Iranian artist explores her country’s violent history through conceptual photography.
For Azadeh Akhlaghi, a 36-year-old Iranian conceptual photographer with a background in computer science, the aim is to record a past that has been hidden from view. This past is significant to Iranians today as they struggle to define their identity as separate from both Western colonialism and fundamentalist Islam.
Azadeh Akhlaghi’s “By an Eyewitness” series consists of seventeen photographs reconstructing the tragic deaths of prominent figures, such as politicians, poets, activists, writers and students in twentieth century Iran. The events leading up to the Islamic Revolution of 1979 are its focal point.
Born in 1978, Akhlaghi was a toddler when the Islamic Revolution of 1979 gained success and the country’s destiny was dramatically changed. Only a year later, the Iran-Iraq war started and Iran was once again in despair. Although barely, Akhlaghi recalls those days,
even though it was a time of fear and absence of hope, but somehow my family managed to make us feel safe and happy at home, so what I remember as a child is not at all dark and scary.
Yet, she also points out how devastating the war was, adding, “but in my opinion, those were the darkest years in Iranian history.”.
Art Radar spoke to Akhlaghi about her work and what the project meant to her audience.
After majoring in computer science, what made you decide to become a photographer?
It was really a long-term process. I was always fascinated by the world of art. When I was sixteen, I wanted to be a poet and, only a few years after that, I started to do journalism work. But even when I moved to Australia to pursue my Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science, I knew that it wasn’t what I wanted to do for a living. So I started to take some elective courses in photography. Well, initially I wanted to pursue a career in movie production, but I knew it needed money and resources that I didn’t have. So I focused my time on photography. And then I came up with this project and I have to tell you, the process of completing this project was very similar to producing a movie.
What was the main purpose of this project and how did you come up with the idea for it?
I was always curious about Iran’s complex history and I knew that there was just this truth that was hidden somewhere and we couldn’t find it. The truth behind all of these deaths and the reason that made these characters – my characters – risk their lives so that the next generation could live better and happier. It was just something that I could not understand. And what was more interesting was that some events have happened in Iran over and over again. It is as if some historical events are repetitive, and this repetition was the main reason for this project.
I wanted to focus on the fact that all of these frames are from my own perspective – the artist’s view. The truth could not be exactly what is shown in these images and I could never reach the whole truth. I wanted to emphasise my own presence as a representative of the next generation in the images.
With this project, I needed to remind our people that a dark energy and potential has always repeated itself during our history and that this history needs to be remembered.
How did you decide on the characters and the moments that you wanted to capture?
I spent a long time reading about each of them, I sort of lived with these characters for a long time in my head. The main point was to capture moments in history that there were no photos of. I was trying to portray and stage some very important historical events that no one has witnessed. Initially, the images I took were more than seventeen, but during the progress of the project, some of them were cut out. For example, Dr Fatemi, Iran’s Foreign Affairs Minister from 1951 to 1953, was one of those characters. He was executed, but since there were some images available from the aftermath of his death, his image was cut from the project.
Could you tell us more about the photograph of Dr Mossadegh? Does this image somehow mark the identity of this project?
I can’t really say that, but Dr Mossadegh is a prominent figure and personally I feel a deep connection to him. Because of that, his death and its aftermath were very important to me. And what was very disappointing was that historical sources about the day that he died are very limited. One of the things that I really struggled with was that we couldn’t find out how the weather was the day he died. Was it sunny, rainy or cold? And this was just one of the smallest shortcomings.
The focus in Dr Mossadegh’s image is the absence of Iranian people during that day – a historical absence – and, in my opinion, the pain which resulted because of that absence is still carried by the people.
Why didn’t you revisit the aftermath of the 1979 revolution again and especially the Iraq-Iran war?
The main reason was that I only wanted to go as far as the onset of the Islamic Revolution. I didn’t want to work on recent history. But after further consideration, I thought that some characters, like Shahid Bakeri and Ayatollah Taleghani and their deaths were also among the tragic deaths in Iranian history.
The project has been deemed “political” and “controversial”. What was your audience’s reaction to the project?
I can’t really argue. Of course, it got a lot of attention even before the show, but I think most of the reactions were positive. To tell you the truth, I saw a lot of unexpected reactions during the exhibition. The gallery was full of people the whole time, to the point that some of them weren’t able to see the images closely. People would hug me and some of them actually started crying during the show. An old lady came to the gallery and said that her son had called her from Berlin and had asked her to come and see the exhibition.
In my opinion, it was as if people had never got the chance to mourn these deaths and now, this project and the images in front of them had given them the time and the instrument to release their agony and pain.
What challenges did you face when you were working on the project?
The most challenging aspect was the shortcomings in [available] history and the limited resources we had for some of these characters. There were no writings or photos of these deaths and for some of them, I had to rely on the memory of my interviewees – individuals who were present at the time of these deaths or had close relationships with these people.
Also, sometimes, in a moment of shock, when something has happened, the brain loses its [capacity to] function. For example, when I witness a tragic moment, something horrible, I can’t hear anything. My eyes somehow lose sight and I have to check with other people to see whether they have witnessed the same thing. During this project, when I spoke to people, I understood that many of them had seen something that hadn’t actually happened.
What are some of your other projects? Could you tell us more about them?
“Me as Preferred by Others” is another big project that I did in 2011. “Reflection of Self” and “Suspension in Tehran” are my other projects. “Suspension in Tehran” was a series based on the obscenity of cities, especially Tehran, and how youngsters are somehow suspended within this concept.
“Me as Preferred by Others” was a twenty-part self-portrait through the eyes of the “others”, depicting how people try to be the person that others want them to be. This “being” can be seen in the way they dress or talk, or even what is expected of them. I wanted to show how this gigantic “other” determines how we live.
What are some of your current or upcoming projects?
Let me just leave you by saying that my new project is also about the last 100 years of Iranian history, from the onset of the Constitutional Revolution of 1905 to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but from a totally different angle. This time I won’t be focusing on tragic deaths.
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