My work is visual. It’s immediate. My photographs show the process that is happening in Iran. —Abbas

Born in Iran in 1944, Abbas moved to Algeria with his family when he was eight years old. As a young school¬boy at the École de Garcons d’El-Biar, Abbas wrote a short story entitled “A Grand Voyage” about his family’s emigration, illustrating the tale with a pencil drawing of an Air France jet flying over jagged, snow-capped mountains. “A Grand Voyage” proved to be a prescient tale, foretelling his life as a traveler — an identity he prefers to that of an exile.

Abbas first became a photographer and a journalist during the protracted war for Algerian independence, which began as his family settled into their new life. These two identities — photographer and traveler — would merge to fashion the unique relationship that Abbas has with Iran. Throughout his life, he would return to Iran time and again. His photographs combine the nuanced intimacy of an insider with the fresh fascination of an outsider; they stand as a singular record of contemporary Iranian history.

Abbas’s photographs of the 1970s illuminated the interstices of Iranian society, revealing the social implications of the massive infusion of petrodollars into the economy. Peroxide blonde ladies greet each other in Jaleh’s hair salon. Artists and writers meet over araq in cafés. Students study in city parks and on the floors of mosques. Workers assemble car parts in a factory. Mullahs negotiate Tehran traffic on motorbikes. One photograph shows a majestic villa with a walled garden standing oddly alone in the dusty foothills of northern Tehran, another a crammed shantytown built of olive oil canisters and used tires in the south of the capital.

In December 1977, Abbas photographed the Shah of Iran at a military parade. Though he was celebrating the anniversary of a triumphal moment in his reign — the defeat of the separatist movement in Azerbaijan — the Shah looked gaunt and somehow small in his uniform and riding boots. For many Iranians, that image — a fragile Shah amidst the trappings of military power — marked a moment of reckoning. In the months to come, the image would be cropped and appropriated by revolutionaries for the placards they carried in demonstrations and the posters they pasted to the side of buildings.

As the revolution began, Abbas took his camera to Tehran’s streets. “There was something almost every day. There were some quiet moments. After a major riot, it was like the whole city had a hangover. Things got quiet for a few days, and then it would start again.” [1] As the protests grew into a mass movement, Abbas became part of it. “It was my country, my people, my revolution, but at the same time it didn’t mean that I could lose my critical sense. My duty was, of course, to the revolution, but my foremost duty was to my trade, my craft. I was a journalist.” Abbas’s photographs were published on the cover of magazines like Time, Stern and al-Wasat, where they helped to disseminate a particular perspective on the revolution.

In the first four months of 1979, Abbas photographed three Iranian prime ministers. In January, he photographed Shahpour Bakhtiar as he presented his cabinet to the Shah.  Within a month, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini made a triumphal return to Iran, and Bakhtiar slipped into a life of exile in Paris, where he would eventually be assassinated. In February, Abbas photographed the new prime minister, a jovial Mehdi Bazargan, standing beside his cabinet members Dariush Forouhar and Abbas Amir Entezam. Amir Entezam would later serve a 20-year prison term; Forouhar and his wife were killed in their Tehran home in 1998. In April, Abbas visited the Tehran morgue to photograph the corpse of Amir Abbas Hoveyda, the long-time prime minister under the Shah, who had been summarily executed.

In the fall of 1979, Abbas traveled to Qum to photograph the Ayatollah Khomeini. His close-up of Khomeini’s face partly hidden in the shadows became yet another iconic image hinting at the transformation within the revolution. By 1981, Abbas had joined the prestigious Magnum Agency after publishing a book, La Revolution Confisquée. The book rendered him a camera non grata in Iran, and he would not return to his home country for some 17 years.

The return home was not as Abbas had imagined. He had always thought he would drop to his knees and kiss the ground — his ground. But when he stepped off the plane in April 1997, the oil-covered tarmac seemed an uninviting spot for the nostalgic gesture. As he drove into the city, he was astonished to see that Tehran had grown so large it now embraced Mehrabad Airport, which had once stood a good distance away. The revolution had given birth to a new being, homo iranicus, he thought. The women were wrapped in veils and the men wore unshaven faces and white starched shirts without ties. [2]

Abbas’s photographic stance evolved in order to accommodate this different Iran. “In its early stages, the revolution was very visual. It was happening in the streets, so all I had to do was go to the streets and take photographs. But now, the revolution is not happening in the streets; it is happening in people’s minds. There are some reflections of it in the streets, like the way people dress. But how do you as a photographer convey what is happening in people’s minds? This is something very deep.”

The new photographs Abbas takes of Iran are tonally set apart from the images he took in the 1970s. He seems less interested in picturing big events than he is in capturing the smaller quotidian moments. He wants to convey both the changes and the continuities that he sees in Iran. “To photograph this change, this transition, I concentrated on three elements in Iranian society — women, artists and the youth — because they are the vanguard of this desire for change. But I also try to show the other side of Iran — the religious and political fundamentalism that exists.” One photograph shows a couple in love, sitting at a picnic table in a park. The casualness of their public interaction would not have been possible in the 1980s, when the Islamic Republic imposed strict gender segregation in public spaces — a history that is suggested by the trunk of a tree that cuts the plane of the photograph, separating the man and the woman. Another photograph shows a young couple getting married. Ironically, the intimacy of the wedding ‘aqd, traditionally held in the privacy of the bride’s home, has taken on a new cadence as more couples marry in semi-public ceremonies held in wedding halls with staged, prefabricated sofrehs. The interaction between the Islamic state and its citizenry is reflected in the expressions of the couple as they look at the mullah who appears in the photograph as a blur hovering above the nuptials; marriage remains a point at which the state penetrates the private space.

“As a photographer I can only see trends,” Abbas observes. “The reformists did change a few things, but not as much as people wanted. The problem with Iranians is that they can confuse wishful thinking with facts. But there have been some changes; that’s why I keep going back and taking photographs.” Abbas still takes some photographs of politicians — in particular a series of photographs of current President Mohammad Khatami. “When Khatami had his first campaign [in 1997], there was so much hope.” After Khatami’s supporters won the majority in the Majles and change remained slow, however, Abbas began to perceive a difference in popular expectations. “There was a quick shift. I could see it. We’re not going to win through collective action, so people began to focus on their own personal individualistic goals. Iranian society became withdrawn within itself. The sentiment is still there, but no one is prepared to take action to bring about political change. This is something I try to show in my photographs. I am showing the passivity at the same time that I show the artistic ferment.”

Indeed, Abbas’s more recent photographs focus on Iran’s richly textured cultural life — exemplified by such figures as filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, photographer Shadi Ghadirian, rock guitarist Homayoun Majzadeh, fashion designer Mansour Ansari, actress Leyla Hatami and documentary filmmaker Maziar Bahari. “The changes aren’t as much in politics, but in people’s minds, lifestyles, their homes, their relations. When you talk to Iranians, they have a double life: the biruni and andaruni, the public and private life, the public and private thoughts.” Outside the home, men sometimes appear barely clothed as they compete in body building pageants; inside the home, women get together to play classical Persian music. It is hard to imagine such photographs being taken in Iran in the 1980s. That shift is the process that his photographs capture. “I take the artistic life as a barometer of society. The artistic life in Iran is very active.”

Asked to comment further on the politics of transition in Iran, Abbas tugs at his beard and chuckles. “Let me tell you one thing about Iran. You should never try to read into the crystal ball. It’s a very dangerous game.”


[1] The quotes from Abbas are from interviews with the author that took place in Paris on March 6, 2001 and in New York on June 28, 2004.
[2] Abbas, IranDiary, 1971-2002 (Paris, Éditions Autrement, 2002), p. 165.

How to cite this article:

Shiva Balaghi "Abbas’s Photographs of Iran," Middle East Report 233 (Winter 2004).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This