Iran. Although home to one of the world's oldest civilizations, (dating back more than 5,000 years), since 1979 Iran is most commonly known for the Islamic Revolution that toppled Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and took 66 Americans hostage, holding them for 444 days. Iran is daily in the news, with its military activities in Syria and Yemen, its support of Hezbollah, endless negotiations over its nuclear program, and its detention of reporters like the Washington Post's Jason Rezaian. "Death to America" is a chant heard in televised demonstrations in Tehran, setting the outside view of Iran as a hostile one to the West.
Although there are plenty of public displays concerning the government and martyrs, I didn't see any "Death to America" propaganda.
In contrast to this public view, I've been fortunate to know many Iranians who live in the United States, as well as abroad. Without exception, they love the United States and the common theme among them is a love of life and all it has to offer. With these contrasting experiences in mind, I determined to make a trip to Iran.
Getting into Iran as an American is no easy task. Reams of paperwork, multiple passport photographs, and multiple visits to the Iranian Interest Section in Washington, D.C., are required. Iranians work on a different time scale, and waiting (and waiting, and waiting) are part of the process. The government of Iran is suspicious of one's prior travel, and does a thorough investigation into who you are. (It's possible to go with a tour group, but tours are heavily monitored by the government and I wanted freedom of movement.) In the end, it took me over a year to obtain permission to visit Iran.
The visual journey has no defined beginning or end, and the experience of the airports was a transition period to being lost.
Visa in hand, I scheduled a flight. Since 1979, Iran has been subject to a range of economic sanctions, including ones which eliminated direct flights from the United States. Iran is not a close destination. My flight took me through Istanbul, Turkey—with a 7 hour layover. Layover included, total travel time from Dulles to Tehran was 20 hours.
Arriving in Iran was a bit of an emotional let down. Based on my experiences with Iranian officials in the United States, I had expected a high degree of security and curiosity about an American's arrival. At the airport, I found only a single disinterested official at Passport Control. A glance at my visa, a scan into the computer, and I was on my way without even eye contact or a single question about the purpose of my visit. (I have reason to believe that the arrival experience is highly variable, and your visit may go a very different way!)
My first experience of the country was an extremely long drive from the airport to my host's house in northern Tehran. Tehran is one of the biggest cities in the world, with more than 17 million people. It is spread out over more than 200 square miles, and the airport is more than 30 miles south of the city. It was an appropriate introduction to a city and country that are impossible to pigeon-hole, with variety and diversity which are difficult to comprehend.
Tehran is home to more than 17 million people and 3 million cars. Construction and infrastructure projects are immense and a feature of daily life. The city has rapidly grown into the Alborz mountain range. While currently the capital, there are plans to relocate the seat of government because Tehran is subject to earthquakes.
Being inside Iran is much different than hearing about it from the outside. While not an easy country to absorb or function in, the people are warm and welcoming, and there is a vast range of poverty and wealth among a people who have been isolated from much of the West for more than a generation. (Although only the United States and Canada have official sanctions against Iran, the complexity of those sections affects travel, banking, postal services, and foreign businesses who also do business with the United States.) Despite all the international conflict concerning Iran's political role and its present history, the people within Iran continue to flourish in an environment that's all their own.
Working as a photographer in Iran is beset with challenges. I was based in the northern part of Tehran, making day trips to other parts of the country. Each place presented unique difficulties and opportunities, but there were common themes.
The first challenge I try to address in any place is blending in. As a street photographer, my goal is to be an observer. This means being as unobtrusive as possible while maintaining enough involvement to understand and appreciate unfolding events so that I can time decisive moments. In most western countries, these needs are solved by being mindful of one's dress and manners, and generally taking the "when in Rome" approach is enough that I can fade into the background. Not so in Iran.
Iran is a very foreign place to anyone who's not Iranian. Not only do the Islamic rules affect all forms of behavior, but the language is unapproachable. Rather than the West Germanic of English, which is structurally shared by all European languages, Farsi evolved from an offshoot of Indo-Iranian. So while it's possible as an English speaker to decipher a subway map in Germany or France because of common characters and grammatical conventions, it is impossible to make any sense of Farsi unless you know it. (Spoken Farsi uses some Arabic and French words, and written Farsi shares much of the Arabic alphabet, but the meanings of the words are often so different that even when someone who knows Arabic is able to read Farsi, it won't make any sense.)
The language challenge is not to be underestimated. With both the written and verbal language being so different, it's nearly impossible to use signs as landmarks or even indications of locations. There is some iconography (such as for bathrooms), and many signs have English on them. Iranians who have attended private school or been educated abroad often have excellent English, but the vast majority of the population doesn't speak English at all.
So one of the first challenges in blending is orientation. If you have an idea of the significance of a place, adjustments in behavior can accordingly be made. If you have an idea of how to get from one place to another, you can walk with a purpose that doesn't raise attention. Without language, it's likely you'll always look lost—because you are.
Similarly with spoken language. In most western countries, vocal behavior and mannerisms follow similar rules: when someone's voice is raised, it's usually an indication of intensity that is passion if not anger. Not so in Iran, where the proxemic rules favor as normal interaction what I would interpret as dramatic and sometimes threatening behavior. Without access to the language, interactions are difficult to interpret, and it's all but impossible to conceal that confusion from your own body language.
Style of dress is an easy way to blend, and very accessible in Iran. As in most of Europe, the default style of dress for men is a dress-casual: khakis or jeans and a sport coat. (For women, dress styles run the gamut, depending on religious orientation.) I didn't have to buy any clothes particular to the region.
Iranians are a diverse group.
What one can't blend, however, is bone structure and skin color. Although there is a fair bit of ethnic diversity in Iran, it's all diversity from within the region. According to the Library of Congress, diversity in Iran breaks down as roughly: Persians 65%, Azerbaijanis 16%, Kurds 7%, Lurs 6%, Arabs 2%, Baluchi 2%, Turkmens 1%, Turkic tribal groups such as the Qashqai 1%, and non-Iranian, non-Turkic groups such as Armenians, Georgians, Assyrians, and Circassians less than 1%.
Unsurprisingly, I was immediately identifiable as a foreigner no matter where I went, simply because of the color of my skin, hair, and the structure of my facial bones. No matter my efforts to adapt, I was regularly approached by strangers who started every conversation in broken English. Being mistaken for a local wasn't going to happen. While this interfered with my ability to blend, it also led to some opportunities for interaction which otherwise wouldn't have taken place.
Iranian culture emphasizes graciousness above all else. Religious, political, and class differences all fade into the background when it comes to an Iranian welcoming you to their home or business. Generosity is the strongest impulse any Iranian you meet will have. No matter your problem or question, anyone you ask will go above and beyond to help you.
An illustrative example is my discovery of the khorjin. A saddlebag made from carpet, khorjin are common sight on motorcycles. But I couldn't find a shop selling them. While walking in downtown Tehran, I saw a man leaving a shop and heading to his motorbike and decided to ask him about his khorjin. After a brief (translated) conversation, he told me the district they were made, but suggested it was a rougher part of town. After a pause he offered to get them for me and bring them to where I was staying. I offered him what he estimated the cost to be, and within two hours he was back with a khorjin, as grateful to me for the chance of showing his graciousness as I was for the trouble he had taken for a stranger in his country.
The humble khorjin brings loads of utility to two-wheeled vehicles of any type.
Similar was my experience in a shop that makes the Iranian staple Barbari bread. A small place, with the traditional three employees, all they make is bread. Despite the language difficulties and cultural barriers, the bakers were welcoming and helpful, showing the process of making the bread and making a set of loaves just for me. These experiences were typical and common.
Three men work 16 hour days to satisfy the demand for Barbari bread, with customers lined up out the door.
Although it would be possible to visit Iran on one's own, the language and cultural barriers are significant enough that I wouldn't recommend it. Even with the assistance of many locals who took me to a variety of places, navigating around was a time-consuming challenge.
Photography inside Iran is not common. I occasionally saw some Iranians at famous places making images with cell phone cameras, but I didn't see any DSLRs, mirrorless cameras, or film cameras, except a camera carried by a German tourist. Carrying a camera definitely singles you out.
I work as unobtrusively and quickly as possible, and make it habit to have only one camera out at a time. I try to carry only a single camera with lenses in my pockets, or at most carry only a small courier bag. I use Fuji X-Series cameras (configured as the Fuji Monochrom), which are smaller and quieter than a Leica, and to the uninitiated appear to be amateur pocket cameras. Indeed, most of the images I made inside Iran were with a kit comprised of a Fuji X100s and Fuji's wide and tele converters for the X100 line. I wouldn't advise carrying a large DSLR with a zoom lens because you'll appear to be a journalist (read: spy). That said, most Iranians had little to no reaction if they saw the camera.
The one word that describes just about anywhere in Iran is: immense. Tehran is massive and filled with towering buildings. Roofs above the bazaars tower four or five stories. Mosques cover city blocks. The widest wide angle lens struggles to capture the sense the space.
From immense bazaars that cover a dozen city blocks, to massive water cisterns, everything in Iran is on a grand scale.
But just as Iran is immense, detail and subtlety are important. From the details of ceilings which can't be seen with the naked eye, to the interplay of shapes and forms, Iranians are obsessed with the aesthetic.
It's also a challenge to capture the people. Each ethnic and religious group has its own rules of decorum, and one has to be cautious to stay within the bounds. Moreover, many places in the country are off-limits to photography, and photographing government officials of any type is unwise. The government has no problem arresting first and sorting out the questions later. In a country with no official United States presence, this is a situation I wanted to avoid.
That being said, most of the rules for successful street photography (which we teach in our workshops) worked in Iran:
Be a flaneur
Acclimating yourself to a situation is the best way to avoid problems. Regardless of language barriers, observing the conduct of people around you will give you many clues to whether it's safe to be taking pictures. If you see a high degree of self-consciousness (such as around religious or government sites), it's a clue to find a new venue. Where people are more relaxed and chatting amongst themselves, it's likely a safe place to work. Especially where you can't rely on your cultural experience to anticipate events, it's important to go slow and observe a lot before engaging in making photographs. We have detailed previously the process of approaching such situations as a flaneur.
Let the Scene Come to You
It's common in street photography to come across a scene which speaks to you, but isn't quite right. Some scenes require more work than others—to find the right combination of people, to find the right light, or to find the right position. This is a common situation in places which are culturally foreign to you because what's missing is often harder to grasp. By working a scene and not concentrating on a particular subject, you can take the time to let things unfold and not make anyone uncomfortable in the process. Indeed, letting subjects come into a scene shifts the burden of imposition from the photographer to the subject, and subjects who notice you will feel like they intruded into your picture, instead of feeling that you intruded into their lives.
Moments often need to come together on their own. The answer is often to wait and watch, letting the elements unfold.
Tightly framed images have several drawbacks in general. First, they require the spectator to understand or relate to the subject in a way which requires little context, which is a difficult feat unless the subject is already famous (and the spectator can project prior knowledge onto the subject), or if the message conveyed in the image isn't a complicated one. Second, tightly framed images take time to shoot right. With less visual information in the frame, each detail takes on increasing significance. These are difficult problems to overcome even when the photographer has an excellent understanding of the subject, the photographer's own idea of what the scene should communicate, and sufficient time to capture images.
In a place that's truly foreign, and where the barriers of culture and language prevent the photographer from having all but a superficial understanding of the subject, it's best to go wide and provide context to the images. Otherwise, a photographer risks—at best—falling prey to making images that just fulfill a stereotyped view of the place. A wider perspective will include important details that the photographer may not consciously understand, but which are still relevant to the subject.
Traveling to places where one doesn't speak or read the language is not uncommon. Traveling to places where one has little chance of grasping the culture, however, is rare. It's extremely stressful and overwhelming, taxing one's creativity as well as one's emotions.
But it's also liberating to be lost. Removed from even absentminded awareness of so much of what's going on, the mind has little choice but to double its efforts to observe and make sense of things. Lost, it's easier to perceive humanistic patterns. Lost, it's easier to put attention on the gestalt. Lost, it's easier to let your deeper self emerge.
The aesthetics of lostness have a quality of their own. The feeling on many levels is one of isolation and disconnectedness. Like any state of mind, these aspects are revealed in the work. My interpretation of the images I made in Iran reflect this: isolated moments; overwhelming scale; and a puzzlement of things. I endeavored to embrace the lostness, however, because the alternative was to find a false narrative which would devolve into stereotype. In the lostness, I sought the commonality of humanity instead of looking for the superficiality of difference.
Departing the country was as uneventful as entry, and served to punctuate the commonality of official acts anywhere in the world: another disinterested official, another scan of my passport, and no questions asked.
Iran is a country, and not a political entity. Whatever its government's present role on the world stage, Iran's people and the country itself are magical. I look forward to returning again.
The first issue of f/11—The Magazine for the Photographers of Modern Life, featuring work from inside Iran. This issue is 44 pages, with the black & white and color images richly printed on premium, 80# matte paper in a magazine format.
The issues available directly through the website will be signed on the front cover.