When it was invented in the 19th century, the camera was seen as a miraculous device that could capture exactly, a moment in reality. A century and a half after its first use, thanks to technological advancements, the camera is being used to construct multiple realities, freezing moments from the past, visualising the future, superimposing and mixing conflicting imagery.
“What is pure photography now?” asks Sohail Akbar, a practising photographer and an associate professor of Still Photography at the Jamia Millia Islamia. The rhetorical question is occasioned by the mounting of a photography exhibition, Staging the Past , showcasing the works of two young Iranian photographers, Azadeh Akhlaghi and Babek Kazemi, by Art Heritage at Shridharani Gallery, Triveni Kala Sangam, New Delhi.
Azadeh Akhlaghi, a filmmaker, turned to conceptual photography around 2009. She was 31 years old then and was stirred by the events of the Arab Spring. “The world was changing ...” she stated. She became more “conscious of death... Throughout the history of Iran people have given up their lives for a better tomorrow.”
In a suite of 17 panoramic photographs called By an Eyewitness, made in 2012, Akhlaghi shot a series of political assassinations that punctuated Iran’s 20th century political history. Akhlaghi’s work, a departure from a photographer’s recording of a moment instantly, elaborately reconstructs a moment in history to acquaint her viewers of a time past by bringing it back to life in an image.
The idea sparked off in Akhlaghi’s mind by the death of a philosophy student, Neha Agha-Soltan who had been shot by the security forces in 2009 during a protest against Iranian elections. An innocent bystander, Neha’s death was caught in the mobile cameras of many who were witness to the shootout. Akhlaghi thought of the many tragic deaths of Iranians which have gone unrecorded because the camera was not omnipresent.
The political history of Iran during the 20th century was roiled by depositions, revolutions and coups. In 1906, Iran became a constitutional monarchy. The same year, the British discovered oil reserves in Iran which catapulted the country into a geopolitical hotspot. The big powers of the west became engaged in “the great game” where each nation wanted to control Iran and stake its claim on its share of the oil wealth. Through it all, there was a rising current of resistance which was cold-bloodedly put down by the ruling government’s security forces.
Akhlaghi selected several such assassinations of writers, filmmakers, activists, intellectuals, a champion wrestler and students. She conducted extensive research, reading published material such as books, journals, newspapers and other archives, looking at locations, interviewing surviving eyewitnesses and relatives of the victims.
She then put together a production team, hired actors, blocked the scenes, paid meticulous attention to details so that the right atmosphere is evoked. There is nothing instant about the making of the image. The resulting shots are astounding. Although the gritty immediacy of instant reality is lacking in these, the emotional charge of a reinvented reality is unmistakable.
Being a filmmaker, Akhlaghi brings to the shots a cinematic range in terms of a great number of people included in her frame, the large spread of space, the gestural drama, the careful use of colours to heighten the mood of the scene. Consider the image of the shootout at the Faculty of Engineering in Tehran University on 7th December, 1953 when Zar Shariat Razavi, Mostafa Bozorgnia and Ahmad Ghandehi were killed. Another cinematic device that Akhlaghi often uses is to include herself in the scene to underscore her role as eyewitness.
One of the deaths relate not to an assassination but to that of the forgotten nationalist hero, erstwhile Prime Minister Mossadegh who was exiled from Tehran in 1953 and thereafter died in Ahmad-abad in Iran in 1967. It was said that the Americans had a hand in ousting him once again because of the control of oil reserves. Mossadegh had a lonely death and a quiet burial.
Most of these images evoke the pain, horror, savagery of these brutal killings. Seen through the filter of a distance in time, the photographs accentuate the cruelty of the act.
Babek Kazemi is not so overtly political in his imagery. However, his series of photographs Bodies focusing on homoeroticism signals its own brand of politics. Kazemi shows naked male bodies in intimate poses superimposed with maps, boundary lines and the like. The skin, the images seem to say, has its own memories of victimhood, of exile.
These images provoke one to think of the changing practice of photography. Sohail Akbar feels that greater interventions are being made on the image. There is greater fusion with cinema, theatre and even art. And indeed it is so. In India, artist N Pushpamala experimented with art, performance and photography several years ago. Of late, Kashmiri artist Mir Suhel’s images of superstars like Salman Khan and iconic images in art like Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring scarred by pellet wounds went viral in the social media. So the camera is also becoming an instrument of political comment. So it is not just technology, but response to our times that is motivating photographers to innovate with practice.