Iran,une revolution photographique
This was the title of an exhibition organized by the Electricité de France Foundation and the cultural section of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Held in cooperation with the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, this exhibition ran from June 21, 2001 at the Espace Electra Museum, Paris, and I was present as its coordinator. The initial selection of photographs was undertaken by Ms. Michket Krifa, a famous figure in French photographic circles. After seeing the works of Iranian photographers, Ms. Krifa, together with the museum’s artistic council, came to the conclusion that the outlook of Iranian photographers living in Iran or abroad had undergone a tremendous evolution in the past two decades; and this had been the reason which had prompted her to hold this exhibition. After being chosen as the coordinator of the participating Iranian photographers, I had the announcement of the exhibition printed in the magazine ‘Aks (Photo). In the short time available, the photographers promptly sent us their works on CDs, in small formats, and even as photocopies.
Following an initial selection by Michket Krifa, the photographs were sent to the artistic council of the Paris Museum for final selection. The selection criteria, as had been previously agreed, would be based on global standards of photography. My aim was to ensure that the photographs were evaluated and selected from a cultural and not political viewpoint. Thus the final selection was more a display of technical skill in photography than trite emotional subjects and clichéd political statements.
The exhibition was comprised of three sections: Creative Photography, Documentary Photography and Photojournalism. Thus, areas of the history of Iranian photography which had hitherto remained hidden were put on display. Even if we had been prepared to spend millions of dollars, we could never have exhibited photographs of the Iran-Iraq War or the Islamic Revolution at the Paris Museum. Yet the Mayor of Paris, who rarely attends gallery openings, inaugurated this exhibition. Upon his invitation, the Iranian ambassador and cultural attaché also attended. The four-storey Electra building was completely filled with an audience including many artists and members of the press. According to experts, artists and critics, the event was an unprecedented success.
Iranian photojournalism is fortunately of a very high quality, and Iran can be considered as one of the top ten ranking countries in this field. In documentary style photography however, our
photographers are grappling with an age-old problem: on the one hand, self-censorship; and on the other, the limitations of an undeveloped visual culture among the audience and authorities.
The first and foremost achievement of this exhibition, in my opinion, was the fact that it actually took place. We were limited to the boundaries of our own country for many years, and had not appeared in international photographic circles. Hence this exhibition was the first of such endeavors, and first attempts do not always accomplish all that they set out to do. Another point is that with my knowledge of the quality of Iranian photography, I can say that this exhibition perhaps displayed only fifty percent of what I had had in mind.
Alfred Ya‘qoob-zadeh is the Iranian photographer who captured the famous photograph of the basiji soldier crawling through mud in the early years of the Iran-Iraq War. He has been involved in the
Palestinian crisis for about eight or nine years now, and was wounded and miraculously saved while covering the Chechnyan crisis. After viewing the exhibition, he told me that members of the French press and audience had expressed their enthusiasm for the exhibition. Many had told him that they had previously believed Iranian photography was nothing more than what they had seen in the press. The exhibition had revealed the diversity of Iranian outlooks, and also proved that there are more talented Iranian photographers than those who now receive recognition outside Iran.
Concurrent with the exhibition “Regards Persans: Iran, une révolution photographique” in Paris, a book was published containing 120 photographs by 42 photographers: Koorosh Adim, Yasaman ‘Ameri, ‘Abbas ‘Attar, Fereydoon Ave, Arman Stepanian Avrooshan, Jamshid Bayrami, Nader Davoodi, Manoochehr Deqqati, Reza Deqqati, Isabelle Eshraqi, Mohammad Eslami-Rad, Mohammad Farnood, Jassem Ghazbanpoor, Ghazel, Kaveh Golestan, Peyman Hooshmandzadeh, Bahman Jalali, Sa‘eed Jan-bozorgi, Ra‘na Javadi, Amir-‘Ali Javadian, Mahmood Kalari, Kaveh Kazemi, ‘Abbas Kiarostami, Behrooz Mehri, Mehran Mohajer, Rumin Mohtasham, Javad Montazeri, Malekeh Na’ini, Shirin Neshat, Sa‘ed Nik-zat, Javad Poorsamad, Shadi Qadirian, Mohsen Rastani, Ehsan Rajabi, Mohammad Razdasht, Sa‘eed Sadeqi, Seifollah Samadian, Hassan Sarbakhshian, Mohammad Sayyad, Shervin Shahrokh, Sadeq Tirafkan, Alfred Yaqoob-zadeh.
The book also contains the following texts:
1. “A Good Photograph Is Worth a Thousand Words,” by Seyyed ‘Atao’llah Mohajerani, advisor to President Khatami and head of the Center for Dialogue Among Civilizations, as well as the former minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
2. “The Mirror of a Nation’s Spirit,” by Dariush Shayegan.
3. “Iran, a Revolution in Photography,” by Michket Krifa.
4. “The Wind Has not Taken All,” by Emmanuel Daydé.
5. “A Brief Glance at Iranian Photography,” by Ra‘na Javadi.
The book, like the exhibition, is divided into three categories: Creative Photography, Documentary Photography and
Photojournalism. Each section has been briefly introduced by Michket Krifa, and several photographers have written about their own work. The book concludes with short biographies of the photographers.
The exhibition was motivated by the Dialogue Among Civilizations. During Krifa’s first trip to Iran, negotiations took place with the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art for selecting the photographs. Ultimately, “the coordination and responsibility for selecting the photographs within Iran was undertaken by Tasvir journal”; a responsibility which Seifollah Samadian, upon hearing the objections of many photographers, described as “the possibility that I would see more photographs. ” [“Mass‘ud Amir-lu’i Interviews Seifollah Samadian,” ‘Aks magazine, November-December 2000, No. 164, p. 3]
After its opening in Paris, the exhibition was met with various reactions from Iranian photographers. These photographers can be divided into the following categories:
A) The group of photographers who, due to an inadequate announcement, were not informed of the exhibition.
B) The group who were informed but for various reasons refrained from entering their photographs in the exhibition, or due to time limitations were unable to present their photographs.
C) The group who were informed, presented photographs, but whose photographs were not selected.
D) The group who presented photographs, and whose photographs were selected, but were dissatisfied with the results.
E) The group who presented photographs, whose photographs
were selected, and were pleased with the results.
Now we shall attend to the details and the viewpoints of the photographers in each category:
A) The announcement of the exhibition was published in ‘Aks magazine, No. 164, p. 3; some of the photographers were also contacted by mail or telephone. The announcement stated, “An important point is that only works will be accepted which have been photographed within Iran.” Samadian had emphatically requested, “Contrary to an ancient tradition, for the first time, please do not delay sending the photographs until the eleventh hour!”
Although many Iranian photographers are readers of ‘Aks magazine, not all of them read this publication. Therefore, it is
only natural that many photographers would be unaware of this exhibition. Apparently, the letters and phone calls were not sufficient.
In my opinion, the call for entries had been inadequately planned, especially since the organizers had wasted a substantial amount of time, and in order to compensate for their own negligence, had asked photographers not to delay sending in their entries until the eleventh hour. The exhibition should not only have been announced in ‘Aks, and via letters and phone calls, but publicized far more widely to notify photographers.
B) The group of people who were informed of the exhibition either by reading the announcement in ‘Aks magazine, or by letter or telephone, but due to the limited time available to them were unable to present their photographs. Here, too, one must call the organizers of the exhibition into question. In offering a reason for their response, people from this group who, despite being informed, did not present photographs, explained that they were not sufficiently acquainted with the organizers. Some referred to the situation where political schemes and economic negotiations involving vast sums are seen to be more easily arranged through the gateway of cultural/artistic relations. In reality, they argued, photographers would be sacrificed as the front line of the battle, the advancing guard who would lead the way for politicians, economists and foreign investors to follow. And they were not inclined to have their work used for promoting such issues.
C) The group of photographers whose works were not selected for the exhibition. Experience has shown us that certain people who are passed over for entry into an exhibition will raise objections and consider the exhibition to be filled with flaws. They will regard the selection committee as having poor taste, and the existence of connections between certain committee members and artists to be the reason certain works were selected. The organizer or coordinator of the event will use this facet of the protests to justify the faults in the process of gathering the photographs within Iran. In doing so, they can insist that the exhibition has been “flawless” and that the objections are a mere case of sour grapes.
The unswerving claims of both groups are hereby rejected. Evidently, photographers who raise such objections are taking a limited view of the matter, but for the organizer to also hide behind such justifications is also taking a clearly biased view of the situation. Many of the photographers raised objections unrelated to their work not being accepted, objections which were indeed well-founded. And as we shall see below, protests on the part of group D proved their point.
D) The group of photographers whose works were entered in the exhibition, but nevertheless raised objections. This group believed that from the numerous photographs which they had made available to the exhibition organizers, the selected works were not representative of their capabilities. They were of the opinion that the organizer had selected photographs which presented an unrealistic picture of Iran. They considered the organizer’s viewpoint as politically inclined and critical of Iranian
society. Due to reasons which I will present here, I am personally in agreement with them. Among the photographers in this group, two who reside outside of Iran, Manoochehr Deqqati and Reza Deqqati, raised objections despite the fact that their photographs were admitted to the exhibition. They claimed that “government institutions in Iran had supported this exhibition and paid a part of its expenses,” and in protest (or perhaps as a bid for publicity), they requested their photographs to be withdrawn from the Paris exhibition in an announcement published in Le Monde. In the same publication, Krifa denied the truth of their claims.
E) The group of photographers whose photographs were exhibited and were generally satisfied with the outcome. It is natural for a participant in an exhibition to consider his/her own taste to be in harmony with that of the organizer, and express approval of the proceedings. However, what is more desirable is that the seal of approval be given through fairness and objectivity, not because of personal interests. Undoubtedly, one can find evidence of both types of motivation among this group.
An exhibition of Iranian photography outside of Iran is a valuable endeavor, because it shows what a long way Iranian photographers have come in the 23 years since the Islamic Revolution. In spite of the severe limitations and obstacles in their way, they have been able to honorably contribute to the progress of photography in Iran. They must be recognized on the international scene and their works displayed abroad, but not for just any reason and at any price. They face many limitations. From an economic point of view, most of our photographers are in difficult circumstances. While taking a photograph in their own country, they constantly face suspicion and incomprehension. The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, which is now offering their wholehearted cooperation and support to the exhibition in Paris, has practically discontinued holding the Iranian Photography Biennial. This same museum has stopped purchasing photographs as works of art from our photographers. They face numerous obstacles when selling their photographs to their own country’s press. The Iranian press does not even purchase a photograph of the President while delivering a speech at Shahid Shiroodi Stadium; it obtains it from the internet lest it give a negligible sum to the Iranian photographer.
Despite innumerable difficulties in his own country, the Iranian photographer is not prepared to seek global recognition at the expense of discrediting his own country. This is not a slogan. Like any artist, the Iranian photographer believes in setting things right. He is not an enemy.
Let us return to the exhibition and its photographs in the book. “A Persian Outlook” was held with the support of Dupon Laboratory, with the cooperation of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, the Paris Municipality, the French ambassador in Iran, the Iranian ambassador in France, and the French Foreign Ministry. As stated by Seifollah Samadian, the selection of the photographs was done by Michket Krifa. About 4,000 photographs were delivered to the office of Tasvir journal for selection.
The book begins with an article by Seyyed ‘Ata’ollah Mohajerani entitled, “A Good Photograph Is Worth a Thousand Words.” Dr. Mohajerani’s article treats the subject in general terms; it is evident that he has not examined the works closely.
The second article is by Dariush Shayegan, “The Mirror of a Nation’s Spirit.” His article analyzes Iranian society—how politicians act and how people react. In evaluating the photographs of Shadi Qadirian, whose subjects are all women (her close friends), he examines the photographer’s feminist tendencies, whereas Shadi Qadirian’s point of view—while at times feminist—is a general view of the coexistence of two “opposing” elements: the new and the old.
The third article is by Michket Krifa, entitled, “Iran, a Revolution in Photography.” She examines Iranian photography from a political point of view. Her article does not contain valuable information for an Iranian reader, although due to lack of sufficient information on the situation of photography in Iran, Westerners might consider it valuable to a point. Krifa’s article is not so much based on scientific research but rather on hearsay.
Emmanuel Daydé has written an article entitled, “The Wind Has not Taken All,” which, compared to Krifa’s article, is based more on research. He is familiar with the poetry, literature, and history of Iran. Like Krifa, Daydé looks at Iran politically, however, he is more successful in examining Iranian photography. Opening his article with a poem by Omar Khayyam, he later quotes Mowlana (better known as Rumi in the West). He refers to the existence of a wall or an obstacle which had caused a break between photography and film, but has now fallen. He considers this to be the reason why the filmmaker Kiarostami can now also become a photographer. However, we all know that such an obstruction has never existed (at least not in Iran). Even many of our cinematographers and filmmakers have entered filmmaking via photography. Examples are aplenty: Amir Naderi, Mahmood Kalari, Seifollah Samadian…
In an article entitled, “A Brief Look at the History of Photography in Iran,” Ra‘na Javadi reviews Iranian photography since the Qajar era. The great number of landmark events in photography and, most probably, haste in writing have caused some of the important activities to be overlooked, such as the various regional festivals and classes at the Iranian Young Cinema Society.
Following the above-mentioned articles, the photographs are presented in the book under the same categories under which they appeared at the exhibition.
Contrary to the opinion of some photographers, who claim the photographs in the book appeared disorganized, in my opinion they are well placed and carefully arranged. In the first section, we see the photographs of Malekeh Na’ini, Arman Stepanian, Shadi Qadirian, and Yasaman ‘Ameri, in all of which there exist elements of both “the old world” (whether real or imaginary) and “the new,” side by side. A sense of nostalgia has led to the creation of both Stepanian and Na’ini’s photographs. However, by emphasizing the contrast between the old elements and the new, Qadirian, on the one hand, points to the reality of this coexistence, while on the other hand sees it as comical, thus negating it.
The presence of ‘Abbas Kiarostami, our country’s renowned film director, who participated with My Trees, drew protest from photographers. Considering him to be a filmmaker, some claimed that he should not have participated in a photography exhibition. These objections are unfounded, for an artist has the right to be active in any field, and the results should be evaluated for their relative merits. If we evaluate Kiarostami’s photographs without taking into consideration his reputation as a filmmaker, we can focus on their strengths and weaknesses, as related to the appropriateness of his inclusion in the exhibition. In this manner, when Kiarostami’s works are compared to similar approaches in the field, we will certainly find other photographers whose work would take precedence over his. In addition, his photographs are the only ones in the book that do not possess national [Iranian] identity. His trees could belong to any region on earth.
In an interview with photographers, Samadian stated that he had no role in selecting the photographs, and Krifa had undertaken the entire selection process. She came to Iran and selected whatever photographs she liked and took them back to France, to show the world what an Iranian photographer sees, and what his/her capabilities are. This selection, however, could have taken place with the cooperation of a group of our country’s leading photographers and achieved better results, because they have a greater familiarity with our country’s photography.
Anyone can present their approach towards a subject to others, but no one has the right to present a flawed and false image through unfair selection. By selecting works which generally take a negative view of Iran, or by selecting photographs from a collection of works of our country’s photographers which are in no way representative of their full potential, Krifa has imposed her personal views on the exhibition. She has stated many times that she is not concerned with a “good” photograph. What is important to her is a photographer’s outlook: an outlook which has been filtered through her own. Krifa’s scales, however, are unjustly tipped. She sees everything “politically,” while many Iranian photographers do not hold such convictions. The matter was taken to the point of excess, and thus works without political overtones were neglected, resulting in an overtly political exhibition. It is her biased outlook—and not that of Iranian photographers—which seeks to find conflict, backwardness, and desolation. In her selection there is no sign of the new face of Iran; it abounds with backwardness, hopelessness, dirty environments, desolation, infirmity, death, fleeing from war, a tearful and hopeless basiji, the fear that rules the trench… [You may refer to the photographs of Mahmood Kalari, Rumin Mohtasham, Sa‘ed Nik-zat, Seifollah Samadian, Alfred Ya‘qoob-zadeh, Jassem Ghazbanpour, Bahman Jalali, Sa‘eed Sadeqi, Mohammad Farnood…].
I do not refute the existence of such phenomena in our country; but this biased selection portrays an untruthful image of Iran to the world. I once again stress that Krifa’s views were not fair or impartial. The presence of Yasaman ‘Ameri’s photographs cannot be justified, for various reasons. Titled Self-Exiled People, her photographs have been taken of Iranians who have migrated to Canada. In his announcement in ‘Aks magazine, Seifollah Samadian clearly stated, “Only works will be accepted that have been photographed within Iran.” These photographs, however, were taken in Canada, and their inclusion is yet another reference to Krifa’s political bias. Furthermore, photographs were included in the Paris exhibition which may well encounter difficulty in their planned exhibition at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.
Much can be said regarding “A Persian Outlook.” A complete rejection would be biased and unfair. However, it may have been more appropriate if a group of Iran’s leading photographers had participated in the selection of photographs in order to present to the world their own country and its photography, as they see it. Of course, I do not claim that an empty, unrealistic, promotional image of Iran should be presented. Such an exhibition would have had the same pitfalls as the present one. One does not cure one extreme with another.
More than anything else, the exhibition, with all its positive and negative characteristics, and its inherent values and anti-values, is a precise reflection of the times we have been living in. A time of turbulence and contradictions of beauty and ugliness, justice and injustice, protests and violations. The photographs and the photographers are the result of over twenty years of domination by the atmosphere, spirit, and events
of this this country, with all their glories and embarrassments.
We are all photographers and mirrors, and we have been looking in all directions, both inside and outside of ourselves. The credibility and superiority of an “outlook,” a point of view, is determined by the function and application of that “outlook” and not by a critic’s personal preferences.
It is necessary to hold respect and value for the views, speech, and actions of others, even if they are against our own views, methods, spirits, and demands.
Today, our times call for tolerance. We must have the ability to progress with the advance of time.
This is the difference between being dead, or alive!