A surprising new photography exhibit pictures Iran — from the inside
Most Americans today see no country as a more menacing “other” than Islamist Iran. And this inability to look beyond cartoonish concepts of an “axis of evil” could well lead to another U.S. war of aggression in the Middle East.
A show of contemporary photographs from Iran at the University of Vermont’s Fleming Museum of Art is therefore not just timely — it’s urgent. The diverse, surprising set of works by 20 photographers acts as an antidote to ignorance, presenting an alternative to the facile or anachronistic images transmitted by the American media.
“In the United States we are given the impression of Iran as a faraway place with no color, where people walk hunched over by oppression,” says Vermont Public Radio journalist Steve Zind. A Vermonter with family roots in Iran, Zind has traveled there several times as both a reporter and a descendant of an 18th-century ruler of the land then known as Persia. He says his visits have revealed a reality quite different from the stereotype.
Farzaneh Milani, a professor of Persian and women’s studies at the University of Virginia, notes that Americans associate Iran not just with repression but with violence. “When they look at Iran, Americans still see the hostage crisis,” she says, referring to the 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran’s capital city, by militants who seized 52 Americans and held them captive for more than a year. That prophetic outburst of Islamist rage was inspired by the overthrow 10 months earlier of the shah of Iran’s U.S.-supported dictatorial dynasty.
Many of the 50 or so images that compose “Persian Visions: Contemporary Photography from Iran”  address “issues that also concern us in the West: family, identity, aging and death,” observes Fleming curator Aimee Marcereau DeGalan. In addition to focusing on universal themes, the mostly nonpolitical show situates the Iranian art scene in an international context. The expressionist use of the camera by many of the photographers, and the challenging styles that some of them have developed, suggests that this work would fit familiarly in galleries in New York, London and other Western art capitals.
Despite the government’s attempts to shield Iranian society from European and American influences, Iranians “know what’s going on in the world,” Zind points out. The technically illegal TV satellite dishes clamped to roofs around the country stand as totems of a global culture, Zind suggests. Iranian artists also have ready access to hip imagery and heady artistic debates via the internet, he adds.
“I think a renaissance is happening in Iran,” declares Milani, whom Zind regards as a perceptive observer of Iranian culture. “We can see now the pursuit of elegance and beauty, along with bridge building to the rest of the world.”
A suite of four photos by Ebrahim Khadem Bayat offers evidence in support of Milani’s contention that more and more Iranians are creating art for art’s sake. Bayat is represented by artsy black-and-white compositions that call to mind the work of the pictorialists, a group of early-20th-century photographers gathered around Alfred Stieglitz in New York. The link to the pictorialists’ exploration of photography’s aesthetic properties is manifest in Bayat’s shots of a chair draped in gossamer and of a smoky stream rushing past a rock on which five apples have been arranged.
“Persian Visions” includes whimsical works, as well. In the series “Child’s View,” by Shahrokh Ja?fari, a playground slide, street scenes and domestic interiors are all photographed from ground level, giving everyday objects and figures a towering presence. Near the museum’s entrance, a video by Shahram Entekhabi records his young daughter’s innocence and enthusiasm as she sits in a McDonald’s in Berlin wearing a black chador and downing a Happy Meal. It’s a case of East eats West.
The covering of female heads and bodies demanded by traditional Islam is a recurrent subject of this touring show. But it’s addressed from an almost exclusively male perspective. Only one of the photographers is a woman.
Head scarves are depicted from all sorts of angles, resulting in a wide variety of visual effects, as well as subtle commentaries on sexual politics in today’s Iran. Right at the outset of the show, which was organized by the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, Kourosh Adim confronts visitors with a picture of a modestly veiled woman who nonetheless manages to look sultry. The right half of her pouty expression is covered by fabric that accentuates rather than conceals her allure.
Bayat, who stage-manages objects and nature scenes, is also represented by a photo of a woman whose face is completely shrouded, with the folds in her fabric suggesting the shape of a gas mask.
A few photos juxtapose street shots of cloaked Iranian women with advertising posters featuring much-larger-than-life faces of toothy Western women. The contrast is clearly meant to be jarring. It also provokes the viewer to wonder about the ways in which women present themselves and are depicted in religiously devout and in secular consumer societies.
“More than the expropriation of oil and other resources,” Zind comments, “it’s the cultural influence of the West that Iran has found so problematic.” Ever since the arrival of British and French colonizers in the 17th century, Persia/Iran has had to respond to imported values and ways of living that contradict the indigenous understanding of proper behavior. Rejection and acceptance have alternated at various times in history. The Islamic Revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini can thus be more accurately understood as a nationalist than as a religious upwelling, Zind suggests.
The familiarity of family life awaits viewers of a set of posed color photos by Shahriar Tavakoli. In one, a gray-haired man snoozes on a sofa. It could be a Sunday-afternoon scene in a Vermont home, except perhaps for the gold tassels that decorate the sofa. Tavakoli includes himself, his brother and parents in another cheery domestic tableau. It’s snack time. Everyone is seated on the floor, with a mirror propped behind them against an inky backdrop.
“Persian Visions” abounds in images that are at once ordinary and exotic. Gary Hallman, the now-retired University of Minnesota art professor who orchestrated the show on the U.S. end, frames it with the aim of eliciting a kumbaya response. “This exhibit builds a bridge between Iran and the United States as it leads viewers to become aware of other ways of being and seeing,” Hallman writes in a wall text welcoming visitors.
Despite the shared concerns that this show highlights, some aspects of Iran remain enigmatic; many of the images seem to communicate in a code that an American audience cannot decipher.
Reza Ramazani, a professor of economics at St. Michael’s College, affirms that “there’s a code we Iranians use in making art.” A reader or viewer steeped in the country’s history, culture and current circumstances will apprehend a poem or a painting differently than will an outsider, he suggests.
What’s a Vermonter to make, for example, of “Their Hands Are in Pain,” a pair of photos by Saeed Sadeghi? Why is a man in one image standing in a field and pressing a tattered, fingerless glove to his face? And who’s that black-shrouded woman in Sadeghi’s other photo? Why is she holding up a snapshot of a man, and is that an iron railing in front of her?
There’s mystery, too, in the pair of still photos hung above a pair of video screens that show a man in a Western sports coat walking back and forth at Persepolis, an ancient Persian site. Sadegh Tirafkan’s camera tracks the walker as the microphone records the crunch, crunch, crunch of strides on gravel. In the photos, also by Tirafkan, two men and a woman stand before Persepolis’ ruins, facing the camera in one shot and with their backs turned in the other.
The artist is contrasting contemporary Iranians and their classical heritage. But to what end? The point isn’t sharply made. This video-photo combo also serves to highlight Zind’s suggestion that the show should have been called “Iranian Visions” rather than “Persian Visions.” It’s not about long-ago Persia, the VPR reporter notes; it’s about here-and-now Iran.
Other photographers chosen for the show also appear to be speaking in a visual language that requires translation for an American audience. It doesn’t help that crucial bits of background information are not posted alongside many of the images, instead remaining confined to a catalog that many Fleming visitors are likely to pass up.
Hallman, the show’s American organizer, has little to say about the censorship that helps account for some of the cryptic imagery. Ramazani is more helpful in that respect: “There’s a red line that Iranian artists find impossible to define or to describe where it is,” he explains. “But they implicitly know when they’ve reached it.”
Milani at the University of Virginia notes that, under a repressive regime such as that of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, “There’s two kinds of censorship: from above and from within.” Iranian artists create under constraints imposed by puritanical authorities as well as by their own desire to avoid imprisonment — or worse.
This is not to say, however, that “Persian Visions” avoids explicitly disturbing images. Photojournalists Kaveh Golestan and Mohammad Farnood both focus on the hellish nature of war — any and all wars. In their photos, the absence of accompanying explanatory texts helps drive the point home. Viewers don’t know specifically what they’re seeing; they just know it’s a gruesome consequence of organized violence.
Farnood’s “Survival” presents a close-up of a man with a white head bandage whose face is streaked with dirt — or maybe oil. The orange shirt he’s wearing has a woven pattern of black slashes similar to the random smudges on his cheeks and chin. “Myth of War” shows a platoon of mujahedin wearing red headbands and brandishing rifles, their fierce expressions turned away from the camera.
Close scrutiny of Golestan’s four small photos might cause the onlooker to gasp in revulsion. A wash the color of dried blood has been brushed across these scenes, making it difficult at first to notice bodies lying on stretchers. In one image, a man averts his gaze from a corpse and covers his mouth and nose with a scarf. In another, a samaritan crouches to place a chunk of ice on the lips of a figure that does not appear responsive. Most horrific of all is Golestan’s shot of a kneeling woman propping up the body of her headless baby as though the child were about to take a first step.
A final twist of distress comes with the news, not provided in the show, that Golestan was killed by a landmine in Iraq in 2003 while working for the BBC.
Golestan’s photos would most appropriately have been hung alongside Farnood’s at the conclusion of “Persian Visions.” That way, Vermont visitors would have been more likely to come away with a message similar to the one articulated by Milani in a telephone interview: “A war with Iran would be a catastrophe. It may happen that a show like this will help avert that catastrophe.”
“Persian Visions: Contemporary Photography from Iran,” through May 20 at Fleming Museum of Art, UVM, Burlington. Info, 656-0750. uvm.edu/~fleming