anachronistic props, but for the sheer brazenness of her subject: defiant in her gangsta posturing and holding a ridiculously large ghetto-blaster. Ironically, this image is most in keeping with her historical references, showing the self-possessed attitude of her sitter. In this piece Ghadirian’s surreal time-warp happens in reverse: the initial joke is that the 1980s radio is out of place in the antique setting, but it is the vintage scene and pose which is in fact much more modern. Ghadirian uses this subtle humour to describe a contemporary Iranian female experience of existing as if outside of time.”
Gohar Dashti is another contemporary Iranian photographer who lives and works in Iran. “Today’s Life and War” is probably one of his mot well known series and statements.
Dashti shows a multitude of photographs in this series that has a whole, depicts the complex relationship between the daily experiences and the internal psychic experiences of a young Iranian couple. She explores the persistence of trauma that is ever present in post War Iran. Instead of suggesting that the couple lives in a war zone, Dashti uses battlefield imagery imposing onto images of the domestic environment to heighten the representation of the trauma that results from the violence of war. It shows a unique perspective, one often disregarded in the media imagery that constructs many of our misinterpretations about contemporary Iran.
Mitra Tabrizian, Born in Tehran, Iran, Mitra lives and works in London. Tabrizian’s photographs are invariably concerned with the relationship between the individual and society; between the human figure and the background/environment, as all of the action and the figures in her photographs occupy the middle distance; neither close enough to be portraits nor distant enough to be background figures. The result tends to be a strange stillness with a powerful sense of isolation. Other essays in Another Country, a monograph of Tabrizian’s most recent work, relate this isolation of her subjects to a political and cultural stasis in contemporary Iran.
I guess that the world should thank to Naser al-Din Shah Qajar for having been so enthusiastic with photography and portraits. And also to those artists who had/have the nerves to go out of the box, breaking rules and crossing borders if needed.
Some essays that made 2HeadS even better:
The Underground New York Public Library;
Jorge Molder: The King, The Captain, The Soldier and the Thief;
Genesis, by Sebastiao Salgado;
The Neighbours of Blazej Marczak;
Alchemy, by Sarah Moon;
Katharine Cooper’s White Africans;
Martin, his sister and her camera;
The Roma Project, by Kieran Kesner.
on Gonzalo Bénard:
Un Soir Place de la Bastille;
The Self, the Mirror, our Shadow and its Fear;
How to Cook Humans;
The Hard Softness (NSFW);
The Awakening of the Self;
An Interview With The Incredible Photographer Gonzalo Benard for MutantSpace;
Pain should never be an excuse, but a tool for you to create with;
B Shot by a Stranger: Beyond Loneliness.
ps – If you know more about Irani art-photography or any story related please let us know, we would love you to share!