A Conversation With Artist and Photographer Amak Mahmoodian
By Jim Campbell
Jul 13, 2022
If I am afraid of the life
I have created in photographs
it is because of my dreams
With no family but memory
With no land but traces
My land travels within me
I live in the past
I have created a life
A life of memories
Zanjir Amak Mahmoodian 2019
Amak Mahmoodian uses photography, poetry and archival material to tell her own stories of love, grief and exile, and to give a voice to people who have been silenced. The narratives are an embodiment of her deeply personal life experience, and an expression of wider social issues to do with identity, religion and gender. Often, they are a conversation between what she describes as an inner and outer world. Zanjir, her most recent book and exhibition at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol, where she now lives and works, is a reflection of her position as an artist in exile and what is happening in the wider world. This story, and the shadow it creates in many of our lives, is a common twenty-first century phenomenon. What Mahmoodian does in her work is ask the reader to think about individual experience and its broader personal and political implications.
See a selection of Amak's work from her new project Zanjir and read our interview with her below.
How did you decide that photography was going to be your creative medium?
I was born one year after the revolution in Iran, in the midst of a war with Iraq which continued for eight years and affected many families, including mine, profoundly. A lot of them had to leave Iran and therefore family albums of photographs became the only evidence of the presence of the people I loved and who were part of my life. The only way I could connect with them was through the photographs and I literally had conversations with their images. Photography has formed a complete cultural foundation for me ever since, and I’ve built on that through studying photography in Tehran and then in the UK.
Were there any particular photographers that inspired you earlier on in your career?
When I was studying in Tehran I was lucky enough to be one of Bahman Jalali’s students and I also looked a lot at the work of Shirin Neshat. I was very much inspired by the gentle poetic lyricism of Persian cinema too, and directors like Dariush Mehrjui and Abbas Kiarostami were a big influence. Later I was captivated by Josef Koudelka’s black and white photographs, by the way that Sophie Calle brought together different image media and text, and how artists such as Joel-Peter Witkin constructed pictures in books like The Bone House.
For you, what makes a successful image?
The answer to that doesn’t really stay the same over time, because I am constantly changing. I guess a successful image frames what matters at a specific time and place, what is important. But it also invites the audience to see beyond the frame, and offers layers of meaning. It poses the question ‘why look at this subject’ and asks us to think about it.
You said at World Press Photo some years ago that the hallmark of a good photograph is telling the truth – do you still feel that way?
Yes, but the relationship between photography and social, political and personal truth is complex. In The Will to Power Nietzsche said that there are so many truths and therefore there is no truth, especially when we think about constant conflicts and contradictions. Personal truth in relation to political truth is what I meant. Photography can be read as traces and evidence of a specific experience, a truth that is my truth. This depends on who is reading the photographs of course, but in my recent work, especially with the introduction of poems, I try to create a universe that is close to home. My identity, my resistance, my response, rather than a document of the truth.
Your work seems very much like a combination of spiritual, political and historical forces that are evidential of the past, whilst also responding to the present. How do you do this?
I’m interested in the writings of Alan Sekula and John Szarkowsi when they talk about archives and how a photograph can carry a record of how we act and how we show emotions. My work represents traces of the past, through the use of archive materials, which I seek to re-activate. I don’t attempt to address social justice issues in a documentary sense, but I do want to start a conversation and ask questions about the nature of perception. Multiple potentials of archives reveal themselves to me and I try to add my memories and poetry to create a conversation with the past that embodies all of the contradictions between illusion and reality, and the connection between past and present. Art has the power to change perceptions, but only in small steps.
Your recent book Zanjir is an imagined conversation with Tadj Salteneh (1883-1936), one of King Nasr’s daughters during the Qajar period. You’ve mentioned before that the King was the first person to take a photograph in Iran at the end of the nineteenth century, and his subject matter was largely his wives and children. The power dynamic between male photographer and female subject is still very much in evidence well over a century later. Do you think that the male grip on photography is loosening in Iran and in the UK?
He was the first indigenous photographer, yes. Due to religious taboos, it was forbidden for the women to be seen by strangers. The King’s harem was his private domain and therefore photographing it was a means of representing the power he had over his wives and the status that conferred at the time. It was a power that continued for 50 years. This has obviously changed as cultural and political contexts have changed with the times. If we are talking about contemporary photographic education for example, the same gender mix exists in Iran as it does here in the UK. As much as ¾ of the class are women. I think it comes back to the way you want to communicate stories and ideas. Photography appeals to a lot of women because it’s a good way to tell stories in an intimate and personal sense, whilst retaining a connection with lived experience. The fact that patriarchal forces still marginalise women is difficult to address, but many women are tackling it in the content of their work.
Your work is entirely personal. I’ve heard you talk about your work in relation to the different chapters of your life and about your identity as an Iranian woman. What were the seminal experiences that inform some of these chapters?
Experiencing changes after moving to Europe is a good example. The isolation of separation and exile hit me very hard, mostly through having to deal with the perceptions of the people I met and constantly having to prove who I was as an individual. The works reference bigger matters to do with nationality, gender, etc. as a bridge between the personal and the political, but its structure comes from exile, and the condition of reflection this has given me.
A lot of your work feels like a conversation between you and other women. Who are the most important women in your life?
I always naturally look up to other women, many women. The people that I lived with in Iran, who were part of my life and who experienced revolution and the transition from a secular country to an extremely religious regime, are very important to me. The imaginary life, that has become my best friend in exile, relies on the Iranian women that I carry with me in my inner world.
Do you feel like you are trying to write, or re-write women into a new history through recent books like Shenasnameh and Zanjir?
I don’t attempt to rewrite their history, but to invite people to look at these women with different eyes – to look at the reality of these people. I want to remind readers and viewers about the lives of these under-represented women through the emotions and feelings of specific individuals. To ameliorate their voicelessness through little stories, rooted in experience more than history.
Literature plays a big part in your imaginative life, could you tell us why you love to read Proust for example?
Proust’s stories are the most amazing exhibitions that I’ve ever seen. I was introduced to In Search of Lost Time quite young and it seemed to me that the characters in the book were so powerful that they were almost visible to me. It was definitely a case of how the past can be made relevant to the present for me, both as a reader and an artist. In 2017 when I was first working on Zanjir, I was looking for a new voyage, not a new landscape. I wanted to consider, as Proust did over and over, the same subject with new eyes.
Zanjir features the memoirs of a Persian Princess, as well as your own written reflections. Why did you use this combination?
I’m always interested in composing and bringing things together. It could be a fingerprint and an ID photograph, or a poem and an archival photograph. This kind of juxtaposition gives a chance for the reader to become a participant in the work, to edit it in their own way, rather than become a passive visitor. It had the side effect of exposing Tadj Salteneh and giving a voice to her values and ideas in the minds of new readers and viewers. It’s also a mirroring of me as a person/artist in exile. I was lost, and this conversation became a path for me to get closer to the people in Zanjir, like my family, that I had left behind. To reduce the distance, I created a path to get closer to the people I love and miss.
Hitherto your work has largely been about your home country of Iran. Are you interested in photographing the culture that surrounds you in Europe?
I’m interested in many different issues here in Europe, but always half of me is in Iran. Twenty-six years of my life was there and when I moved here, I couldn’t completely relate to this society. My creativity was therefore a means to make sense of my condition and to join the two worlds through my imagination and to offer bridges, made of imagery, poetry, etc. between Europe and the Middle East. A lot of the time I feel like I’m creatively blind to immediate specific close concerns. I don’t see them because the mask of the past has been attached to my face and my mind for so long. As I said in one of the poems in Zanjir, I live in the past and my land travels within me.