The luminous hardback contains the works of 36 photographers, some very well known, such as Amirali Ghasemi, Abbas Kowsari and Parastou Forouhar, whilst others are emerging. Around half of its contributors currently live in Iran, and others are in the United States, Europe and Dubai. A significant number travel back and forth. Iranian Photography Now includes a diverse range of approaches to photography, including (but not limited to) photojournalism, montage, industrial photography and advertising.
What links these different approaches together, says Issa, is their ability to reflect life in Iran. In his foreward, Homi Bhabha, Professor of English and American Literature and Language and Director of the Humanities Centre, Harvard University, attests to the common overriding sense of urgency found in the works. He says: “Photographic practice in the West – or at least in the European-American axis that has dominated the history of the medium until relatively recently – sometimes lacks this urgent quality…”
Issa also felt the need to fill a void in the market. She said: “There was no documentation whatsoever, despite the hype and with everybody opening galleries on Iranian photography. I thought it was my duty to do this, so that from now on other people can produce books.”
Despite a lack of documentation, photography has been a part of artistic practices in Iran for the last 150 years. The Shah himself was a keen photographer and it was especially popular among the Armenian population before becoming more mainstream. Contemporary photography, however, developed during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88. Issa explained: “Villages were destroyed and people were dying. Others wanted to document that and many photographers went to war zones.”
Iranian Photography Now has been distributed on a small scale in Iran, and Issa would be happy for it to be translated into Farsi by an Iranian publisher. But in Iran generally, the heavy censorship laws make it difficult to send and receive books, and is the main reason why documentation in Iran is rare. And it necessarily restricts the access of Iranian artists to the international market. But although Issa is very happy that works are still being lent to British institutions, she said she is not surprised that Iran closes its doors when western policies try to dictate what Iran should do.
At any rate, Issa believes that art doesn’t depend on institutions or governments. She said: “Whether the British or Iranians want it or not, there are always artists who want to show their work. It depends on the goodwill and the desire of others wanting to give visibility to artists, and for artists themselves to produce good work.”
Parastou Forouhar is undoubtedly one such artist. An image from her series Swanrider (2004) depicts a woman floating on a lake on an enormous plastic swan, her black chador draped over her hands which are outstretched around its neck. It is hauntingly beautiful. Forouhar’s parents were assassinated in their Tehran apartment in 1998, an event which, she says caused: “political correctness and democratic coexistence to lose their meaning in my daily life.”
But when I ask whether the photography in the book reflects the darkness of a country in turmoil, Issa says no.
On the Swanrider series, Issa says: “There is nothing pessimistic in Forouhar’s artwork. It’s an expression of her grief, joy, pleasure – combined. She is somebody who loves her country, despite the fact that the government doesn’t let her go back and commemorate her parents’ death.”
As the book’s editor, Issa sought to chose works that reflect life. And, she says: “Life is full of love and death and dramas. Life is rich in events. I hope this book is rich in events. I could have gone much more abstract and selected conceptual work. But I was always interested in showing how life is reflected in work, and vice versa.”
Issa has been working with Iranian artists for the last 15 years (or a tenth of the time that photography has been practiced in Iran), and she is well aware of the many talents that remain “unexploited and unexplored.” By publishing Iranian Photography Now, Issa is playing her part in improving the visibility of Iranian photographers. And her message to curators or journalists is to continue this process. “Go and discover them,” she says.