Un/related Memories [soon]
Ashes and Snow [2023]
Eyes Dazzle As They Search for The Truth [2022]
Amin Yousefi was born in 1996 in Abadan, Iran and holds an MA in Photography from the University of Westminster. He lives and works as a writer, researcher, and image-based artist in London. He has participated in several group exhibitions and prizes including recently being named a winner of the 2024 Foam Talent Award. His recent project, "Eyes Dazzle as They Search for the Truth," was selected as a finalist of the Carte Blanche Awards at Paris Photo in 2022 and subsequently shown with Ag Gallery at Unseen Art Fair 2023 in Amsterdam. His work has been published in magazines such as Hapax, Source, and Aperture, with the article in which he interviewed three artists on “What It Means to Make Photographs as a Young Artist in Iran”. Yousefi has also undertaken compelling commission works, including the project "Ruderal Acts, Gardening Beyond the Wall," showcased as part of the HerMAP Art Project at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, Belgium. He was also selected as an Ag Talent for his "Life, Death, and Other Similar Things" project in 2019, exhibited in a solo show at the Ag Galerie. Yousefi has an upcoming display in April 2024 with Circulation(s), at the Centquatre-Paris in France.  A native of Abadan in the province of Khuzestan, Iran's most oil-rich region and the scene of bloody war with neighbouring Iraq, Yousefi's work examines the event of photography through the socio-political aspect of the medium. His primary concern lies in the implications of the archive, exploring violence against protests in the Middle East enacted by the state and how the act of photography can conceptually mirror the structures of these relationships.

Masculinity: The Male Body in Contemporary Photography of Iran
University of Westminster, May 2022

Photography as an artistic practice was introduced to Iran about eight years after it was invented in Europe. Historical analysis of the visual elements in 19th-century Iranian photography shows that it was directly influenced by Iranian visual arts traditions, especially the Iranian painting tradition (Pérez González, 2012). The root of Persian portrait painting lies in the style that began in the Safavid era (1501-1736), during which there was a great deal of European influence on Persian culture. European art was undergoing a style of realism, such as in the work of Rembrandt and Rubens, and this influenced Persian painting with the use of heavy layers of paint and dark, rich colors, which were to become the key elements of painting during the Qajar Dynasty (1789-1925) (Diba, Ekhtiar, 1998). Fat’h Ali Shah (r. 1797-1834) never traveled to the European continent. He, therefore, had many portraits painted of himself, which he would send abroad in his place and as gifts to foreign rulers (Image 1). These painted portraits served as the stylistic basis for portrait photography of the Qajar court. The first photographer at the Qajar court was Jules Richard, who arrived in Tehran in 1844. He took daguerreotypes of both Mohammad Shah Qajar (r. 1834–48) and his crown prince, Nasir al-Din Mirza. The fate of these early images is unknown. However, photography became a severe pastime for the crown prince, and after ascending to the throne, portrait painting gradually fell out of favor, and photography replaced it as the essential art of the court.

The young king created an official position for a court photographer in the 1860s and ordered that a  darkroom and photographic studio be set up at the Golestan Palace. It was, therefore, natural that the majority of photographs taken during those early years and well into the 1920s prior to the banishment of the veil and emancipation of women were taken of male subjects, especially of kings, princes, and male courtiers and servants (Images 2-5). The exception to these were portraits taken by the king himself of his many wives and children (Images 6-7), examples of which are kept in one of the most valuable collections of Qajar portrait photography in the world housed at the Golestan Palace in Tehran. Other photographs in this collection include those taken by Antoin Sevrugin, Tehran's most prolific and accomplished photographer. His studio was a destination for the royal family, foreign visitors, and wealthy locals. Despite several incidents that destroyed large parts of his work, today, his works can be found in many public and private collections both in Iran and outside the country, with the most notable among these being the Freer and Sackler Archives. The surviving images attest to his dramatic use of light and impeccable compositions (Image 8). Several of his works were used by Bahman Jalali (1945-2010) in his series “Image of Imagination” (2000-2008). Jalali was a photographer, teacher, and researcher of Iranian photography. He archived the Golestan Palace collection of photographs to prepare for developing the curriculum for a four-year photography major he had established in universities across Iran in 1982. Three years after the Islamic Revolution, the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) was in full force, and along with several other of his fellow photographers, Jalali began teaching the major between his visits to the frontline. As part of the curriculum, he wanted to offer a course on Iranian photography. However, there was not enough material written on the subject—Qajar photography was never researched or exhibited during the reign of the Pahlavi Dynasty. He, therefore, asked Dr Yahya Zoka (1923-), a researcher and historian with ties to the Qajar family, to write the course. Dr Zoka was already working on a book on the subject but needed images for the course. Jalali set up a dark room at Golestan Palace to collect material for the course to make contact prints from the glass plate negatives. He employed several of his students to clean, scan, and print the photographs, and ultimately, they managed to archive 700 individual plates. Later, Jalali published many of these images in a book titled “Visible Treasure” 1998 (Dabashi, David and Jalali, 2007). The influence of this collection was significant, not only on Jalali himself, who soon after created the series “Image of Imagination” (2000-2008) using the Qajar images superimposed with text and flowers (Images 9-11), but also on many of his students who began working with the images and referencing what they saw in lectures. The most notable of these were Shadi Ghadirian (1974-), Sadegh Tirafkan (1965-2013), and Peyman Hooshmandzadeh (1969-).

Shadi Ghadirian has become one of Bahman Jalali’s most commercially successful students. Her final university project was titled “Qajar Series” (1998) and restaged many of the photographs of the Qajar female courtiers, which she had seen in class (Images 12-14). Using original photography studio props from Jalali’s collection, Ghadirian placed young female subjects dressed in Qajar-style clothing within the frame and added elements of modern life, such as Coca-Cola cans, radios, and vacuum cleaners. The juxtapositions were simple and easily recognizable. The result was an image conveying cultural conflicts and the role of the contemporary Iranian female in a male-dominated society. The critical and commercial success of this series in the West was astounding. Some dismissed the series as Orientalism updated and revisited. However, the issue of Orientalism is often associated with a lack of self-representation or voice from the Orient itself (Hall, 1997; Macfie, 2000; Said, 1978; Young, 1995). In this series, Ghadirian used her voice; these women embraced the new yet preserved the old (Daneshvari, 2014). The series quickly sold out to museums and private collectors, prompting Ghadirian to issue editions in various sizes and even tones. The timing, too, was superb. Iran had a newly elected reformist president keen to open doors and let the West in for a “Dialogue of Civilisations,” works such as Ghadirian’s were both aesthetically pleasing and culturally enticing. 

Ghadirian’s then-husband Peyman Hooshmandzadeh, both a photographer and writer, had a completely different style to hers. However, they were often exhibited together in curated shows as their works expressed two opposing sides of gender roles and sexual identity. Mainly a documentary photographer, Hooshmandzadeh’s interests in the semiotic fragments that reveal the economic class, cultural and religious beliefs of the male in Iranian society are visible in his works, “Hands and Belts” (2002), “Moustache” (2004) and “Shaving Paraphernalia” (2004) series (Images 15-16). He does not attach any nationalism to his subjects, for they could be men from any country on any continent. However, they are, in fact, canonical of Iran’s concepts of masculinity, middle-economic aesthetics, and poverty (Daneshvari, 2014). His “Upside-Down” series, self-portraits of the artist in various European cities, demonstrates the cultural shock and alienation of being removed from one’s surroundings (Image 17). His most recent work, “His Excellency the Cock” drew bold comparisons between the colorful birds and a male-dominated society (Image 18-19). Perhaps of all of Jalali’s students, it is Hooshmandzadeh whose works can most be considered pieces of evidence from when he lived and worked. In his lectures, Jalali always insisted that every photograph must have a time and place. In Hooshamndzadeh’s “Hands and Belts” series, the fashions of the day in the style of belts, the accessories attached to them, and the rings and bracelets all guide us to know the exact decade the series was created. In an interview with Catherine David in 2007, Jalali explained, “Within a photograph, there exist two forces, which we call the ‘inner potential’ of a photograph. One force is the realism in the photo. The other is time, which we can determine by the objects, rituals, and people in the photograph. This is the first overwhelming force in a photo that draws the viewer. The viewer sees something that must be believed” (Dabashi, David, and Jalali, 2007, p. 45).

Sadegh Tirafkan was another of Jalali’s students whose professional timing helped him tremendously. Born into a devout Muslim family who fled north to Esfahan during the Iran-Iraq War, Tirafkan volunteered to fight. Upon his return, he entered university, working towards his degree in photography. He, too, was exposed to the powerful and enchanting collection of Qajar photographs. From the start, he was enamored by the self-portraits of Naser ed-Din Shah but also intrigued by the works of Cindy Sherman, about whom he had read an article. Soon after graduating, he moved to New York and befriended Iranian-American artist Shirin Neshat. Neshat, who had just returned from a visit to her homeland after many years in exile, had become impressed by the powerful imagery of the signs and symbols of a post-revolutionary Iran. Upon her return, she created the “Women of Allah” series (1993-1997) in which “the veiled, gun-bearing women and the black-and-white photograph format suggest newspaper clipping showing Iranian women's involvement in the Iran-Iraq War and Islamic Revolution (Images 20-21). Handwritten verses over the body often act as an analog to the spoken word and quote feminist poets and writers such as Furough Farrokhzad (1934-1967) and Tahereh Saffarzadeh (1936-2008).” Fellow artists in Iran dismissed the work as self-orientalism. However, Neshat lived most of her life outside her country of birth. What she witnessed on her trip to Iran was through the eyes of a more American than Iranian individual. The following year, Neshat created the video art piece Turbulent (1998), in which Tirafkan had a small part. He had come to recognize and understand the critical potential and importance of the strangely exotic works, which were to become even more enjoyable with the events surrounding 9/11. Mimicking the idea of questioning gender roles within a traditional Iranian and Islamic society yet with a desire to find his own identity and question the Orientalist regard for works depicting the Iranian female, Tirafkan turned to the male figure and himself as his subject and began work on the self-portrait series “Chogha Zanbil” (1995-1998), “Soldier” (1997), “Persepolis” (1998), “Iranian Man” (2000), “Body Curves” and “Body Signs” (2001) (Images 22-26). His efforts paid off, and in 2004, he had his first solo show at Lehmann Maupin Gallery in New York (Image 27). According to the show's press release, “Tirafkan’s works offer an eloquent meditation on modern Iranian man’s relationship to his past and his search for a meaningful identity in the present. Identity, history, and memory have been central concerns in the work of non-Western artists since the era of colonialism. Tirafkan, frequently using himself as a model, revisited and reinvented these themes in his series of enigmatic yet visually compelling photographs.” Tirafkan had combined the semi-nude male body referencing Iranian wrestlers and warriors from the epic poem Shahnameh by Ferdowsi with historical elements of Qajar photography where subjects were staged for dramatic theatrical effect and then superimposed with calligraphic inscriptions of text within the photographic space. He would often return to this idea of a traditional male hero representing ideas of javanmardi or chivalry and manhood. These included the heroes of the everyday middle-class Iranian male, such as a soldier of the Iran-Iraq War (Image 28), the religious figure Imam Ali (Image 29), and male athletes of the zurkhaneh such as Gholamreza Takhti (Image 30). These works were a fresh take on representing gender roles in Iranian art and a sharp contrast to the “chador art” and the submissive female representation many Western viewers and collectors were fond of, which many artists and critics within Iran believed reaffirmed the notions of Orientalism. The show was a critical and commercial success. It catapulted Tirafkan into the limelight of the art of the Middle East and, in particular, the young and exciting art scene of Iran. Sadly, he died in 2013 just as he reached profound artistic achievements.

Nevertheless, what is extant is rich and embodies various exciting perspectives that not only play a seminal role in the rise of contemporary Iranian aesthetics but also allow us to infer a significant amount of information about the sociopolitical context and the time in which he worked (Daneshvari, 2014). His influence on other photographers of his generation is visible almost ten years after his death. Today, almost ten years after his death, his works are being reexamined with a more unbiased and less prejudicial view. It is undeniable that Tirafkan wilfully presented himself as “the other” in order to gain recognition and place himself within a Western-dominated art world.

One of his closest friends and collaborators at the time was Abbas Kowsari, one of Iran’s leading photo-journalists and a Prix Picket Nominee. Kowsari, a self-taught photographer, is also the photo editor of Iran’s leading daily newspaper, Shargh. he knows all too well that female photographers and subjects have had their more than fair share of presentation in Western media. This is perhaps because so much of what has been presented within Iran's media and news outlets has usually been male-dominated: male martyrs, heroes, and religious figures.… If Western news agencies wanted a photographer or a photograph, chances were that they would choose the females, believing they were giving them a voice and helping them in a male-dominated society and field of work. It was with all this in mind and a close friendship with Tirafkan, who had a tremendous influence on Kowsari, that in 2006, he began to focus on the male as his subject in a trilogy titled “Masculinity A, B and C” (Images 31-33). This series and all of Kowsari’s works are documentaries, even though they appear staged. He believes every image must be captured in its own time and often waits long for his subjects to either forget her is there or to become relaxed enough not to feel his or his camera’s presence. Perhaps this patience or sense of timing comes from the fact that Kowsari began his photography career documenting theatrical productions in Tehran. The first part of the “Masculinity” series focused on male bodybuilders. “When I first went to photograph the bodybuilders, I thought they were a group of shallow people obsessed with their physical appearance,” he explains. “Despite having a young, strong and beautiful physique, these men have insecurities and fears just as the women of our society do.” In the traditional sense, manhood, and masculinity in Iran are not entirely physical traits and have to do with being chivalrous, an idea Tirafkan had also tried to convey in his work.

Masculinity B focused on greco-roman wrestlers who had to fight each other to win but captured the moments leading to or just after the fight; the wrestlers are either fully charged or completely drained of all strength. The C part of the series focused on the Iranian male in public bathhouses. The Iranian bathhouses are a private domain. Male members of the society gather her several times a week to perform their hygienic rituals. Soft bodies of all forms and ages. “Bathhouses are not just a place to go to be washed and observe hygiene, they are also places where Iranian men would traditionally go to to meet their peers and would often engage in conversation.” The classical physical roles of heroism or masculinity presented in literature or religious ideals are absent. Today, men are the heroes of everyday life. They are complex working individuals; they support their families emotionally and economically and are respected members of society. Sadly, these safe respite spaces are in decline and disappearing from the urban fabric of Iranian cities. To Kowsari, the true meaning of masculinity is not physical but a more profound sense of moral responsibility and duty to one’s family, society, and country. “I have realized that the body’s beauty and strength diminishes, but the individual’s masculinity does not. Strong bodies lose their strength. Something else defines manhood.”

This last part of the Masculinity trilogy is also interesting in that viewers see today what the Orientalists tried to capture in their paintings of women in bathhouses in the 19th century. However, that intrusive and superior gaze is absent. The subjects of Kowsari’s bathhouses are the way they are: relaxed and unguarded, participating in grooming, speaking to their peers, and giving advice to their youth, perhaps on the eve of their wedding day. “These are fathers and husbands who put food on the table and look after their families despite all the obstacles and challenges they face daily in our society.”
Photography in Iran, where truths can be problematic and speaking them can be violent acts of rebellion punishable by law, is bravely practiced by artists and photographers using signs and symbols to present the realities of their society. These images or documents bear witness to our times; these artists are our historians. “The photographer, Bahram Chehrenegar from Shiraz, had a grandfather who learned photography in Bombay and brought it back to Iran. Returning from Bombay, he stopped at Bushehr on his way to Kazerun, where he opened a photography studio. One week after he opened his studio, Imam Jomeh declared his work illegitimate and closed down his studio. So he invited him to his studio in the courtyard because there was no light or electricity back then, so the sun was used for lighting. He asked him to bend down over the courtyard pool and tell him what he saw. The Imam Jomeh said he saw his reflection in the water. The photographer asked him whether this was illegitimate, and he responded that it was not. The photographer said that what he did with photography was to preserve Imam Jomeh’s reflection in the water so that when he was gone, his image would stay. He asked whether what he did was still illegitimate. The imam Jomeh responded that it was not and allowed him to open his studio again.” (Dabashi, David, and Jalali, 2007, p14).

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