Iran’s photo history reflects the contradictions of a society where deep tensions exist between traditional and contemporary culture, between urban and rural tradition.
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.
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.
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.
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.
4. Abbas – The body of Ayatollah Moffateh, shrouded in white, is taken to the cemetery by a large crowd of mourners, Iran, December 1979
With huge ramifications felt across the Muslim world, the Iranian revolution of 1979 marked the new advent of a political era for the country. Spurred on by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini from his exile in France, the Iranian people toppled the US-backed leader, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Magnum photographer Abbas was one of the few photographers present to witness and document the unrest as it unfolded. The revolution was one that took the world by surprise and Abbas arrived in Iran amidst the growing civil unrest. He had initially been supportive of the revolution but was soon disillusioned after witnessing the violence from both sides.
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.
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.
7. Jean Gaumy – Tehran, Iran, 1986
Jean Gaumy initially became famed for his exposes on the French healthcare and prison systems, which ultimately led to systematic reforms. However, he is now better known for his photo of Iran’s chadored female militia, as they are practicing firing. Over a four year period, Gaumy visited Iran six or seven times following advice from his mentor, Abbas: “Abbas told me not to believe anything I read in the newspapers about Iran and he was perfectly right. I found it very exciting, discovering an entirely new and different way of life.”
It was 1986 and the height of the Iran-Iraq war- and Gaumy was the first western photographer to be granted access to the Iranian training camp for female Basij militia on the outskirts of Tehran. The photos were ayatollah’s way of saying that even women were prepared to fight and die for their nation. Gaumy was seen as a conduit for the Iranian global message that, with such determined women, Iran was still the only true revolutionary leader.
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.
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.
10. Newsha Tavakolian – Imaginary CD cover for Sahar, Mahmoudabad, Caspian Sea, Iran, 2011
Newsha Tavakolian, a trailblazing self-taught photographer, began working for the Iranian press at the age of sixteen. By the age of twenty-one, she was being commissioned to cover international wars, social conflicts, and natural disasters. Her focus now predominantly lies on women’s issues, especially their restrictive freedoms in her native Iran. She was particularly concerned with women’s lack of social mobility, and the lack of opportunity for self-expression. Her work bridges the gap between documentary and fine art. This interpretive portrait series titled Listen in her own words: ‘echoes the voices of these silenced women. I let Iranian women singers perform through my camera while the world has never heard them’.
All images © their respective owners