Photography in Iran and the Reverberation of War

A conversation between Rana Javadi and Davood Madadpoor (2020)

A decade has passed since your residency here at Villa Romana. How has your artistic practice developed since then?

During the last ten years I have continued working in at the Photo and Pictorial Studies department of The Cultural Research Bureau (Tehran). I have created two new photo series. One is called Never Ending Chaos (2013) and the other Life, War, and Living… (2018).
In both series I used a collage of Bahman Jalali’s war photos with photos collected from internet. As a female photographer I could not get a license to shoot in the war zone during the Iran-Iraq war. This was the main reason why I began creating photographs rather than taking them. Since the revolution in 1979, I had taken photographs of the events connected with it. I developed a certain passion for this and gained a lot of inspiration which I just couldn’t dismiss, despite the time which has passed, so I felt the urge to continue documenting the war zones.
Besides the two mentioned series, and participation in various solo and group exhibitions in Iran and abroad, I published three photobooks of Bahman’s work: The Familiar Stranger (2020), Bushehr (2016) and Bahman Jalali, an Exhibition Book at the Sprengel Museum, Hanover, Germany (2011).

What are these two series about?

In Never Ending Chaos (2013) I used the amazingly beautiful old tiles of Takiyeh Ma’oun al-Mulk (built in Kermanshah, 1902) showing scenes from the Karbala war. Many years ago, I had photographed these tiles during a visit to Kermanshah city, and always wished to do something special with them. Then I came up with the idea of mixing some Ta’ziyeh mourning tools with modern war equipment. In such a way, I was able to create my own images of the war of past centuries.
Life, War and Living… (2018) unfortunately did not obtain permission to be shown publicly. Even though the photos were already printed and framed. This series too was combined with Bahman’s photos of war scenes and photos by the famous Armenian photographer of the Pahlavi era, Yervan Ajamian.

32 years have passed since the war between Iran and Iraq ended. What keeps you motivated to create photographs about it?

It is true that a lot of time has passed but the regret of not being able to shoot during the war remained with me. It was this sorrow that led me to create these series: They take me back to that wartime without any need to ask for permission.

When I was involved in photography projects in Iran, I remember that there were problems about taking photographs in public areas. On one side, there exists a general negative attitude towards the photographer, on the other side there is a lengthy process for gaining permission for specific projects. How do you experience these difficulties today?

Today practically everyone has access to devices that can take photos without much experience required. Then again, once people see you with professional camera equipment, they get very curious.
There exists a common fear that pictures are being taken of social problems and deficiencies, despite the presence of millions of mobile phones in the hands of people from different social classes, or so-called citizen journalists. Thanks to the technological evolution from analogue to digital photography it has become much easier to create, reproduce and manipulate digital images, generating questions about the authenticity of images as documentation. Nevertheless, the fear of showing the reality through photographs still remains. Pictures are still considered trustworthy and have the power for change. Just one example is the recent case of the video and images taken of the maltreatment of George Floyd by the police leading to his death. People did not hesitate to spread that content. Those images have reached and shocked people across the globe and this will possibly lead to change. People need the visual imprint to believe in the truth of these incidents. It is powerful.

You mentioned that your work “Life, War and Living…” did not receive permission to be exhibited. This is surprising seeing that you are well known as an established artist.

The need to get permission for any exhibition in Iran is a normal procedure since the revolution. In order to obtain permission for the display in an exhibition gallerists and directors of art centers know that they have to send images of the art works to the Art Department of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Usually they give their permission and agree for all photos to be exhibited. However, there are occasions on which a few works get rejected and at times even a whole exhibition is prohibited.

During the lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I was following some live broadcasting through social media. I have noticed a tendency among the young generation of photographers, who are more interested in the theory of photography and working on long-term projects rather than working on creating single images. I feel that the usual gap between the art scene inside and outside of Iran has narrowed.

You are right that today not many artists pursue taking single photographs anymore. The majority work on series or some kind of project. As you mentioned, this is noticeable especially in comparison to the photography scene in the rest of the world. The fast and easy access to national and international first-hand information and resources, academic education, critical voices and different opinions in the field of art through the internet and social networks has influenced our photography and made it more contemporary. We just have to make sure that a trace of our geography, culture and identity is present in our work at all times. Otherwise this global tsunami will overrun us all. Your work has to be different and eye-catching to stand out and to be noticed.

I agree that Iranian photography and as well the Iranian art scene is changing and assimilating to a more Western idea of art. On the other hand, I have noticed that some artists are still referring to Iranian culture and tradition in such a conscious way that those references become very symbolical, almost superficial and nostalgic. It may not be appropriate, but I would call these touristic objects. So, could you please specify what you mean by this “geography, culture and identity” which you consider important in works by Iranian artists?

Well, what you mention is a delicate question. It is a challenge for artists to create artworks that express their own history, culture and geography while at same time without having these signifiers becoming so obvious that they would turn the work into a sort of touristic object.