Burnt Generation - Iranian Photography

Burnt Generation
Research and Text by Grazyna Siedlecka
Corrections by Ciara O'Halloran

"Burnt Generation" – this is the name given to the show that ran between 10th of April and 1st of June in Somerset House in London.  This is also the name of the generation of Iranians encompassing those born between 1963 and 1980. In Iran they are known as Nasl-e-Sokhte. Before the 1979 Iraq-Iran war, which was also known as the First Persian Gulf War, their parents mostly belonged to the major part of the society of this time – the middle class. Children have been taught the beautiful principles: the value of high education, hard work and morality. Following them, they were supposed to earn a glorious future in welfare and peace. Nobody could predict the revolution, which brought with it death and darkness.

Babak Kazemi, Khoramshahr number by number.

The memory of the war, apart from the loneliness and isolation, is one of the main themes appearing in the contemporary Iranian art exhibited abroad. The new generation tries to deal with the reality, converting everyday experiences into touching photographic images. Although artists are not allowed to speak directly and loud about things that hurt, this factor doesn't prevent them from creating appealing documentation of everyday life and issues such as family, identity, tradition, gender, fears, memory. This is not the first case in the world's history which proves that the outer restrictions can release a vast creative power, which subtlety conveys the hidden messages and emotions rather then destroy the freedom of mind. That's probably one of the main reasons why the contemporary Iranian photography is so unique, intriguing, multidimensional and multilayered, often playful and experimental in form. Artists, the present research refers to, seek the new ways of using the language of photography and we are now witnesses of their great success in these uneasy explorations.
Babak Kazemi, Khoramshahr number by number.

Iran has long and complicated history most of the people usually know very little about or nothing. People inequitably confuse this country with Iraq, associating it mainly with oil and unstable political and social situation. However Iran, known formerly as Persia, evolved from one of the world's oldest civilizations, for thousands of years continuously developing its own cultural identity.

Babak Kazemi, Khoramshahr number by number.
Initially the Zoroastrian country, Persia has been forced to change religion under the Islamic conquest between the 8th and 10th century. The old civilization mixed up with the Muslim influences creating new but firm and unique identity. After five centuries, in 1501, Iran managed to regain the their independence and constitute a leading power in the region once again. New ruling dynasty, called Safavid, caused another turning point in the history of empire, establishing Shi'a Islam as the official religion of the country. Nothing could distract the raise of a great empire until the 1963 White Revolution, 1979 Islamic Revolution and subsequent tragic Iran- Iraq war.
There were many reasons for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to invade the neighbouring country. First and foremost, he assumed that exhausted by revolution and inner conflict the country would prove to be easy to conquer and he expected a quick victory.

There were also religious and economic reasons behind his decision. Hussein intended to gain the leading position in the region, but he miscalculated his strength. The forthcoming conflict lasted 8 long years, costing both sides around million people death and vast economic damages, although effecting with no changes in borders. It turned out to be the warfare without the winner.

As mentioned before, war memories have marked Iranians for their lives. It has naturally become a recurring topic for contemporary artists and photographers from the region.

Babak Kazemi, Khoramshahr number by number.
Babak Kazemi is one of them. His works provide a perfect example of artistic aftermath document.  Born in 1983 in the city of Ahvaz, author still remembers the childhood in the middle of the war and its humanitarian and economical costs. In the project ‘Khoramshahr number by number’ (2006) he places the house number plates in the position of witnesses of lasting eight years fights. Iranian city Khoromashahr located on the Iraqi border was completely ruined during the conflict – now became unusual memorial for those, who never came back to their houses and families. Author states:  “Door numbers are made of metal, they are somehow bulletproof and they will not die, they've seen many things that we didn't and they have many stories to tell.  They are still waiting for their owners to come back and live in their houses.”

Babak Kazemi returned a few times to the city, collecting numbers and photographing citizens. The project consists of photographs, real plates and double exposed pictures comprising images of number plates with the portrayed inhabitants of Khoramshahr.
The “Souvenir from a friend and neighbour country” showcases the conflict from slightly different perspective, presenting photographs of the deformed bullets found in peoples bodies after war. Many Iranians still have little pieces of metal under the skin and will possess this “gifts” until the end of life.

Babak Kazemi reached the mastery in portraying painful and touching problems, keeping seemingly a scientific distance to the topic and utilizing the typology-like form of presentation, at the same time staying highly creative and experimental regarding the creative process. His works are usually displayed in little frames that give an impression of rare specimens or museum objects, rather then contemporary works of art. This sense of facing ancient finds is enhanced by accompanying laconic descriptions, such as:

Made in: Soviet
Material: Lead, Copper
Weight: 16 gr
Terms of use: A gift that can be used in any condition
Year of production: 1974
In packages of 30, 40 and 75 pieces
The most popular product among the leaders
Mutual transaction with Oil

Babak Kazemi, Souvenir from a friend and neighbour country.

On the other hand, we have war documents created in completely different aesthetics, working in the journalistic convention. Abbas Kowsari, born in 1970 in Teheran, has worked as a photographer and photo editor for over ten Iranian leading newspapers. His project “Shade of Earth” gained him international reputation.

Abbas Kowsari, Shade of Earth.

Kowsari created this series between 2007 and 2008 years. He focused on capturing a Rahian-e Noor (Caravan of Light), traditional pilgrimage to the sides where Iran-Iraq fighting was the heaviest. For many years thousands of Iranians, mainly the families of soldiers who died during the war, head to the former battlefields to commemorate the victims of the war.
The included pictures convey the atmosphere of conflict on one side and personal tragedies on the other. All placed in an empty windy desert, gives us in insight into the parallel reality, where dramatic memories are fresh and ubiquitous, in the times that we used to think about as peaceful and safe.
Abbas Kowsari, Shade of Earth.

Newsha Tavakolian, born in 1981 in Teheram, shows a feminine point of view on the war memories in her project “Mothers of Martyrs”. This Photographer created a series of portraits, which depicts mothers holding the pictures of their lost sons. “As a mother, nothing is worse than outliving your own child”, says artist in her statement. “But these Iranian mothers are proud their sons have given their lives for Iran”.

Tavakolina’s story with the camera started really early – she became a newspaper photographer at the age of sixteen. Nine years later she admitted in a Leica Blog interview:  “I got to a stage in my career where news photography became almost impossible for me. I always give this example: when they keep you from breathing through your nose, you open your mouth to breathe. For me, art photography was necessary to be able to breathe again”. It’s not easy in Iran to work with photography and be absolutely free from self–censoring. Tavakolian tells the story about Iran – Iraq fights not showing the war itself but allowing the portrayed mothers and their sons to speak. “Mothers of Martyrs” conveys a universal meaning; these women could be the mothers from every country in the world, which suffered from military offensives. It’s a great manifesto against war, which in a real life is not only about the power, but, first of all, about the broken families and young boys dying.

Newsha Tavakolian, Mothers of Martyrs.

The War had finished and society expected long-awaited peace, which followed, but only in theory. Exhausted and wretched country transmuted into the stage for new political battles. Iranian streets remained full of demonstrations, demanding the right to self-determination in their homeland. A Big part of society quickly understood, that revolution didn’t bring  improvements and the effect of the revolution was different than expected. Women didn’t get the promised emancipation. The economy started to collapse as Iran gained a new powerful enemy – USA. Some Iranians started to realize, what they’ve lost winning the revolution. Rana Javadi is and artists who in a great way connected contemporary issues, history and the post-revolution situation in her project ‘Never ending chaos’.

Rana Javadi, Neverending Chaos.

Javadi put together photographs, symbols and old painting creating the digital images that remind us collages or ancient mosaics, full of symbols and hidden meanings. She shuffles her own war photographs, tiles depicting historical Battle of Karbara and some other illustrations. Her works, printed on linen, conveys the atmosphere and complexity of life in Islamic Republic.
In another project, called ‘When you were dying’, Rana Javadi utilizes the early 20th century Iranian portraits found in famous Chehrenegar studio in Shiraz. Old pictures were taken in the courtyard: in this time the artificial light was not available yet.  As artist says, ‘When you’re dying series tells a story about the death of a beautiful era. About death of a peaceful life, when we didn’t live in a global village, the time when we lived with our own cultures, when life was not as fast as now — a life without electronic social networking, without so many environmental disasters and wars, a life with more peace in mind and the world.’ This project combines past and present, comprising of three layers: one of them is an old picture of anonymous people and forgotten situations, the second consists of pieces of dried flowers and plants, and the last layer is the mirror or glass that reflects the current reality.

Rana Javadi, When You Were Dying.

Rana Javadi collaborated on many projects with the most famous Iranian photographer, Bahman Jalali, her late husband. They were both interested in a history of Iran and found photographs. One of his most recognizable series, called ‘Image of Imagination – Red’ (2003), is created on the basis of the portraits from the same Cherenegar studio. The project has its beginning in the found vandalised female photographs, censored by Islamic finders during the revolution. Series reflects on the different attitudes to women throughout the Iranian history. Found pictures are proving the existence of progressive times, when it was highly fashionable to visit the photographic studio and book professional individual portrait session. Images convey the atmosphere of welfare and safety; the models are unveiled and seem to be very relaxed. Pictures are covered with the red paint that was supposed to hide ideological inconsistencies. The new conservative religious dogmas didn’t approve the originally apolitical pictures together with the femininity and beauty recorded on the photographs. Enlarged from negatives, together with covering them with red paint and black calligraphy, mix up time and different realities, bearing the witness of huge changes in the Iranian society over last decades.

Bahman Jalali, Image of Imagination. 

Another Iranian artist alluding to old pre-revolutionary time and traditional calligraphy is Sadegh Tirafkan (1965 - 2013). In the series ‘Body curves’ and ‘Body signs’ artist tries to ‘unite the curvatures of the human body with Persian calligraphy and figurative images from Persian art’ (quotation from the flyer of Somerset House ‘Burnt Generation’ exhibition). He utilized the old technique used in Iranian Islamic culture to print on cloth, called Mohr. The taboo against showing naked male body is in Iranian tradition is as strong as the rule of female veiling. In this photographs skin is covered with tattoos and words with meanings such as water, fire, renewal. Tirafkan questions the role of man in the Iranian society, one of the themes he was the drawn to during all artistic career.

Sadegh Tirafkan, Body Curves. 

Sadegh Tirafkan, Body Curves. 

Shadi Ghadirian, one of the most recognizable Iranian artists, also got inspired by the old pictures and pre-revolutionary Iran, while working on her famous ‘Quajar’ (1998) project. The title is the name of Iranian dynasty that ruled between 1794 and 1925 years. During this period the portrait photography was very popular with the elite; photographs were usually taken in the homes of commissioners, in less formal clothes and poses, often showing the models together with their valuables or objects confirming their social status.  For this series artist borrowed antique costumes and furniture, ordered painted backdrops and invited friends to be the models for her photographs. The Depicted woman are self-confident and look straight at the camera, but pose in a more formal way than in the old pictures from the Quajar period. What is drawing attention in these images is the presence of contemporary objects, such as a radio, mountain bike and the can of Coke. Quoting from the London Saatchi Gallery website, “in this piece Ghadirian’s surreal time-warp happens in reverse: the initial joke is that the 1980s radio is out of place in the antique setting, but it is the vintage scene and pose which is in fact much more modern. Ghadirian uses this subtle humour to describe a contemporary Iranian female experience of existing as if outside of time.” The question arises: what era these women belong to?

Shadi Ghadirian, Qajar.

The theme of the female role in society is very complex and was changing diametrically throughout the history of Iran. In the traditional Islamic society before the White Revolution it was absolutely necessary for women to veil. During the Pahlavi regime the great changes had been implemented. In 1936 Reza Shah had attempted to unveil women, banning them from wearing chadur. A big part of  the  professional middle class class hailed the new law, although as Monique Girgis wrote in her article “Women in pre-revolutionary, revolutionary and post-revolutionary Iran”, often “chadur was not the sign of oppression, but protection from strange eyes. The unveiling had negative effects on certain groups of Iranian women, especially older women. It was unthinkable for them to go out in public unveiled, and many women became isolated in their home. Being unveiled, to them, was equal to nudity”. Reza Shah also introduced the Family Protection Acts in 1967 and 1975. It was created to improve the women’s rights in the domestic environment. The new law raised the minimum marriage age, requested the permission of the first wife for husband if he wanted to remarry, was supposed to protect and help women in case of divorce, guaranteed maternity leave and much more.

Shadi Ghadirian, Like Everyday.

Women played a huge role during the Islamic Revolution. Some of them participated because the changes started by Shah were more theoretical than practical. Some of them were just scared of altering their customs, growing up in the atmosphere of traditional and religious values. A Big part of them just wanted  to remove the Shah’s dictatorship – the country needed deep reforms.
In the post-revolutionary Iran big changes quickly started to take place in all spheres of life. Unfortunately they didn’t meet the women’s expectations. All the freedoms and support they received from the previous regime now disappeared. The Family Rights Acts were immediately repealed. It was required by law to veil again.

Shadi Ghadirian, Like Everyday.
We come back to Shadi Ghadirian, whose works often focus on women’s issues.  In her “Like Everyday Series” (2001) she portrayed women dressed in beautiful colourful chadurs with faces covered by ordinary kitchen tools. The Artist utilized the domestic gifts she received for her wedding. Being the young professional she found these presents ridiculous and out of place. The author of the article on the Saatchi Gallery website comments: “Challenging the international preconceptions of women’s roles within an Islamic state, Tehran-based artist Shadi Ghadirian’s photographs draw from her own experiences as a modern woman living within the ancient codes of Shariah law. Her images describe a positive and holistic female identity, humorously taking issue with the traditional roles by which women – both in the Middle East and universally – have been defined. (...) Using these objects – such as irons and frying pans – as masks to cover the faces of her veiled sitters, Ghadirian’s photos ironically portray a one-dimensional interpretation of housewives, absurdly reducing their identities to cooks and cleaners”.

In today’s society it’s not only women who feel lost in the post-revolutionary reality. Newsha Tavakolian created a touching picture of young Iranian professionals tired of living in isolated society and lacking the hope for a bright future in her most recent project “Look”. These young middle-class Iranians are the perfect representatives of the “burnt generation”, marked by insecurity, alienation and political apathy. Everyday at 8 in the evening, over the period of six months, she visited her neighbours from the same building. Tavakolian has chosen the windows for the background. Behind them one can see the sea of concrete cold buildings, hostile and inhospitable, the same as the one the artist was shooting in. “The project was my desire to look deeply into the lives of those around me who I have known for over ten years and who live in my building”, she explains. “They were all scared and anxious, and I saw that despite how much access they had to technology, despite not being at the edge of poverty, they were still lonely, perplexed. I wanted to catch such a moment in their lives”.

Newsha Tavakolian, Look.

The youth’s reality is presented from different perspective in a very original way in Amirali Ghasemi’s “Teheran Remixed:  Party Series”. This popular Iranian artist, designer and curator, the founder of the independent Teheran Parkinggallery, started to take snapshots during illegal private parties in 2005 during the presidency of reformist Khatami. He aimed to capture a real Teheran youth night life, attempting to present the personal artistic response to the dominating in international media pictures of veiled women and suppression. He removed the visible fragments of body, covering them with the white colour in the way that refers to the censorship of the imported international magazines “rectified” with the black paint.

Amirali Ghasemi, Teheran Remixed: Party Series.

Amirali Ghasemi, Teheran Remixed: Party Series.

As artist states on his website, works from this project “portray a young population who, instead of looking towards expanding its social liberty, is having fun enjoying the last years of a reformist state in power. Tehran remixed is also an attempt to break through and to experiment with documentary photography and manipulate it in order to tell stories without ignoring people’s privacy”. Ghasemi suggests that these times that are being shown would cause a lot of problems for his friends and he wanted to avoid this. He says also, that these pictures are not relevant to the contemporary reality anymore, as they have been shot nine years ago. Now they can serve as a document telling the story about the youth of middle class.

Amirali Ghasemi, Teheran Remixed: Party Series.

The motif of duality between private and public has been also examined by two collaborating artists – Ali Nadjian and Ramyar Manouchehrzadeh in the project named “We live in a Paradoxical Society”.  This series emphasizes the wide gulf between the two parts of contemporary Iranians lives. The one sphere of the existence is placed at home, where everybody can do, dress, speak and think what he wants. The contrary one is the life outside of the safe domestic space, where people are forced to pretend and censor themselves. As artists explains, “this collection has a narrative inside which is a result of our thoughts and necessarily there is no rule that sub narratives are happening in each image of it; meaning that no boundary can be marked between reality and imagination, or between a documentary image and a subjective one. Nobody in these pictures are being themselves but act as the actors and actresses playing the role instead of any other individual existing and living in the society”.  Photographs, captured from the voyeuristic point of view, let us into Iranian rooms and kitchens, laying the stress on the atmosphere of fear and insecurity. These people need to find their own way to deal with the leading religion, political situation, history and internal freedom, as “they found their values ruined by the heavy burden of promoted idealism”.

Ali Nadjian & Ramyar Manouchehrzadeh, We live in a paradoxical society. 

Ali Nadjian & Ramyar Manouchehrzadeh, We live in a paradoxical society. 

Gohar Dashti approaches contemporary political and social issues from aesthetically different point of view. The artist placed her “Iran, Untitled” series in the middle of nowhere, on the silent desert that acts as a uniform backdrop for the carefully staged photographs. Dashti speaks using the body language of her models, telling big stories in quiet, but powerful words. In this pictures one can see the group of people listlessly waiting with the suitcases for the travel in the unknown direction; soldiers planning their games, other groups celebrating a wedding while another set got stuck on a slide. These people seem to be frozen and trapped beyond the time and reality. They represent the emotions and experiences that are hard to articulate. In the information that was published in the occasion of the Somerset House “Burnt Generation” exhibition it states: “Dashti describes these images as haiku’s exploring the relationship between form and content in which meaning is not necessarily understood but must be comprehended aesthetically”. The Artist has left the narrative open so each spectator is involved in her game and is expected to tell his own story based on Dashti’s photographs.

Gohar Dashti, Iran. Untitled.

The last artist this article treats about is a young talented Morvavid K., whose works were shown during this year Format photo festival located in Derby, UK. Artist’s deepest interest lies in capturing the daily absurdity and paradoxes. Morvavid K. in presented series entitled “Preserved for a better day” utilizes a sublime and nuanced aesthetic. The carefully prepared and serious images use the language of unconstrained humour. White sheet, associated with protecting home objects during holiday leaves, is used here as a playful metaphor; in these photographs it covers people, paused in everyday activities: smoking cigarette, exercising box, resting on the sofa. They all wait for better times to come; in this project artist gives the hope for a happy ending of her story.

Morvavid K., Preserved for a better day.

Morvavid K., Preserved for a better day.

Contemporary Iranian artists elaborated their own highly original and unique style and expressions that are different from Western photographic ways of storytelling. Born before the 1963-1980 Iran – Iraq war and the 1979 revolution, living in uncertain time and complex reality, artists from the “burnt revolution” are telling us beautiful and moving stories of their homeland. In this article we’ve mentioned only 11 of them; it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

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