Government censorship of social media and communications has proven fertile ground for Iranian conceptual photographers such as Amirali Ghasemi and Mehran Mohajer in their attempts to find creative strategies to overcome the nation’s punitive restrictions on freedom of speech. For London based photographer, Rosaline Shahnavaz, her close-ties with her cousin Sahar in Tehran afforded an opportunity to overcome social media blackouts and paint a more intimate document of life for individual Iranian women. Her poignantly personal series Far Near Distance is currently on display as part of a new exhibition We Are Somewhere at London’s Silverprint Gallery, showcasing the work of recent graduates from the London College of Communications.
Shahnavaz’s images combine disarmingly personal portraits of Sahar, pictured alone and confined to her home by her strict father, alongside landscape images of the Alborz mountains. For Shahnavaz, whose parents emigrated from Iran to London following the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Sahar offered an opportunity to create a self-portrait of what might have been: “She is the personal connection to Iran that I felt I needed and the closest insight I could get to how my life may have been if I had been born in Iran and my parents had not emigrated. I see a lot in her that reminds me of myself, even if our lives are so different. - However, I don’t see Sahar as the archetypal Iranian woman. My situation would not necessarily be like hers if my parents had not have left, but it could have been. ”
Reading the hand-written letters between Rosaline and Sahar which are presented alongside the modestly sized prints, a mythic drama is revealed between photographer and subject: “Ironically, at a time where social media has proliferated, we chose to write letters again as it was the most reliable means of remaining in contact. It’s definitely not the solution, but it’s our way of making sure we get through to one another.” Reunited for the photographic act, Shanavaz's portrayal of Sahar’s confinement appears all the more searing; the foreboding landscapes of the Alborz mountains which surround the portraits of Sahar recalling the Dioskouri’s heavenly plea to be reunited on Mount Olympus: "Sahar told me that to go beyond the Alborz mountains would be her chance at the freedom she ardently seeks. The mountains are in constant view of her bedroom window, yet she has never been beyond them or even seen them close-up. They form physical barriers that reflect her prison-like circumstances."
For Shahnavaz, knowing that her images would be displayed in the UK meant she could circumvent strict laws on the representation of women in Iranian culture. “The veil has become such a culturally charged item that one immediately draws upon stereotypes or conclusions related to religion or passivity of women. I wanted to introduce my audience to a new tradition in Iranian photography, which hasn’t received much exposure. - Sahar is represented as an individual that is influenced by the politics of her region, as opposed to a mere concept.” Free to depict Sahar’s face unveiled in the intense mid-day light shining through the windows of her room, Shahnavaz’s images work to actively deconstruct state sanctified portrayals of Iranian women, veiled at all times of day and night, in private and in public: "She taught me that like many other girls in Iran, she has liberal outlooks, is in a pre-marital relationship, wears Western clothes and listens to American pop music. She isn’t passive, but Iran’s conditions mean that these things all remain in the privacy of the home."
Part of Shahnavaz’s success in realigning the relationship between the personal and the political is due to her commitment to the snapshot aesthetic, allowing her to lift the veil of conceptualism and offer a more objective portrait of Iranian life. Disarmed of all government-enforced stereotypes of an Iran which has never held true for Sahar, Shahnavaz provides and arrestingly honest document which commands the viewer to look closer at how photography can be used to redeem the individual from the governments who would use photography’s power to construct false narratives of everyday life.
Far Near Distance appears as part of We Are Somewhere at the Silverprint Gallery until August 8th.
View the full series at rosalineshahnavaz.com, all images © Rosaline Shahnavaz
— Alan Knox