Hello, Azadeh, can you please just tell me briefly how you came to live in Australia?
When I was 18, I entered the University of Mashad in Iran. At the same time I was dabbling in journalism as well, working for a local newspaper affiliated to a reformist party that was to take power at the next election. But the newspaper came to the attention of the local authorities. They interrogated and arrested some of the editors, and I had my share too: the university suspended my enrolment for three semesters. Given how young and inexperienced I was, it came as a huge blow to me and I decided to leave Iran. I came to know a guy who lived in Australia, and I arrived here with him. So it was due more to accident and coincidence than any deliberate decision.
You studied engineering at RMIT in Melbourne.
But you also did some art courses as part of your electives, and it was there that you began to think about making art, right?
That’s true. I studied computer science because doing art didn’t seem to be a plausible way of earning a living. However, I never gave up my fascination with art, so I lived a sort of dual life at RMIT: half of my time was spent at the engineering school and the other half at the school of art. I took photography and cinema courses, and also attended lectures and classes that weren’t in the curriculum. I undertook my first photography project in Melbourne in 2001, a rather amateurish series of pictures of various gravestones at a number of cemeteries in Melbourne and Sydney. A person to whom I’m greatly indebted was the head of the school of media and communication at RMIT, who taught photography at the time. As naïve as I was, one day I just knocked on his door and told him I wanted to show the pictures, and he gave me a great deal of his time and talked with me about every picture patiently. Looking back on those days, I’d say that he played a crucial role in my career.
You then returned to Iran and began working in film. But you soon started to get the urge to make your own work.
Yes, I lived in Australia altogether for eight years and became a citizen in 2004. But, upon returning to Iran in 2005, I became an assistant director in film for three years and worked with a number of directors, including Abbas Kiarostami. After that, I made up my mind that I’d do visual art and create my own work. That’s how the professional phase of my career began.
For outsiders, what are some of the restrictions on making art in Iran? In some ways, do these determine what you decide to depict?
The restrictions are quite strong, but there are always ways of getting around them. So, rather than censoring myself, I lay the project out in the form I want to do it in , and then try to come up with techniques to circumvent the restrictions. For example, in terms of the hijab, as you may know, it became compulsory after the 1979 revolution. But many of my pictures concern events that happened before that turning point, so rather than following the rule of the land, we found relatively remote spots in town, then practised the scene in the gallery many times before the shoot, and then undertook the shoot as quickly as possible before we attracted people’s attention.
Why did you decide to record these historical events in this dramatised way? What were some of the artistic decisions involved in making them?
The issues that led me to the By an Eye-Witness project were more historical and political than artistic. It began with the political shock of the aftermath of the post-election uprisings in Iran in 2009, as well as of the Arab Spring. I started to think about the revival of history.
We read about our historical heroes in books, and sometimes come across their vague images in black- and-white photos or in fast-moving, unfocused film footage. But in all of those representations, they still belong to the past and are bound to remain so. There is a gap between us, a silence that is hard to break, because we consider them part of history. This is the reason that an often unspoken sorrow, which we all hold in silence, allows us to make a connection to them. I mean to make them as vivid as possible, to bring them into the present and turn them into an integral part of our lives today. That is how I first got into this project. Then I began the research, and mostly focused on the great names of our history, freedom fighters and political activists who died in heart-breaking circumstances. But, as there was no camera around to capture the moment, their deaths have somehow gone unnoticed. Through my research I came to the idea of seeing history rather than knowing it. We can know a lot about how those people died, therefore we all have an image of that moment on a cerebral level, but we hardly get to see the moment. That’s how I came to produce these vivid and colourful images of what happened to them at their moment of death.
One of the astonishing consequences of the 2009 uprising was that many old political figures and activists, murdered intellectuals and journalists of Iran came back into the spotlight after decades in obscurity. They emerged, as it were, from the ruins of history. Even though they died many years ago, their souls took part in the movement: you could feel their presence out on the streets of Tehran. I believe that the rising up for freedom is also an attempt to redeem the oppressed history of our past. It is a demonstration of our debt of gratitude to our predecessors. So I chased those characters down and tried to capture them. I looked at numerous cases of brutal murder during the recent history of Iran – between the constitutional revolution of 1906 and the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and [during] the eight years of the Iran-Iraq war – and chose 17 characters. Unfortunately, we Middle Easterners have no shortage of candidates for such a project, so I had to be selective. My main goal was to gather people from all walks of life, so the cast ranges from the political activists of the various parties, like the national front or the leftists, to poets, writers, journalists, intellectuals and athletes, from ones who espoused armed struggle to those who subscribed to non- violent resistance to others whose weapon of choice was the pen.
I also tried to mark out the turning points of Iran’s contemporary history. Most of the depicted killings are not only tragic but a crucial turning point in the particular struggle they represent. In other words, you could say that, if any of them hadn’t died at that particular moment, our history would have been different. My final criterion was that at the final moment there was no camera to record their death. Thus there is no visual documentation of it. That is to say, a kind of visual void is felt in each case, and my project is aimed at filling this void, but with a historical delay. Our knowledge of their deaths is based on written words, confidential documents, witness reports, newspaper articles or radio reports from the time, and so on. I collected the available documents, brought them together and reconstructed the moment. These photographs represent the most likely scenarios of their death, according to the written or spoken word.
The research for this project took about three years. During this stage, I was working by myself. I went to libraries and archives and assembled as much data as I could. After finding a producer, I was able to have a professional team, and we worked together as a group. We had one month of pre-production to find all the locations and do make-up and costume tests. Then we had 20 days for production. We had to be very quick. We had one day’s shooting for each picture, and there was no chance of restaging any of them in the future, if that became necessary.
The photos are very large, right? So they’re like paintings. Can you tell me what kind of influence other photographers working in a similar format have had on you? When did you first come across the work of somebody like Jeff Wall, for instance? Yes, the largest work is about 320 by 110 centimeters, and the average size is about 210 by 110 centimeters.
I have always admired the great painters of the west and have tried to study and understand them. I have also followed the work of some of the great staged photographers, such as Jeff Wall, Luc Delahaye, Andreas Gursky and Wang Qingsong. However, the narrative techniques in my images are mostly borrowed from my engagement with cinema and literature. I admire the cinema of Fellini and Antonioni and also the many masterpieces of the Russian and French writers of the 19th century. I believe that the latter reached a height in story- telling and grand narrative that is still beyond the abilities of visual artists. For instance, I am very 3. interested in populated settings; how to bring a relatively large number of characters into one shot and how to marshal them to achieve a coherent picture. I think the best source to learn from is Russian literature, particularly its scenes involving crowds. Just recall, for instance, the famous party in Dostoevsky’s The Devils or the notoriously complicated dance party in War and Peace. Through a careful reading of these, one can learn extremely valuable lessons about how to manage a similar situation in photography.
This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 70, OCT – DEC 2014.