Examining the Many Contexts of Iranian Photography
A Personal Experience
Interview with Ghazaleh Hedayat by Hannah Jacobi
Hannah Jacobi: In a conversation we had in February 2019 in Tehran, we addressed your studies at San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI). After completing your Bachelor of Arts in Photography at Tehran Azad University, you continued your studies in San Francisco with a focus on minimalism and conceptual art. I find this shift highly interesting: what might be called your conceptual use of the medium photography probably stems from this time. I find highly intriguing the liberty you take to go beyond the space of the image and into the realm of corporeality and touch, which you achieve by employing several techniques, such as scratching and cutting the surface (skin) of the photographs; using the moving image, three-dimensionality, and sound (even though not audible); and playing with the viewer’s perception as well as with photographic representation and its indexicality.
However, you said during our previous conversations, that you somewhat regret having left the path of a so-called classical photography and that you sometimes feel you would have preferred being more “proficient” or “professional” as a photographer. I’m interested in the tension that arises here for you personally, but also for your artistic approach and for your work.
May I ask you to elaborate on your studies and your path as an artist, and your thoughts around your artistic strategy using photography: that is, what role does the medium play for you? And also, perhaps, could you describe the difficulties you find yourself confronted with?
Ghazaleh Hedayat: The educational environment and classes at SFAI back then (2003–05) were doubtlessly effective. I was incredibly naive and had suddenly become familiar with various art movements. After attending classes with the artist Paul Kos, I became fascinated by minimalism, and in the classes of the art historian Jeannene Przyblyski, I learned more about the theories supporting minimal art and conceptual art. Before these classes, due to my personal interest in photography and what I’d majored in, I had also experienced a different environment at the same school, and the relationship between the movements mentioned above and this other experience wasn’t exactly harmonious. For example, I took classes such as “Sacred and Profane,” instructed by the photographer Linda Connor, which continued the tradition of photography that had taken form at SFAI in earlier years — that was established by Ansel Adams in 1945 and carried on by the likes of Imogen Cunningham and Minor White. During that period, my work was advancing in two completely disparate environments. On the one hand, I would take photographs, develop film in darkrooms, print, and eventually hang the pictures on a wall; on the other hand, I’d try to sculpt, make videos, and gain an understanding of presenting space as a medium.
There existed two tendencies at SFAI: one was very avant-garde and experimental, while the other one was loyal to the modernist tradition. The photography major, as well as film and print, to some extent, were part of the second group. The sculpting major and new genres fell under the first group. They were far removed from one another, in terms of both form and concept. The gap between the two became even more apparent when the students’ artworks were observed and discussed. I’d sometimes sway this way or that. I was exploring two completely different realms. It seemed as if what drew me toward the second group was a personal reaction to my photography teachers’ mindsets and viewpoints — maybe Connor more than the others. She loved my photography, but she was eager for me to mix it up with me being Iranian as well as due to my gender. She insisted that I should somehow include those features in my work, or she would insist that she or I should see it in my work. On the contrary, Kos wouldn’t pay much attention — at least not in class — to my background when analyzing my work. He’d simply see the work for what it was, and that was it. He was extremely strict and cold, but influential. Observing and interpreting the work without a predefined label was both laborious and emancipating. It was like a touchstone that I could use to figure out whether or not I’d have something to express if I was stripped of my gender and homeland. The outcome of my interaction with the second tendency at SFAI — and somewhat successfully so, if I may say — was Peepholes (2003–06), and the outcome of the first tendency was The Sound of My Hair (2004).
Peepholes is a series of photographs seen from behind the peephole of a closed door. There was a sort of camera obscura on one side of the door, and a camera lucida on the other. And between the two were photographs from my family albums and my identification documents. Without taking the images into account, what I observed with Peepholes was what seemed to be the very mechanism of the camera being recreated. Peepholes became a tool to see, to see once more, to pause, and to gaze. It was as if the series created an opportunity for me to get closer to myself and the mechanism of the camera per se. The Sound of My Hair, however, was a new experience that was born out of my artistic struggles: How can I go beyond the flat surface of a photograph? How can I ask the observer to touch the work? How can I display sound without a sound?
These new experiences were both instructive and obstructive. Sometimes I think that maybe I should have learned how to professionally use the large-format camera during that short time, or I should have taken advantage of Linda’s presence and learned sun printing — Linda has always been unconditionally gracious to me, I must admit. Understanding the apparatus makes the language more eloquent and the mind more nourished. The materials at work should be understood. At the same time, I seemed to thirst for new experiences. And this same thirst seems to have further engaged my hands and sensitized my ears. I was constantly listening to sounds, I was reading Silence by John Cage, and I was trying to touch everything in a more tactile way. My eyes, which had been opened previously by the aid of the camera, gave way to my ears and hands. Such a displacement awakens the other senses but also turns the eye down or off.
Another important facet of your work is the intimate space of the body set at the center of your art. In your photographs, you manage to replace the sense of sight with the tactile sense of touch, which is closely connected to the skin.
Could you please tell us more about the development of your topics and their subsequent implementation into artworks, which is based on the photographic image but at the same time goes beyond its frame and set of possibilities? I’m also interested to hear about your sources of inspiration as well as your aspirations related to your art — what do you wish to attain in your work, and why?
I felt like photography was lacking something, but, at the same time, I found the darkroom, with its solitude and musty smell, alluring. I was also fascinated by photographic paper itself. The moment the photograph was taken might have felt insufficient and ephemeral to me, but as the image slowly developed in the tray, it felt as if it were washing over me — somehow, that ephemeral moment stretched out and became complete in itself. I found that stretched-out time was more exhilarating than the picture itself.
I previously mentioned two series that came from two disparate worlds, but they did have one thing in common: “the self” as subject matter and the fusion of the self with the apparatus. In Peepholes, the space between me and the subject (which was “the self”) was unconsciously minimized; this was because my eye was in direct contact with the viewfinder, the subject was in immediate contact with the viewfinder, and the viewfinder was in immediate contact with the peephole. Therefore, seeing or voyeurism gains significance through touch. In The Sound of My Hair, the apparatus used for seeing — that is, the camera — is removed, and a part of the body replaces it. If it is possible to see through touching and touch through seeing, then could we not see but rather hear with it? Could we not touch but rather have a tactile experience? Could we, at once, both see and hear silently? It seems as if I intended to transpose the senses, whether consciously or unconsciously so. This synesthesia with the self as subject matter and the body as the apparatus gradually gained a conscious form. The series Contact (2008) and the video Eve’s Apple (2008) — in which I intend to approximate the motion picture of video with the stillness of photography — are examples of such transposition.
The self as subject matter — which is intertwined with my gender — could have and still can become stereotypical. Whether my work was observed abroad or inside Iran, for quite a long time, regretfully, I was too concerned with how others would interpret it; little did I know that the one and only safe territory I had was myself and I had no choice but to accept this. At the same time, with Contact as well as Paper and Skin (2008), I came to realize how gratifying it is to work with the hands, by scratching the multiple layers of photographic paper. I go beyond myself, my face, and my skin; it is a somewhat mysterious experience that gives an abstract quality to an otherwise realistic image. This ambiguity became the connecting link between my skin and the paper. Hence, over the years, skin, hair, body or the self, the eyes, the camera and mirror, paper and photograph have all become my building blocks. Sometimes the body gains importance (such as in the series Crust from 2013, which at present I no longer connect with), and sometimes it’s the camera that stares while at others it is I who stares at the camera or the mirror (such as in the video of my portrait Untitled, 2005, and the three photographs The Camera and I, The Mirror and I, and You and I, all from 2008), and sometimes paper takes the lead (such as with Bygones, 2015). And in other works of mine, the final image might incorporate either one of these building blocks, sway between two of them (such as with Paper and Skin, The Photo Essence from 2017, and repetition from 2019). Presently, I find these last three series most meaningful, as they keep me suspended between the materialism of photographic paper and the image.
In Iran, you studied with Yahya Dehghanpour, right? He’s one of the most important Iranian photographers and has been a very influential teacher for many artists, especially of your generation, I think. Of his work that I’ve seen, both earlier and more recent, and what I’ve heard about his teaching — including from other artists who also work rather conceptually — is that he himself follows an experimental approach to photography and encouraged students to experiment with the camera and the image.
But there are also other examples of earlier photographers whose work and use of photography is experimental, if not conceptual — most famously, Ahmad Aali. Could you elaborate on such experimental and perhaps conceptual tendencies in photography in Iran, its relation and reference to international developments (if any), and the impact these artists may (or may not) have had on your own approach and work?
That’s quite right: Yahya Dehghanpour was an influential teacher of mine. He taught me about the joy in looking and quite simply how to look. What was important to him in the educational process was that everyone in our cohort express our individuality. He made an effort to better acquaint himself with our souls and minds so that we could become better observers and gain a better understanding of ourselves. In any case, every one of us took a different path because we were essentially different. He cherished our individuality and differences. He never wanted us to follow in his footsteps or copy him. My interest in working with hands probably goes back to the time I was at honarestan (a four-year preparatory art school); he, however, further nurtured this interest. He opened our eyes wider so that we could see images even without a camera, and with his deep love for literature and poetry, he helped us cultivate our minds. He interprets images through poetry and poetry through images. On the first day of every class, he would read a poem by Ahmad Shamlou or Mehdi Akhavan Saless. I clearly remember the way he read the poem Winter by Akhavan Saless so that we could picture it in our minds.
Nobody would answer your greetings,
The heads are buried in the neck lines.
Nobody cares to raise his head to answer and meet the friends.
The eyes cannot see further than a footstep,
Since the road is dark and slippery.
And if you extend a loving hand to anybody,
He would take his hand out of his pocket only under duress;
It is bitterly cold!
The breath, that comes out of the warm chamber of the chest,
Turns into a dark cloud;
And stands like a wall before your eyes.1
Our generation had little knowledge of imagery and poetry, so you can only imagine how astonished we were. I would constantly hear Dehghanpour mentioning Ahmad Aali’s name; regretfully, however, I wasn’t familiar with his work during the 1990s, and I don’t believe my other classmates knew him well, either. His books hadn’t been published yet, and we hadn’t had a chance to see his work, except for maybe one or two. All we knew was that he’d been a teacher for a short while.2 Unfortunately, back then, all the visual resources we were shown in class were slides of Western photographers, in addition to the few books of theirs that we could get our hands on. Thus, Iranian photographers had little influence on us during this period, as we mostly had our eyes on Westerners.
Not many of the earlier Iranian photographers seem to have been familiar with Western artistic movements, specifically pop and conceptual art. The painter and photographer Ahmad Aali was well connected with the Iranian avant-garde artists of the 1960s, especially the artist and graphic designer Morteza Momayez (1935–2005). Consequently, he was influenced by this movement as well as influencing it himself; this was because he had a strong personal interest in avant-garde art, attended relevant exhibitions, and was familiar with the Azad Group.3 Aali’s installation Self-Portrait (1964) attests to this, as his tendency to conceptualize with readymade objects in a humorous and political tone becomes quite apparent. Every winter in Aali’s studio, the oil furnace in this three-dimensional work of art was turned on and the kettle atop it would come to a boil; it was as if Aali’s breath would keep the work warm and alive, or the fumes from the burning oil would almost suffocate him. This conceptual vision can also be traced across other works of his. One spectacular example is Tehran: 1977 (1977), a pentaptych4 in which a mirror sits in place of the fifth image. Like several artists of the conceptual movement, Aali employed language and combined it with images, and, eventually, with the mirror, he transformed the passive viewer into an active one. This work might have been an invitation to participate in a major event5 that occurred a year after the work was created. Since the 1960s, Aali has been navigating between formalism and conceptualism, between taking and making photographs. Innovative experiencing manifests itself clearly in his work.
The photographer Kaveh Golestan (1950–2003) was also probably familiar with some aspects of such movements. This is mainly because he frequently traveled to England, and he worked in the press. His family background6 can also be factored in, plus the fact that he often socialized with artists such as Momayez and the other avant-gardists. Golestan was a dedicated photographer who believed it was his mission to document political and social injustice. The series Prostitute from the 1970s clearly portray a documentary photographer’s objectives. At the same time, Golestan’s work also has an experimental side. Again, in the 1970s, he created photocollages and photomontages in which it seems he intended to further expand on photographic expressions. The series Az Div o Dad (1976) is the most fully developed of these novel experiences. In these works, multiple images sit atop one another, as do animals and shahs: birds, grazing animals, and reptiles mask the faces of the shahs.
New paths and experiences can also be seen in the work of Hengameh Golestan. To bring life and color to spaces that aren’t so lively, she adapts a no-frills approach by hand-coloring her black-and-white photographs (see image above: Hengameh Golestan, Untitled, from Darreh-e Gorgi series, Yousefabad, Tehran, photographed in 1975 and hand-tinted in 1977). She sets out to experience in an instinctive and intuitive manner. In 1977, Golestan put these works on display at Seyhoun Art Gallery in Tehran and received positive reviews from Momayez. The following year — and only a few months before the Iranian Revolution — Bahman Jalali put on his most important solo exhibition Red at Shahr Gallery.7 This series was photographed in London. Despite the fact that these works exhibit no signs of conceptualism or experimentation, putting such formalistic works on display at that time was nevertheless rather thought provoking.8 Dehghanpour never exhibited his work before the revolution; nevertheless, he attempted fresh and new experiences. His photocollage Eiffel Tower (1973) portrays the vision of a photographer who wants to break up the framework of both the photograph and the Eiffel Tower, which is a symbol of modernity.
Without a doubt, each of these photographers has played an important role in photography gaining autonomy as an artistic medium. With the 1979 revolution in Iran, such sporadic personal experiences either came to a halt or disappeared completely. The revolution and the imposed eight-year Iran-Iraq War that followed gave new life to social documentary photography and photojournalism, but, until the end of the 1980s at least, it also further dimmed the already flickering flame of experimental photography — if not wiping it out entirely. However, at the same time, the introduction of photography majors to the universities of Tehran from 1983 onward started to breathe new life into fine art and experimental photography. The presence of Dehghanpour (who studied at San Francisco Art Institute in the 1970s) and Jalali (who, also in the 1970s, studied at the John Vickers School of Photography in England) laid the groundwork for new experiences. Mehran Mohajer, who later became an influential teacher to many students, had himself studied in such a nascent environment. Mohajer was in the company of Aali, Dehghanpour, and Jalali, and their different perspectives expanded his vision toward photography. At the same time, his studies and interest in language and literature allowed him to experience a different domain. The interconnectivity of the two disciplines created a path along which he could push photography another step forward in Iran. This applied to both Mohajer’s own work and the work of others.
On the one hand, the academic scene was studded with the likes of Yahya Dehghanpour, Bahman Jalali, Kaveh Golestan, Mehran Mohajer, Farhad Fakhrian, Mehrdad Najmabadi, and later Shahriar Tavakoli and Farshid Azarang — all photographers with diverse viewpoints. On the other hand, we witnessed the rise of the sociopolitical reform movement, and the face of photography in Iran, therefore, likewise witnessed major reform during the 1990s and 2000s. My generation and the generations that followed were present in such an academic environment, and little by little we gained an understanding of the viewpoints the teachers and photographers had, and we were influenced by them. We had no idea — or maybe I should say, I had no idea — as to what experiences had arisen or who had done what before the revolution in Iran; seemingly, the revolution had torn experimental tendencies apart. The opening up of the sociopolitical environment brought us a breath of fresh air, and, on a more personal level, our eyes were opening up with the help of these teachers and photographers. The marrying of these two significant changes allowed us to discover ourselves further. In a way, our identity was just beginning to form. These advancements led to more interaction: during the 1980s, Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art upheld a revolutionary approach; following this, annual photography exhibits went on display, and, for the most part, the vision behind these works was of a documentary nature, with only half an eye on creative photography; then, during the 2000s, the museum developed an inclination to follow the same path as the international art scene. We had our eyes on both inside Iran and out; our gaze toward the outside had within it a certain fascination, and our gaze toward the inside was a skeptical one. Some would look at nothing but the outside; others entirely turned their backs and held a stubborn aversion to it. Apparently, as time passed, little by little, the tumult also abated.
During the 1990s and early 2000s onward in post-revolution Iran, there were traces of awareness and apprehension — albeit limited — toward the modern art movement. More importantly, the same applied to progressive Iranian photography and arts. The same slight traces that had emerged during the 1960s and 1970s — certain aspects of conceptual art — started to appear again during the 2000s. They are evident in the works of Sadegh Tirafkan, Shadi Ghadirian, Bahman Jalali, Fereydoun Ave, Malekeh Nayiny, and Peyman Hooshmandzadeh (generally in the form of staged photography). With, and despite, all their differences, we witness the return of Iranian background and history — with elements such as historical monuments, historical photographs, and Persian calligraphy — in the works of all these photographers. The attraction to Iranian history and culture is also seen in the following generation’s work, albeit with fewer instances; Newsha Tavakolian, Gohar Dashti, and Babak Kazemi belong to this group.
What all these photographers have in common is that a critical vision toward content and meaning became more vibrant in at least some of their work; in my opinion, however, interpreting these images merely as conceptual art can be misleading. The artists of the conceptual art movement, if only with their initial intentions, somehow set aside the aesthetic aspects of artworks in favor of focusing on conceptualism. They sought to call institutions of power into question; they challenged history; they were activists who yearned to shake up society, deploying text and language as a sharp razor; and they were critics who aimed to drain the material and visual aspects from artworks to push art dealers and the art market out of the scene. Ironically, they used photography for the same purpose. These aspects cannot be found in all works of all Iranian photographers; nevertheless, traces shine through in some works.
Some of the most exemplary such works of conceptual art are those of Farshid Azarang. In the series The Lessness (2005–06), he alters the works of prominent photographers within the history of photography, namely André Kertész and William Eggleston by removing some of their elements. Creating adaptations out of the works of Western photographers places Azarang’s name at the pinnacle of history, similar to what Sherrie Levine did in the 1980s, and with the aid of preexisting images, he seems to create a new image. In the same series, he also modifies the works of Richard Avedon and Harry Callahan, which have a white background, and here he reaches his pinnacle: blank white photographs with only a black border. Like many artists of the conceptual movement, he engages with language, reducing words to photographs and photographs to words. In the series The Photo/text (2005–06), he uses words in an attempt to develop an image before the eyes; he wants us not to read the words as we see them, but rather to look at them as if they are an image. In this series, words and images stay afloat. The photo or text After Haim from the series comes closest in meaning and subject matter to the textual works of Joseph Kosuth.
While the works of these photographers might not have influenced my work directly, but I and my generation were influenced by observing these works in exhibitions inside and outside Iran, debating them, and ceaselessly engaging in amateurish criticism of these emerging movements. Some of us followed in the footsteps of these artists, while others tried to stay as far away as possible. Regrettably, we were tossed by every wave and movement. By constantly labeling the works, we often forget about looking at the images themselves.
For our last topic, I would like to go beyond the question of conceptual approaches in art and photography in Iran and ask you: What do you think is at the center of photographic practices in the local art scene(s) in Iran? In your view — also considering your own artistic practice within your local context and environment — which lines of development can you identify throughout the last decades, what has driven and still drives artists, and which tendencies do you see today?
Nowadays in Iran, a number of trends have become more noticeable. For example, we see how the staged photography of the previous generation of artists — such as Sadegh Tirafkan, Shadi Ghadirian, Ali and Ramyar, Newsha Tavakolian, and Gohar Dashti — caused a response in the next generation whereby they turned away from this style and instead prefer “formless” and “low-quality” photography. Snapshot photography has become the language of these photographers; one such vivid example is the work of Mohammadreza Mirzaei. Several contemporary photographers follow the same inclination, such as Golara Jahanian and Sara Abbasnejad, albeit with distinct differences. Using the camera’s expressive potential, Jahanian and Abbasnejad penetrate the depths of people’s lives in a personal and emotional manner. Earlier examples can be found in the photographs of Shahriar Tavakoli (Night-Wandering with a G10, 2009–11) and Mehraneh Atashi (Tehran’s Self-Portraits, 2008-10, and Flowers, 2010). In these works, we can follow the same type of looking and experiencing. One of the most common tendencies in universities nowadays is this type of photography: using artificial lighting, harsh lights and shadows, and deformed shapes and objects. This formlessness and imperfection arises from a boredom with staged photography, which I had previously mentioned, and also, directly or indirectly, mainstream Western photography movements, and it might have even risen from the lives and beliefs — or perhaps more accurately, the disbelief — of today’s younger generation in Iran.
Another noticeable approach is a type of cityscape or streetscape. Such photographers became the eyes of citizens living in ever-changing cities, with a lineage extending back to the photographers of the previous generation, such as Aali, Dehghanpour, Jalali, Tavakoli, and probably most of all — due to consistently teaching for three decades and being regularly exhibited — Mohajer. Here I’m talking about photographers such as Mehdi Vosoughnia, Arash Hanaei, Mohammad Ghazali, Mohsen Yazdipour, and Nooshin Shafiee. Outside this academic environment, other young photographers such as Nesam Keshavarz and Masoud Gharaei fervently pursue such photography and have their own followers.
Another prevalent tendency in Iran, like everywhere else, is environmental concerns. This type of photography is mainly seen in cities other than Tehran, such as Urmia, Ahvaz, and Abadan — because of the immediate environmental crises that their people are facing. Such are the photographs of Miad Akhi, Danial Khodaei, and Azin Haghighi. And, of course, traces can also be seen earlier in photographs such as those of Rumin Mohtasham.
Another interest is installations and photo installations. Nowadays, several young photographers incorporate space or structures into their works to give them a contemporary tone. The tendency to create sculptures and space can initially be seen in the work of photographers such as Abbas Kiarostami,9 Sadegh Tirafkan, Mehrdad Afsari, Mehraneh Atashi, Mohammad Ghazali, Arash Hanaei, and Sina Boroumandi. These works were outstanding experiences focusing on the image, its structure and significations, while problematizing it at the same time. Regarding some contemporary forms, however, I hold a skeptical view of the photo installations created by the younger generation these days, as I do not find them especially weighty.
During these last six decades, the gates opening on to personal and collective experiences have been unlocked. But I still believe we need to remain patient. I am confident that by contemplating our imagery reservoirs and relying on photographic traditions — some of which I briefly pointed out in this text — and real, personal experiences in the here and now, we will eventually pave our path and create a fresh image. We are accompanied by several generations of Iranian photographers, who will broaden and enlighten our vision as we tread this road.10
Translated from Farsi by Neda Monem.
1 Mehdi Akhavan Saless, Winter. In: The World Is My Home: An Anthology of Modern Iranian Poetry, ed. Ahmad Mohit (Tehran: Agah Publication, 2004), 91.
2 Later, when Aali’s book was published, we learned he’d taught for a total of about six years; this was at the Graduate School of Television and Cinema in Tehran before the Iranian Revolution, and then at the Iran Broadcasting University, also in Tehran, after it. For more information, see Ahmad Aali — Selection of Paintings and Photographs, 1953–2014 (Tehran: Nazar Publication, 2016).
3 For more information on the Azad Group and their interest in pop art, see Arman Khalatbari, In Search of Independence: On the Independent Artists Group (Tehran: Nazar Publication, 2021).
4 A pentaptych is an artwork in five panels.
5 The Iranian Revolution in 1978–79.
6 Kaveh Golestan’s father is the famous filmmaker Ebrahim Golestan.
7 Earlier in 1971, Jalali held a solo exhibition at Ghandriz Gallery, Tehran, displaying photographs of Kaargah-e-Namayesh and the City Theater of Tehran. See Aksnameh, no. 30 (2010): 10.
8 Evidenced by the fact that Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA), which at the time supported avant-garde art, acquired some photographs from the series during that exhibition.
9 Kiarostami, filmmaker and photographer, created Forest without Leaves for the exhibition Persian Garden at TMoCA in 2004.
10 In this brief text, my focus was on Iran’s so-called fine art photography and indeed limited to the questions provided. As such, works featuring Iranian social documentary must be explored when another opportunity presents itself. Not being equipped with the necessary lexical resources, I intentionally chose not to mention prominent artists who also use photography in their practices; I decided to focus only on photographers whose concern is the medium of photography as such.
Ghazaleh Hedayat, “Examining the Many Contexts of Iranian Photography. A Personal Experience,” interview by Hannah Jacobi, in Honar-e Jadid: A New Art in Iran, ed. Hannah Jacobi (Berlin: mohit.art, 2022); published on www.mohit.art, December 10, 2021.