Portraits of Iran
Khashayar Sharifaee talks to Conchita Fernandes about the importance of giving his viewers a wholesome view of Iran and its daily occurrences.
He began his career as a press photographer working for local and national news agencies in Tabriz. But in 2012, he left it to focus on documenting social issues. Khashayar has had his pictures published in The Guardian and TIME. Some of his favourite authors include Bijan Najdi (The Leopards Who Have Run With Me), J D Salinger and Edgar Allan Poe. In Praise of Love by Jean-Luc Godard, The Hunt by Thomas Vinterberg, and the Fish Tank by Andrea Arnold are a few of his all-time favourite movies.
Most of my understanding of Iran has come from words put down by Azar Nafisi, Marjane Satrapi, Mahbod Seraji and Kader Abdolah. Their vivid description of the country’s lush landscapes, of its dreamy hills and abundant mountains are filled with a kind of whimsical romance. Interspersed in between these grand vistas exist inhabitants with strong familial bonds and lasting friendships, a kind of love that is not bound by time or space. And so, I find myself constantly looking for visuals to validate these words. Luckily, I found them in Khashayar’s Instagram feed. You can’t help but be involved with his subject’s dilemmas and share their grief and happiness, or even enjoy a warm cup of tea with them.
Detached But Observant
Having grown up in a modest household, Khashayar has always felt a strong affinity towards the working class in Iran. It helped him gain a better understanding of their social and economic conditions, of which he is a part too. “It was instinctive. As soon as I began photography, I knew I wanted to tell their stories, which often go unnoticed by the majority of people,” he said. Moreover, he wants to show the world the daily life of Iranians and familiarise them with his culture.
He chooses to do this in a slightly personal and non-confrontational way. Even when it comes to his choice of subjects, Khashayar looks beyond photographs of burqa-clad women against graphical backdrops, or of old men in fedoras crossing busy streets or images of imposing structures, elements which make up much of the country’s urban environment. At various points in his Instagram feed, he accompanies you, the viewer, into private spaces—inside people’s homes, of a quiet moment shared amongst two friends or an intimate exchange between a couple in a car. Although he is close, there is an obvious detachment, probably his way of not prying into his subject’s lives. On the other hand, I also like how he portrays relationships, especially the equations between his family members, most visible in the photographs he shot of his grandparents. In the portraits, he has reflected their strong and fragile relationship, the latter being a consequence of his grandfather’s death.
A Vision of Another Iran
Khashayar’s photographs also contradict the stereotypes that people have formulated about Iran, and of the restrictions imposed on its women. “A large portion of the news and visuals coming out of the country deal with executions, acid attacks and of young people doing drugs and alcohol. I am not denying that this does not happen, but it constitutes only one tiny facet of Iran and therefore cannot be an accurate portrayal of the entire country.”
While women are banned from attending sporting events at stadiums and the moral police continue to be in the pursuit of those who don’t conform to their rules, his photographs tell a different story. That despite the baseless decrees, young men and women continue to make trips to the beach or the river side, or get-together to read poetry verses from Hafez in a café, or gather at a friend’s residence to chat and unwind.
Keeping Traditions Alive
A large chunk of Khashayar’s cellphone photographs are shot in Tabriz, the city he resides in. But apart from his urban explorations here, he has also travelled to the rural interiors of Iran, and has documented its rapidly changing landscape. Visuals of picturesque trails and hamlets in the heart of the country are symbolic of an Iran cemented somewhere in between the old and the new.
He feels that it’s important for Iranians to be aware of the existence of such places. “I have a lot of respect for rural areas. These places are like custodians of the country’s age-old traditions, which is slowly ceasing to exist in the fast-paced and evolving culture present in cities and towns.”
As Long As You Have Intent
“I am still fascinated by how a photograph can convey its maker’s most intimate thoughts to complete strangers. How it does it, I suppose, will always be a mystery to me, or something that may reveal itself with time. This shouldn’t matter though, because as long as you have purpose, your pictures will always be extensions to your thoughts. But don’t worry if you haven’t found it. Be patient, and continue shooting as much as you can. You are bound to find it at some point, like I did when I saw a teenager sitting quietly on a chair, completely lost in his thoughts. That moment set off something inside me, and since then I haven’t been able to stop.”