An Iranian (Woman)

Shadi Ghadirian hates stereotypes. Her images are nevertheless rooted in the dualities of being a modern woman in a conservative society

The Nil Nil series is the first time Ghadirian hasn’t used any people in the pictures. {{name}}
01 January, 2011

IN 1999, the Iranian photographer Shadi Ghadirian had one of her early exhibitions outside Iran, at the  Leighton House in London. She was showing a series called Qajar, portraits of women made to look like vintage photographs, with the subjects posed before painted backdrops and dressed in old-fashioned clothes. A close look at the portraits revealed some modern props—a vacuum cleaner, snazzy sunglasses, a boombox—that cracked the historicity of the portraits. However, at the opening, Ghadirian felt there were more people staring at her than at her art. “Everybody looked at me, with expressions like ‘You wear jeans!,’ ‘You wear red shoes!’” she recalled. Dressed like any other 26-year-old girl, Ghadirian didn’t conform to the mould of a West Asian woman to the gathered crowd and this was disconcerting to them. “I wanted to ask, ‘Do you want to show me in the gallery instead of the photos?’” said Ghadirian. “Here’s the exhibit: an Iranian woman.”

Had she offered, the gallerist may have taken Ghadirian up on it. It had been barely a year since Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’  was shortlisted for the Turner Prize.  The work, literally, was her bed, unmade and festooned with the detritus of her everyday existence like cigarette butts and used underwear. Emin was among the Young British Artists who were redefining what constituted fine art and ‘My Bed’ found art in real life, a trend that was still very much en vogue at the time of Ghadirian’s first show in London. As an additional bonus, Ghadirian is beautiful. In that, she certainly conforms to stereotypes about Iranian women, but it’s best not to word it that way to her because Ghadirian hates being pigeonholed. The week before she came to India for a solo show in Mumbai in November, she was interviewed by an Italian journalist, who tried to get Ghadirian to corroborate the widespread notion of the oppressed Iranian woman. The insistence upon strengthening a stereotype reminded Ghadirian of the decade-old experience in London.

“All he wanted me to say was that I had many problems and I said, no I don’t have any problems; it’s good here,” said Ghadirian. “It’s like they want us to talk about only these things. I can talk about my problems but I don’t like that he wanted me to talk about the same things: veil is bad, Iranian women, Muslim country, Muslim Muslim Muslim. It’s a fashionable word now. But this is not my problem.”

Tehran-based Ghadirian, 36, is among Iran’s best art photographers—and one of the few famous artists who have chosen to remain in Iran. She is happy not to wear the veil when she’s travelling, but is also unperturbed by the law that demands she cover her hair while in Iran. Since her first solo exhibition in 1999, Ghadirian’s photographs have been shown all over the world and are part of the collections of The British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Musée des Arts Contemporains in Paris, among many others.

Her photographs are technically flawless and the framing of scenes skilful. The different elements in a photograph are meticulously chosen and arranged to create precisely the situation that Ghadirian wants to capture. Colour, chiaroscuro, lines, everything is perfectly pivoted to create images that are rich in detail, have depth of perspective and tell eloquent stories in addition to being beautiful to look at. The narratives that interest Ghadirian are those that she relates to personally. They’re stories about women and while Ghadirian emphasises their universality and steers clear of being political or didactic, it is obvious that they are deeply rooted in the experience of being a woman in Iran.

The photographs in the Qajar series seem vintage but the modern props suggest that life hasn’t really changed for the Iranian woman. {{name}}

She told me her work is ignored by the political establishment in Iran because it’s “mostly social.” I suspect what protects Ghadirian is her discretion and the subtlety with which she communicates her opinions without flouting laws. But Ghadirian’s success shouldn’t be credited just to world politics. In 1979, when the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution was radicalising Iran, Ghadirian was five years old. She remembers very little of it. The political fervour of the times did not register in her five-year-old mind; nor did she feel Iran’s transition to a strictly Islamic regime that accorded women the right to vote and education but declared them unequal to men and curtailed their freedom. The present Iran, ruled by rigid Shi’a clerics for over three decades, is the only one she’s known and despite what she said to the Italian journalist, Ghadirian is extremely conscious that things are not good for her gender. But the Revolution has a complex relationship with women. It was heartily supported by the women in the 1970s but it imposed restrictions on them. Yet, unwittingly, the government’s emphasis on education has resulted in more women getting graduate degrees than men, which means there are increasingly more skilled women than men in many professions. For example, Ghadirian has seen the number of women photojournalists multiply rapidly over the past years. In the late 1990s, when Ghadirian had approached a newspaper in Tehran for a job, she was told women couldn’t do photojournalism.

Not that being rejected for that job cost Ghadirian anything. She wasn’t really interested in photojournalism anyway. She wanted to tell the story of being a modern Iranian woman “in a nicer way” through art. As a college student working at a museum of photography in Tehran, Ghadirian realised Iran had a long photographic tradition. She was amazed to learn photography had come to Iran just ten years after the camera was invented in the mid-19th century, courtesy the king of Persia, Naser al-Din Shah Qajar who had his own studio in Golestan Palace. Here he would take photographs of everything he could, including the members of his harem. “He had something like 500 wives so we have a good history of photographing women. Even nude photography,” said Ghadirian. These were the first portraits of women in Iran (even painted portraits didn’t exist because women didn’t show themselves to a man who was not a family member). Taking a cue from the old Shah, Ghadirian shot the Qajar series in 1998 as her graduation thesis.

Qajar, named after the dynasty that was overthrown by the Pahlavis in 1925, remains among Ghadirian’s most beautifully-produced photographs. The images speak eloquently about the dualities of being a modern woman in a conservative society. They seem vintage but the elements of modernity suggest that life hasn’t really changed for the Iranian woman, despite radical changes in the political sphere. The sepia tones add elegance, the costumes are sumptuous, and the painted backgrounds lend an old-world charm. Then there are the modern details, like the Pepsi can and the avant-garde newspaper. Ghadirian wanted to show that despite the constraints of old-fashioned laws, in her private space the Iranian woman is free to do as she wishes—bike, paint, wear a burqa, dress up like a Qajar.  Simultaneously, the fact of the painted background emphasised the sense of posturing in the models. There’s also an implication that the women are free to do as they will only in these enclosed, private spaces.

I asked Ghadirian if she’s felt any need to self-censor over the years because of the conservative regime. She said she didn’t. But some of the political reactions to her work over the years don’t quite support her statement. When she was 21, she won a prize for one of her Qajar photographs but the prize was withdrawn because the ministry of culture found a picture too contentious. Ghadirian was then removed from the competition. Her 1998 series, Unfocused, couldn’t be exhibited in Iran because the blurred photographs suggested a feminine form that was wearing a fitted Western gown, which is banned in Iran because such clothes are considered obscene and degrading to women. The black and white photographs almost turn the figure into an abstract form, as though one is seeing a woman through a dense fog, but there’s no mistaking the fact that the dark shape in the photograph is that of a woman. There’s a sense of abandon in the poses that adds intimacy to the delicate beauty of the photographs, which also show an exquisite use of light and shade. Unfocused rams home the absurdity in the laws regulating women’s lives in Iran and, like in the Qajar series, Ghadirian uses the motif of clothing to articulate her story. True to Ghadirian’s style, no laws have been broken but they are certainly ridiculed.

Later in our chat, she conceded that the government is “sensitive” about art. “Which photos showing women want to go abroad or are going to show in a gallery, they are very, very, very sensitive about it,” she said. “They want to control everything. Not just for me and my photos but for cinema, for everything.” When Ghadirian showed Qajar in a Tehran gallery in the late 1990s, the owner was initially very nervous about the exhibition because to show portraits of women was to walk on thin ice with the moral police. Most of the models showed their faces and were dressed in fineries, which could easily be misconstrued as indecent by Right-wingers.

The inspiration for the Like Everyday series came from the many cooking utensils Ghadirian received as gifts on her wedding day. {{name}}

Some of Ghadirian’s work has taken on the Islamic regime quite directly. West by East (2004) comprised photos of women in Western clothes but it looked like most of the models’ bodies had been blacked out in the pictures. Hair, arms, sometimes even the clothes were obscured like this. It looked like the photographs had been defaced and showed how little of a woman survives the Iranian morality code: just the face, atop piles of black, as though decapitated. In My Press Photo, Ghadirian made collages out of photographs from the World Press Photo catalogue and vintage snapshots of Iranian soldiers. The uniformed soldiers popped up in unexpected spots: teetering on Muhammad Ali’s fist, being stared at by a skeletal famine victim, plastered over a racehorse’s face, slapped on a praying Mother Teresa’s eye like an eyepatch. My Press Photo was a biting critique of a jingoistic culture that valorises violence. It also attempted to turn the tables on the army by pointing the guns at the soldiers and making them victims, rather than perpetrators, of random acts of cruelty.

In her other works, Ghadirian has been rather discreet. More often than not, she uses humour to point out the absurdity of laws concerning women. Ctrl+Alt+Del (2006) was a series of portraits in which only the model’s face, hands and feet emerged out of a black background. Using computer desktop icons, Ghadirian delineated the body subtly. The icons also referenced the importance of computers and the internet in the lives of Iranians, many of whom are prolific bloggers. “I live inside Iran, I feel it, I touch everything, it’s very important for me,” Ghadirian said. For Ghadirian, the repressive regime has proved to be a weird, mixed blessing. Its restraints force her to be inventive, so that she can create unobjectionable photographs without losing the sense of reality that inspired her to create a work. “I want to show the reality in the way that I can show it in Iran and also abroad.”

The way is often a roundabout one and her most acclaimed series Like Everyday (2000) is a good example of this. The inspiration for Like Everyday came from the endless cooking utensils Ghadirian received as gifts when she and her long-time boyfriend, photographer and writer Peyman Hooshmandzadeh, got married. The photographs showed women wearing chador made of tablecloths or upholstery. But where there should be faces, there are household objects, like a broom and a meat cleaver. Like Everyday is as hilarious as it is unnerving, and Ghadirian intended the photographs to be both. “The best husband just helps their wife, anywhere in the world,” she said with a laugh. “A woman, whether she’s doctor, teacher, housewife, she’s always thinking about something else: cleaning that room, cleaning that drawer, what to make for dinner.” However, the woman being almost smothered by the chador makes this construct of domesticity more culturally specific. She has literally been objectified. On some occasions while exhibiting Like Everyday, Ghadirian has repeated a few of the photographs. “I wanted to show that women always repeat these things, everyday, without any creativity,” she said. “Maybe they like it, being able to retreat behind doing work like a machine.”

Works from the Nil Nil series {{name}}

In July 2009, photographs from Like Everyday were shown as part of Ghadirian’s exhibition in Mumbai. She didn’t come for that opening. A few weeks before the show was to open in June, student protests against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed electoral win erupted in Iran. In cities like Tehran, people flooded the streets. Curfew was imposed. Armed militia patrolled the streets. Many people were killed; Ghadirian’s husband was injured.

Later that year, Ghadirian completed two new series: Nil Nil and White Square. The works were a return to the subject that had first propelled Ghadirian towards art. From the age of six until 14, Ghadirian had lived through the vicious war fought between Iran and Iraq between 1980 and 1988. “I was 14 [when the war ended] and I thought, I should do something,” Ghadirian remembered. “But I’m not a good person to go into the street and take photos.” It wasn’t just that she didn’t feel she suited the gritty danger of photojournalism. “I picked photography because it was the fastest art,” she said. “The other thing was that it is something in your hands that can record the truth. This was very important for me. I should record the truth everywhere and make sure it’s documented. It remains a story, it’s a part of our time.”

Even though there are no green banners in Ghadirian’s most recent works, the story of the 2009 protests is implicit there. Nil Nil and White Square are the first time Ghadirian hasn’t used any people in her pictures. Against the whiteness that should symbolise peace, military equipment is placed, gift-wrapped with a red bow, in White Square. Nil Nil shows rooms in people’s homes, full of things, and devoid of people, like the rooms of the protestors whose disappearance the Iranian government refuses to acknowledge. Everything is clean and pretty, but there’s an eerie lack of order. “You have two separate lives in Iran, outside the house and inside the house,” said Ghadirian. “We go out to the street, it’s crossing a border. When we come back into the house, it’s another border. But sometimes, things from the outside come in with us. It’s all still clean and ok but the war is reflected in the house.” In the photographs, the “things from the outside” are military equipment: a grenade in the fruit bowl, a bullet in a cigarette case, the drop of blood on the military boots standing next to the red stilettos. In 2009, violence entered Iranian homes when some protestors like Ghadirian’s husband came back injured, and many others didn’t come back at all. Meanwhile, the government media calmly declared that everything was in order—lies as meticulously false as the rooms in Ghadirian’s photographs.

Nil Nil is also about the fear engendered by this civil war-like state that Ghadirian has represented in her images of a home. There’s a sense of repetition and after seeing a few of them, it feels like a predictable game of “Spot the Military Equipment.” But that’s just what Ghadirian wants you to do: to look for the symbols of violence and ignore the pretty, homely setup. “Once you’ve decided you’re going to find it, it’s everywhere,” said Ghadirian, explaining the sense of paranoia that she wanted to capture in the photographs. The calm with which Iran faces potential warfare is disconcerting to her. “War is something that is a familiar idea for Iranians because we had war for several years,” she said. “All our neighbours—Iraq, Afghanistan—have had war. Now they say America will attack, Israel will attack. It seems we are ok with it, we know what we should do. Like in the photos, everything is ok, everything is neat, you have fruit. It’s ok.”

Works from the Nil Nil series {{name}}

A little more than ten years ago, Ghadirian made a decision to not leave Iran. She chose to return to Tehran after that show in London because she knew that the only stories she wanted to tell through her photographs were those of modern Iran. The events of last year may have rattled Ghadirian but they haven’t shaken her belief that she has work to do. Had there not been as oppressive a political system as the one that has ruled Iran for most of Ghadirian’s lifetime, she might not have been so determined to keep working. “When I’m living in Iran, social issues must come to my work,” she said. “When I’m working, I just feel about my condition, my generation, my environment. I have to talk about these things. In the photos, my generation should see their times. It is very important I should tell our story.”