Amirmahdi Najafloo Shahpar

Top 10 Iran in 10 iconic images

© Amirmahdi Najafloo Shahpar

Iran’s photo history reflects the contradictions of a society where deep tensions exist between traditional and contemporary culture, between urban and rural tradition.

─── by Isabel O'Toole, July 20, 2021
  • Updated Jan 2024

    However, when we collect some of its most important images, the country reveals itself as a proud and rebellious nation, free from the shackles of regimes and external oppressors.

    Untitled from Qajar, Iran, 2015 © Shadi Ghadirian
    © Shadi Ghadirian

    1. Shadi Ghadirian – Untitled from Qajar, Iran, 2015

    Inspired by photos from the Qajar period of Iran, Shadi Ghadirian’s portrait shots of contemporary Iranian women dressed in 19th-century clothes imitate the traditional style of the era but incorporate references to modern society in an attempt to show the dispute between tradition and modernity in a globalized world.

    The stylization and sepia tones of the staged portraits are almost identical to the classic photos of the day but are supplemented by references to the present day. In perhaps the most famous of the series, a veiled woman holds a boombox on her shoulder, questioning how times have changed, the roles of women in society and whether much has changed for women or not.

    Tehran/Azadi Stadium, from the series Masculinity, April 2006 © Abbas Kowsari
    © Abbas Kowsari

    2. Abbas Kowsari – Azadi Stadium, Tehran – from the series “Masculinity”,  2006 

    Abbas Kowasari addresses Iranian society’s relationship with the body. The bodybuilders of his photos are both impressive and uncharacteristic of the world’s idea of Iran.

    The physical prowess of the well-oiled bodies which inhabit Kowasari’s photos also hold a homoerotic quality not frequently seen art. Homosexuality is a crime in Iran and therefore Kowasari’s photos address male sexuality in an arena in which it is acceptable- here, sport.

    Isfahan, Iran, 1969 © Henry Clarke
    © Henry Clarke

    3. Henry Clarke – Isfahan, Iran, 1969

    In 1969 Henry Clarke was commissioned by Vogue to shoot a spread for the magazine at historic locations around Iran. Clarke captured Western female models against the walls of old buildings including mosques and palaces in Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, and Persepolis. Clarke’s photos eroticize Iran and conjure a sense of the colonial era.

    Today these photos of holy sites with women revealing their hair would not be allowed to be taken so they are a unique relic of pre-revolutionary Iran.

    Landscape Photography, deserts around Yazd in central Iran, with Nikon D810 70-200mm f/2.8 lens
    © Reza Bagheri

    4. Reza Bagheri – ‘Peace’. Bafgh Desert, Yazd Province. 

    This stunning image was selected as the first prize winner of our 2019 Landscape Photography Award, by judge Chris Burkard, and depicts Iran’s Bafgh Desert, renowned for its beautiful undulating dunes, which photographer Reza Bagheri has captured perfectly. The clean, smooth lines of the dunes lead the viewer’s eye to the distance, where they gradually give way to a dry plain, whilst further still, rugged desert peaks emerge, silhouetted against the backdrop of a breathtaking setting sky.

    Women of Allah, Iran, 2014 © Shirin Neshat
    © Shirin Neshat

    5. Shirin Neshat – Women of Allah, Iran, 2014

    Neshat’s work explores the relationship between women and the religious and cultural value systems of Islam. Her overtly political photos address Islamic law’s effect on Iranian women’s daily life.  In her series The Women of Allah, she presents herself in a series of self-portraits wearing the chador veil. In the photographs, her face, feet, and hands (the only parts of the body allowed to be shown by Islamic law) are covered in Iranian poetry by Forough Farrokhzad and Tahereh Saffarzadeh. By mixing poetry and writing Neshat makes the statement that these women are more than icons of oppression, they are complex individuals with desires and ambitions.

    Faculty of Engineering, Tehran University, Iran © Azadeh Akhlaghi
    © Azadeh Akhlaghi

    6. Azadeh Akhlaghi – Faculty of Engineering, Tehran University, Iran 

    These staged photographs reproduce notorious death scenes throughout Iranian history, reinventing the idea of what it is to be an eyewitness. Akhlahi’s series By An Eyewitness harks of a time before smartphones and compiles some of the bloodiest and most famous national deaths of the twentieth century in Iran.

    This panoramic tableau depicts the murder of Azar Shariat Razavi, Ahmad Ghandchi, and Mostafa Bozorgnia, three students murdered by police during student demonstrations against the visit of Richard Nixon in 1953. Akhlaghi freeze-frames staff and students as they run panic-stricken, down steps while bloodstained bodies lie in corridors surrounded by distraught friends. Iran still remembers the tragedy every year, on Student Day.

    Photo of muslim women praying in Iran by Amirmahdi Najafloo Shahpar
    © Amirmahdi Najafloo Shahpar

    7. Amirmahdi Najafloo Shahpar – “Benediction”.

    This breathtaking image by Amirmahdi Najafloo Shahpar captures a group of Muslim women engaged in prayer during Eid al-Fitr (the last day of Ramadan) in the city of Hamedan. The photograph, taken from a slightly elevated, side angle, portrays thousands of devotees with their slightly bowed heads covered in often intricately patterned hijabs, forming a beautiful mosaic that conveys their profound sense of dedication.

    News photo, 1967 © Unknown Photographer
    © Unknown Photographer

    8. Unknown Photographer – News photo, 1967

    Prior to the Iranian revolution, women were part of a fairly tolerant, or at least more socially relaxed liberal democracy. The revolution rolled back several advancements in feminist progress- the hijab was introduced, women were removed from cabinet positions, and the judiciary. Images from before the revolution show Iranian women clad in revealing and tight clothing much like the outfits worn by their contemporary peers in the West. These playful and colorful images show a completely different world to modern Iran in which modesty and tradition govern the land.

    Untitled, from Gohar Dashti’s series Stateless, 2014-15 © Gohar Dashti
    © Gohar Dashti

    9. Gohar Dashti – Untitled, from the Stateless series, 2014-15 

    Gohar Dashti has made the legacy of conflict the central theme of her work. Born in Ahvaz, a city in south-west Iran, on the border with Iraq, her home was essentially a battlefield in a brutal way between the neighboring states. Watching the place she called home reduced to rubble she has now chosen to root her practice in the physical and psychological aftermath of this tragedy.

    Approaching the post-conflict history as a conceptual artist rather than a documentary photographer, she fabricated her pictures to locate the insecurity she recognized around her whilst growing up. Her staged photos juxtapose the expectations of ‘normal’ life with the detritus of war. In her series Stateless, she created metaphors intended to express Iran’s ongoing trauma caused by the millions of lives lost and those millions more who were displaced due to future conflicts.

    Portrait of a young girl stood in front of broken play swings with rugged desert landscapes in the background in Iran
    © Farnaz Damnabi Courtesy of 29 ARTS IN PROGRESS gallery

    10. Farnaz Damnabi – “Playing is my right #2″ 2018

    This wonderful portrait, captured by Iranian photographer Farnaz Damnabi in a small village in the province of Golestan, tells a compelling story. In some Iranian villages, residents lack essential amenities like water and electricity, and according to the photographer, attention to children’s needs for entertainment is often insufficient. However, despite this intention to shed light on such circumstances, what Farnaz found—and beautifully portrayed in the photo—was the genuine happiness of children, even in the absence of proper facilities for amusement.

    The young girl’s smiling face, set against the backdrop of broken swings and the rugged, arid landscape, creates a surreal image that is both heartwarming and melancholic, capturing the resilience and joy of children in the face of challenging circumstances


    All images © their respective owners