Why Do You Take Pictures?

A conversation between Rana Javadi (guest artist at Villa Romana 2010), Angelika Stepken, Christoph Westermeier (artist) and Stefano Vannucci (author)

(AS) Let us start talking about the photography magazine that you founded many years ago with Bahman Jalali.

(RJ) It is called Aksnameh, a quarterly photography magazine that we started 12 years ago, supported by an NGO, the Cultural Research Bureau.

(AS) What was /is the purpose of this magazine?

(RJ) What we are doing is for education and art students studying at universities. Because universities do not believe that publishing educational material is necessary and that it is one of their tasks. We try to fill a little bit of this huge gap.

(AS) There are no international books in the libraries?

(RJ) Yes and No, because in photography books there is always some nudity. They do not usually enter the country if they do have it. They are closed away in libraries. They are not on the shelves where one can have easy access to them. Normally you should be able to go out to the library and go through all the books available, but it is not like that. What you can see has been decided for you.

(AS) Is it difficult to publish material, too?

(RJ) There has been a magazine publishing for 20 years now of which Bahman was a founding member at the beginning, but they do not do serious things anymore. We do a lot on theory, and we translate very good texts by the likes of Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, John Sarkovsky, Walter Benjamin and Umberto Eco, Victor Burgin and others. We publish these along with introducing the work of international photographers to our readers, mostly professional photographers as well as students. When we started we were the only magazine doing this kind of stuff but now, fortunately, there are other art magazines that do serious work in the field of art, including photography. We also publish photography books, translations. Our resources apart from international books are magazines like Spotlight, Camera Austria, European Photography, Zoom, B&W, Aperture and some other good sources.

(AS) How do you receive them?

(RJ) We pay to receive them. We have subscriptions with them.

(AS) But it is not a problem to order them?

(RJ) Yes, it is a problem to order, because we do not have credit cards and our bank accounts overseas have been closed due to the sanctions. So we have to order what we need by asking friends and relatives abroad to get it for us. Somehow we get them to the country and translate them, but we publish only the pictures that we can, that we are allowed to. We cannot use most of the pictures due to nudity, though we can use the texts more. But these days to come by good texts in photography even in Europe is not easy. There are not many – even a few people like Susan Sontag, she was an important figure, her articles and books on photography are very useful- we do not have any like her, especially in the philosophy of photography. I look for material, but I do not find much.

(AS) I think photography has changed in the last years with the digital.

(RS) Yes, exactly. I think photography has to redefine itself in the digital world. We need a new definition. What we see today as photographs is different from what we used to consider photography. With all these new technologies and what one can do to a picture, this is not the same picture we are talking about. These days you have to look at each picture, bearing in mind that this might not be what has happened, maybe there have been some alterations done to it unless it is proven wrong. This trust in photography has been lost. We do not trust pictures as we used to. There are always questions and doubts. In one of the parts of our magazine, we usually publish young students’ documentary work, which they do not find opportunity to get published anywhere else. Because it is not easy or I might say almost impossible to find a publisher to invest in a documentary photo book unless you sponsor the book or find some organization to sponsor it for you. It is not easy to find one.

(AS) There is a new generation of photographers in Iran?

(RJ) There are many!

(CW) Working in a documentary style or in an artistic way?

(RJ) Nowadays everybody is trying to be on the artistic side, because it is easier. Artistic work is something you can do indoors, too. Because of the social difficulties and the subjects that you cannot touch; because they are not allowed; even if you photograph it you will not get permission to exhibit or publish it. Photographing in the city is not easy, always you would be asked why are you taking a picture of what and why. So always you have to have a letter from some organization saying that you’re assigned to do this or that project. So, many photographers prefer to work indoors. Another thing that has happened in the recent years to the photography of Iran is that it has gained international recognition, in fairs, in auctions. Pictures are getting sold beside other arts. So if you want to earn a living by photography you have to do something that gets recognition abroad. But now we also have Iranian collectors who buy photographs, which, 10 years ago, people would have laughed at. Somebody who would buy a photograph? What for?! But now it is becoming more fashionable. Photographs get sold as paintings and sculptures and photographers are being considered as artists as well.

(CW) In which way do you see the importance of photography? What is photography doing?

(RJ) Well, when the time comes, it does the job. We all saw in the past months what citizen journalists did with sending pictures and films through Internet. They shook the world with their images and it also was the same with the Burmese monks’ protests in 2007.

(AS) You mentioned before the two spheres of life – public life and private life – and photography dealing more with the second one…

(RJ) There are some young photographers who are working on projects. They make documentary projects for themselves. But the others are doing indoor photography. They take the life inside, parties and daily life, things like these. Which has a documentary base but they work on them in photo-shop and they show it – not in Iran, abroad. They are very popular. They show the underground life. They also create scenes and photograph them. They also work with pictures in order to create a new image.

(AS) Is there an education for photographers?

(RJ) Yes, at universities.

(AS) Not at art academies but at universities?

(RJ) They study at universities as well as at art academies to become a photographer. It is funny that we do not teach our own history of photography at the universities, which is very old and important. The students know all the foreign photographers, but they do not know their own pioneer photographers and their works. It is not their fault, because they have not been published and not enough research has been done.

(AS) But there is this museum of very early Iranian photography which was founded by Bahman, you and the director of the Cultural Research Bureau. Is it still open to the public?

(RJ) It is open to the public, but they show more contemporary work now. After we left, it is not the same public which would go there. Everybody was very sad when we left because they knew with what passion and love we made that place. It is not the place it used to be. It is something like a gallery now, like any other gallery in Tehran doing more contemporary works, exhibitions. You can go and see it, but do not ask me to come with you. I do not like going there, because it makes me very sad. They built a public toilet next to where we had designed a big camera to look to the park. The new people should protest but they sat there and they built a toilet in front of their eyes. It makes me sad. I pass by everyday because it is near my house but it is one of those things…the difference between our time and now maybe is that we had created the place, established it from scratch. We founded the place. We renovated it and did the interior design with the help of a good team of friends. Inside, we put our own collection, gathered during the years with Bahman, and we bought some archives as well – but the new authorities are employees, not self-initiated people like us. That is the difference! And that is what matters.

(AS) Now we have been talking about photography and your role as an editor and as founder of the museum. But you work as a photographer yourself and you had this project for Florence and Isfahan which will be realized. I was wondering why you and Bahman both always insist on not having studied photography.

(RJ) We are self-taught.

(AS) Is it important to know?

(RJ) Yes, because we are self-taught photographers. Because at the time we started photography, nobody was teaching. There was no university education for photography. There were mostly studio photographers taking people’s photographs and some, not many, photographers working for the press, which in those days, because of the poor quality of the papers and publishing systems, did not use pictures unless they were from the royal family visits and official events. People like us doing documentary photography were very few 30 or 40 years ago.

(CW) Did you found the documentary photography in Tehran in a way?

(RJ) Not me, but Bahman and a few other photographers. There were a few that were pioneers in it, not more than I might say 10 or 12 of them. Bahman has worked on many subjects. Before the revolution he used to do theatre photography. He photographed many famous plays by famous directors in the past in the Shah’s area. He has a very good collection that we cannot publish for the same reasons you now know. It is a pity. It would be a good resource for university students studying theatre and also it would be very precious for the theatre people. He has travelled in Iran widely and photographed the landscape, architecture, historical sites and natural beauties of his country.

(AS) Did you ever exhibit your own photographs abroad?

(RJ) A few months ago in the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. The exhibition was curated by Bahman with the subject of 165 years of photography in Iran. My photos participated in group exhibitions in different galleries in France, Dubai, Greece, Germany, England, Luxembourg and in Paris-Photo. Of course I never worked as much as Bahman. He was just concentrated on photography. He did nothing else in his life but photography. I translate texts on photography. I did books. I do this magazine. I do not work only as a photographer, because to earn your living with photography is very difficult in Iran. I have been working for the Cultural Research Bureau for the past 22 years as director of photography and pictorial studies. I do my own photography in my free time. But Bahman only taught photography and worked as a photographer.

(CW) The project you were talking about earlier, the exchange between Florence and Isfahan, is it typical for your work or is it something new, because it is not really a documentary. It is more a conceptual idea to do that.

(RJ) I usually work with photographs. And the reason is because I have been exposed to photographs, because we have been collecting old pictures, so I always had this access to them. And I am very fascinated by old pictures. It is something that new pictures have lost. Old pictures have an aura. There is this stillness, a style, something that we don not have any more. Now photography has become very accessible, very simple and digital.

(AS) You did not finish the question of how this Florence project relates to you.

(RJ) I work with these images. When this chance came to come here and I knew that these cities were sister cities, it just came into my head to take some pictures from Isfahan to Florence. But then the day I was standing here putting up this image of Isfahan, I thought maybe the medium is it not right, maybe I should have filmed this scene.

(AS) Why?

(RJ) Because I had to be very quick to catch people’s impressions. In that way we could have had all the impressions of these people coming in front of the image, their confrontation with it, the reflections, because the image was from the famous Naghshe Jahan Square with a very beautiful mosque from the Safavid period. I had not thought that a mosque might be associated in most viewers’ minds with terrorism nowadays.

(AS) I think the first thing when you see this image is beauty…

(RJ) I thought so too and that is why I chose it in the first place! But some people do not see it the way we see it. And this made me very depressed. It put me off with the first bad reaction. I said to myself: My God, why do people not appreciate this beauty?! Unfortunately, this is the image now that other nationalities have of us. Everything is identified by politics.

(AS) I do not know – I have not been with you -, if it was a reaction to the photo, a confrontation with the photo or a confrontation with the situation of being photographed. A lot of people do not feel comfortable being photographed by somebody because in a way it is a very intimate action.

(RJ) I do not know. I cannot be sure about that, but some people did not like it –I am sure about that!

(AS) You brought the photos from Isfahan to Florence and your idea was to take photos of people from Florence in front of this backdrop and the next step should have been to take photos from Florence and install them in the city space of Isfahan.

(RJ) And to see the reactions. It would be very interesting. I think people in Isfahan would be very happy to take pictures with a scene in Florence: this idea of backdrops comes from the old days. In the old days, studios had these backdrops, and they would photograph people in front of them. I like the experience of seeing how people react.

(AS) Your work often relates to historical photos and their potential for narration.

(RJ) I have to give them a new voice. I take an old picture and add something to it to make a new image out of it, to make it mine, because that picture is not mine. In order to make it mine, I have to add something to it. Sometimes I add different objects or texts, which tell a new story.

(AS) So it is an interpretation of the old, the given photo; and it is an expression of your own idea of photography.

(RJ) One reason is because I cannot freely photograph outside so it is easier for me to work with these pictures inside. That is the simplest answer. But with this kind of work we also remind the public that old pictures are valuable as documents. They are part of our pictorial history. People should look after their family albums and photos. These pictures are not only precious for the families themselves but also they are part of the history: this was also done by the establishment of the Akskhaneh, the first photography museum in Iran. By coming and seeing this kind of work, people now know that they should keep old pictures. They ask how to keep them safely. There is not an institution or authority responsible for photography in the country. There are different small archives collecting pictures for their own research purposes. For example when an old studio photographer dies, the archive would be thrown away. Nobody cares about photography; everyone is using it but no one invests in archiving and preserving them. So people should look after their pictorial history themselves. These photos would have use in cinema, in anthropological and social researches and so on.

(SV) As a female professional in photography, the texture on your face always filters your reality. Do you think that this fact is reflected in your work as a photographer and in your projects?

(RJ) Yes, it is, because we have a way of self-filtering. By experience, I know I should not do this or that because it will not get the permission to be published or exhibited. Sometimes the nostalgia and depression is obvious in my works.

(SV) Does it have also a physical or a graphical impact on your pictures, on your shots? Do you have a wide vision, a wide point of view?

(RJ) Limitations can make boundaries for one’s work, which can affect the outcome of the work, but eventually no one can close their eyes.

(SV) I wonder, when you walk down the road with your camera, people can see that you are a woman. What is the reaction? Is it something normal?

(RJ) When I was photographing the revolution there were only two or three women taking photographs. It was not very common being a woman photographer in those days. It was something very new. Nowadays with so many educated young photographers and students, we have very good women photographers, young journalist photographers, art photographers. Now it is not odd, because photography is not odd. Now everybody has a camera or a camera in their mobiles. In the streets if you are photographing, well they want to know what you are photographing. It is none of their business but they will come to you and ask: “Why are you photographing?”

Is there a public photography?

(RJ) Only official events get press coverage and journalists are invited to press conferences, inaugurations of projects and official visits of the government figures; not the city life or the social life, because they do not get coverage. They do not get printed or have very limited coverage. The public sees the work of the photographers in galleries if they get the chance to be exhibited, because the galleries are very busy and they would not give you an appointment earlier than in one or two years time. Preparation of an exhibition is very expensive for the artist. Framing and printing the works costs a lot. So you have to be able to invest.

(AS) At the end of the interview, I would like to ask you something about your stay here. It was not the first time that you came to Florence…

(RJ) For me, this was a great opportunity. But only if I could have come with Bahman which we were supposed to do. We would have enjoyed our stay here much more – sorry that you had to put up with my depression and grieving, in my situation. Villa Romana gave me lots of peace and a new experience. We usually do not get these kinds of opportunities. It is only in the past years that Iranian contemporary art has gained wide international recognition and I know of few artists that have been offered residencies abroad. It was a great pleasure for me to be in Villa Romana to meet with different artists, to meet with you, Angelika, Kathrin and Giulia, to exhibit Bahman’s works. It was a pity that it did not get any press and media coverage, because anywhere we have exhibited in Europe, we have had a very good press and media coverage. It was very odd for me that nothing happened here.

(SV) We do not give much attention to foreign affairs and Iran now, for Italy, is the place of erasure. We like to create common places about everything. Maybe right now in Italy it is impossible to talk about Iranian art. There was the Middle East Festival in Florence that was really crowded, but everyone gave it a political dimension. We have a very low cultural level, we cannot appreciate. Maybe journalists and the press, too, think they have to relate to people who are not interested. They are much more pushed to think of the reading public than of the value of information they give.

(RJ) But they should. Finally, I do not know how to thank Villa Romana artist residency for the given opportunity and my hosts here. Thanks a million and hope to see you all in Iran.