“Photography is not only his language,” said Magnum photographer Abbas about the work of Iranian Omid Salehi, “it is also his passion.... When you have the passion, the rest is easy.” Omid Salehi: A Photographer’s Journey through Iran, edited by art curator Rose Issa, is a visual feast through the country and its Shi’a Islam faith. However these photographs show a more nuanced, secret side of a country and religion much in the news. Baqer Moin, former head of BBC Persian Service and founder of Jadid Online, explains in his essay included in the book, “The narratives of photo-storytellers like Omid go deep into the social and psychological interactions of a dynamic society on the move, something that catchy political photos and headlines may not always convey.”
Historically, photography fared better than other art forms in Iran due to the obsession of Qajar monarch Naser al-Din Shah (1831–96), who fell in love with the medium and photographed the 84 wives in his harem. The Iranian Revolution and the Iran–Iraq war spurred a generation of documentary black and white photographers in the style of Robert Capa, which included Abbas. However it was the regime’s increasing disdain (and persecution) of social realism by documentary filmmakers and photographers that made image-makers in Salehi’s age group dedicate themselves to capturing their country’s social transformation through an artistic prism, one that became enormously popular after the 2009 disputed presidential elections – art in contemporary Iran became the last bastion of freedom of expression. New technology and what journalist Coco Ferguson identifies in the book as “the modernity of tradition” are the defining factors in Salehi’s work.
Salehi’s ‘Urban Murals’ series charts social history, from anodyne images of rolling fields and fathers carrying children on their backs – those are the modern ones – to the stereotypical images of Ayatollah Khomeini and war martyrs. Also included is a mural of US stars and stripes in the shape of gun at the American Embassy in Iran, by a collective of artists, headed by Hannibal Alkhas, that painted socially-engaged images on walls during the revolution. However, against this often-violent backdrop, the life of an indifferent city continues unabated. Little boys camp out in a tent next to a folkloric, almost artistically-naive public wall painting showing basijis (members of volunteer paramilitary militias) going to war.
In the series ‘Mashhad Studio Pilgrims’, Salehi makes intimate studio portraits of visitors to the 10th century city – photographs are forbidden in front of ancient holy sites. The photographer calls his subjects into the ornately-embellished studio space: a woman brings bread or a family automatically segregates itself (the man on one side alone, his two women companions keeping their own company in the other edge of the frame) – hence moving the photograph into the realm of installation. Tehran itself provides the biggest conundrum; a painting of the city on a building predicts a tattered, unloved future. However, it is Salehi’s impressive panorama views which illustrate that the Islamic capital of Tehran is essentially a secular, soulless city built by American architects, complete with a grid system and ghastly skyscrapers.
While Abbas, in his interview on Jadid Online, has said abou the book that he misses Salehi’s distinctive documentary work in the book (Maziar Bahari and I published his black and white series on the mystical cleric Haj Amjad in Transit Tehran), as well as the photographer’s shocking before and after images of plastic surgery, he praised Salehi’s development in his use of colour. The green neon light that permeates the Ashura exhibition showing the martyrs Husayn and Ali is effective, both visually and metaphorically, given that green is the hue of Islam. Salehi’s timely photo album of Iran is filled with patterns of darkness and light, historical intrigue and surprising beauty.
Omid Salehi: A Photographer's Journey through Iran is published by Beyond Art Production.