My Most Difficult Image.
Mitra Tabrizian is an Iranian-British award-winning artist and filmmaker. Her photographic work has been exhibited and published widely and is represented in major international museums and public collections. She had a solo show at Tate Britain in 2008 and has exhibited in the Iranian pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2015. Her debut feature film Gholam was released in 2018 to critical acclaim and is currently available on Mark Kermode’s curated strand on BFI player, Amazon Prime and iTunes. Her most recent work The Insider (a short film) was made in collaboration with Booker Prize winner, Ben Okri. Her latest book off screen was published by Kerber Verlag ( 2019).
Jane: When and where did you begin to take photographs? What made you decide to do so?
Mitra: I began in the early 1980s in the UK, although I experimented a bit with photography (when I was a teenager) back in Iran. What prompted the idea was an awareness of social divisions and inequalities.
Jane: You have chosen to speak about Tehran 2006. How did you decide to take this image? Where did the idea come from?
Mitra: In 2006, economic sanctions and America’s threat of military action (under the Bush administration) put a lot of pressure on Iran and led to its isolation, much like today. I wanted to allude to the situation while taking a more oblique approach to the politics of everyday life, rather than focusing on the ‘grand narrative’. I thought it would be interesting to produce just one large image (its size is 302x101cm) to convey the idea.
I will explain the concept behind the image. All the participants ‘play’ themselves. The crowd is a mixture of people who are struggling and have been let down by the promises of revolution; a taxi driver, factory worker, builder, cleaner, dress-maker, servant, caretaker etc. This is to indicate that it will be these people, who are already living on the edge, who will be hit most if the economic sanctions continue, or in the advent of military action. At another level (and in view of the ‘dispute’ which was current then and is now, which sees Iran as ‘a threat or a victim’) to focus on ordinary life and everyday reality could suggest two things. First, Iranians are not necessarily a threat, as some international communities certainly fear, and secondly Iranians cannot easily be intimidated by the external threat (as the Americans, in particular, attempt to do) and life goes on, and people survive.
The work is more relevant now considering Trump’s sanctions which have crippled Iran’s economy and have had devastating effect on the health sector, at such a critical time.
Jane: How did you develop, set up and realise Tehran 2006? For instance, my understanding is that these are ordinary people who agreed to appear in the photograph?
Mitra: It took a long time to get a permit (which you need to shoot in the street) and find an appropriate location, despite all the research in advance. Tehran is a modern city like any other, overpopulated and congested. But I chose this particular spot, a newly built post-revolution landscape, still in development, which despite the cityscape in the background and new buildings in the foreground, looks as if it’s in the middle of nowhere. It looks like ‘progress’ has stopped, it’s going nowhere, like the revolution that never got anywhere! So it could be read allegorically. And this is a real location and not a digital fabrication as some critics thought.
For the shooting, I had a crew of about six people, including a couple of talented Iranian photographers, who were keen to get involved, to assist with lighting – and others helped with organisational stuff such as finding volunteers in low paid jobs (as mentioned above) and catering. In short, I had to treat it almost like a film shoot.
And considering the scale and number of people involved, we had to shoot it in three days at the same time (to maintain visual consistency e.g. how the shadows fell etc). and in three sections. It was shot on a Bronica (6×7) and put together digitally.
Jane: Would you take the same approach now or would you do it differently?
Mitra: I would take the same approach, perhaps change a couple of details.
Jane: The image is a constructed tableau representing a reality. How do you see the distinction between the two, fiction and fact, or are you most interested in ‘blurring’ that distinction in order to explore topics around politics and corporate power in different ways? How complex do you think that ‘blurring’ makes the image for the viewer?
Mitra: This is an interesting question but difficult to answer! In my view ‘blurring the distinction’ doesn’t necessarily make the work more interesting or complex, as it depends on the context. The intention here was to deviate from the usual representations of Iran: the social documentary/journalistic approach; or the constructed images, often on a ‘big’ subject, favoured by some photographers working in Iran; or ‘abstract’ photography with a poetic slant; or the tendency to ‘exoticize’ (in photography, or video). Rather, the work echoes Iranian new wave cinema, often using non-actors and focusing on an apparently ‘small’ subject, treated allegorically to allude to bigger social issues.
Jane: What are the main qualities you need to take photographs like this? (e.g technical expertise, ability to respond quickly, patience, energy, remaining dispassionate, negotiating skills etc)
Mitra: You need them all. And persistence – when you are caught in a Kafkaesque situation where getting a simple permit becomes a major drama! [The decision] passed on from one party to the other with conflicting views whether it should be granted or not – and it goes on for ever! I could have made a documentary about making this photograph.
Jane: Did Tehran 2006 change anything? Have you kept in touch with the participants?
Mitra: The work created a lot of discussion and raised awareness about the situation in Iran and how people are struggling. The participants were very happy that the project has drawn attention to the issue. But sadly I lost touch with them after a couple of years, due to the fact that communication from here (the UK) was difficult as the majority don’t have access to a computer and some don’t have a phone.
Jane: What significance did it have for the rest of your work? Did it set you off in a new direction? How did you move on from it?
Mitra: The work has been exhibited, published (and written about) widely and internationally, in museums, public institutions and galleries and went into four museum collections: Victoria and Albert Museum, London, The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Musée d’Art Moderne, Luxembourg and Moderna Museet, Stockholm. And it is still in demand, considering the current crisis, and the critical situation between America and Iran. I still get invitations to exhibit and give talks, including the recent artist’s talk at the British Museum in November 2019.
In terms of a ‘new direction’, once I finish a work I tend to search for some different approaches and ideas rather than continuing in the same way
Jane: Has the fact you are a woman had a positive or a negative impact on your photography?
Mitra: Currently women are in an advantageous position. But I’d like to think that my work is judged and valued on its own merit, regardless!
Jane: What advice do you have for young, female photographers starting out?
Mitra: Believe in your vision
Mitra Tabrizian’s latest book off screen was published by kerber verlag in 2019. In it she creates an unsettling imagery drawn from ordinary daily life, evoking almost unreal scenes which push reality and its inhabitants into a deep emotional interior. In this way, she explores the complex social roles of the individual, and challenges our established conceptions of the world.