Newsha Tavakolian’s album, Look (2013), can be viewed as the culmination of the developmental process her photographic language had to undergo under the restrictive politics of Iran. The students’ uprising in Tehran following the ban of reformist newspaper Salam, and the mysterious disappearance of many students in 1999 was a turning point in Iran’s political history, as well as in Tavakolian’s life. She extensively documented the protests and repressive policies of the state, but many photographs of that revolution were used by the government to track down protesters and torture them, thus engendering a phobia of being photographed among the people. This can be traced as the primary influence in her shift from photojournalism to art photography. One of the primary aspects of her photographic representations of Iranian people and landscapes is their distinct difference from the stereotypical constructions by Western media.
Journalism, as a primarily Western discourse, stresses the objectivity of reportage, and goes for an immediacy of effect. Moreover, the power of journalism rests on the authority of objectivity, presence, and the illusion of ‘truth’. Deviating from the ‘objective’ forms of representation, Tavakolian developed a new form of her own. In an interview with TIME magazine she stated, “When we’re stuck on getting the West to understand Iran, our work remains on the surface…I want to tell Iranians’ story to Iranians themselves, this is where I can challenge myself and go deeper into the more complicated layers.” In this context it is interesting to note the changes in her representational tactics in her portrait series, Look.
Look is acutely subversive in many aspects of its representation. Unlike the Western reportage about Iranian civilians that merely focuses on scenes of turmoil, or on refugees and lower-class victims, Tavakolian turns her camera on the middle-class youth of the country and subtly projects their anxieties arising from socio-economic pressures. Regarding the rising middle-class youth of the country she claims, “despite not being at the edge of poverty, they were still lonely, perplexed…” and that they turned to social conformity to hide their isolation and “moments of insecurity”. The dim and foggy twilight setting of the series evokes a sense of isolation, depression and inaction. All the photographs, except the last one, are set in front of a huge window frame overlooking a bare and desolate building. Primarily influenced by the Egyptian film, The Yacoubian Building, she wanted that background to highlight the intertwined lives of the residents living in her building; hence all the characters whom we encounter in the series are her neighbours and friends. The repetitive grid-like structure of the building in the background portrays a loss of individuality and how people are reduced to uniform, controllable elements by the repressive apparatus of the state. On the other hand, by isolating her subjects she focuses on their individuality set against the building’s demonstration of collective political psychology. In the context of the architectural background Tavakolian says, “The building captures the mood of the city and is representative of Iran as a whole” (Walker). This reminds one of Antoine D’Agata’s metaphorical use of deserted and half-constructed buildings to illustrate the idea of the ‘soulless body’.
Fig. 1 (Tehran, Iran. 2010)
The first photograph in the series (Fig. 1) is a close-up shot of an Iranian woman in tears. Its extremely close focus and emotional appeal to the viewer highlight the urgency of the situation. The subject’s direct confrontation with the viewer’s gaze arrests our attention. By captioning the portrait as ‘Tehran’, Tavakolian gives a ‘face’ to a particular space. The emotional content in the first photograph offsets the static quality in those that follow, throwing light on the mundanity and banality of existence amidst political unrest.
Fig. 2 (Somayeh. Tehran, Iran. 2010)
Fig. 3 (Asal. Tehran, Iran. 2010)
The second (Fig. 2) and third (Fig. 3) photographs, though they reflect an apparent stillness of position, also impart a sense of movement and dislocation. The fully dressed subjects, their bags ready, remind us of the frequent destabilization of war victims. The facial expression of the character in the third photograph (Fig. 3), along with the tissue in her hand and the two mobile phones thrown on the bed, together signal the emotional turmoil arising out of distance, loss, and dislocation.
Fig. 4 (Babak. Tehran, Iran. 2010)
From the fourth photograph (Fig. 4) onward, we notice an attempt towards stabilization and recreation of the past. The subject, identified as Babak, is the last one to be found formally dressed. In this frame we notice a childhood photograph of Babak placed on a table beside his bed. Babak’s blank stare at a point away from the frame signifies an irrecoverable past. This can be considered a transition point between displacement and an attempt at resituating and reacclimatizing oneself within a different political scenario. The series up to the fourth photograph reflects displacement and urgency, while the second half deals with the frustrations and depressions of middle-aged people in their unsuccessful attempts to deal with their present situations.
Fig.5 (Pani. Tehran, Iran. 2010)
In the fifth photograph (Fig. 5), we see the subject, Pani, trying to cope with her depression through food. This sheds light on recent research dealing with the relationship between food habits and depression. The way she is draped in a blanket and leaning on a pillow reflect a sense of resignation and inaction.
Fig. 6 (Hamidreza. Tehran, Iran. 2010)
Similarly in the sixth photograph, (Fig. 6) we see the subject, Hamidreza’s, table filled with crumpled newspapers and a glass of alcohol. Apart from conveying Hamidreza’s dissatisfaction with government-censored news and his dependence on alcohol to deal with his anxiety, this photograph also alludes to the recurring ban of reformist newspapers. Hamidreza also seems to be lost in contemplation while shaving; this is not only indicative of his disinterestedness in the daily chores of life, but also alludes to the overarching theme of incompleteness, stagnancy, and disruption.
Fig. 7 (Jahan. Tehran, Iran. 2010)
Much like the sixth photograph, the seventh photograph (Fig.7) also depicts the subject frozen in the middle of an action that would have been uninterrupted in a different socio-political milieu. This metaphorically reinforces the idea of interruption and political disruption in the daily activities of people’s lives.
Fig. 8 (Hamed. Tehran, Iran. 2010)
In the last three photographs there is a sense of rage and rejection, but without a promising outcome. The disturbance, irregularity and dissonance in the eighth photograph (Fig. 8) is aptly and subtly communicated through the torn lampshade, the towel, and other objects on the floor, the casually thrown cigarette packet on the sofa and the subject, Hamed’s, angry look. The setting echoes his disturbed state of mind.
Fig.9 (Shirin. Tehran, Iran. 2010)
In the ninth photograph (Fig. 9), the subject, Shirin, is so engulfed by anxiety that she seems to reject any sort of celebration—in this photograph symbolized by a birthday cake. The cake, having nine lit candles, and being portrayed in the ninth photograph in the series creates a vague structural unity. It signifies her denial of any sort of fabrication to veil socio-economic anxieties. In refusing to celebrate the event, she instead reflects on her unchanging and stagnant situation.
Fig. 10 (Amirali. Tehran, Iran. 2010)
The final photograph (Fig. 10) in the series is extraordinary in its dissent. Unlike in the other photographs, this subject, Amirali, rejects his confined position in the room. The car hints at a possibility of movement, relocation, and departure. However, though he is seated in the car, his hands are not on the steering wheel and his gaze is blank, lacking any determination. Moreover, the car is still parked in a garage, under the surveillance of a CCTV camera. This photograph presents a climactic moment through which Tavakolian intends to show the possibility of reformation and stabilization. By resituating the subject in another space, she hints towards a break in the monotony. This series makes us aware of the psychic turbulence present for the Iranian youth. In doing so, Tavakolian provides us with a voice of dissent and a fresh perspective, one that’s very different from the often clichéd and simplistic representations of the Middle East’s political troubles offered up by the West.
Santasil Mallik is a 3rd year Honours student in the Department of English at Ramakrishna Mission Vidyamandira, Belur Math. He is passionate about art theory, photography, and films. He successfully completed a certificate course in photography and was selected for an International Exchange Programme with Counter Foto, Dhaka.
Needless to say, he is also a fool desperately searching for ‘meaning’!