The Aesthetic of Lostness: Inside Iran with the Fuji X100s By James Conley

The Aesthetic of Lostness: Inside Iran with the Fuji X100s

 

By James Conley

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Iran. Although home to one of the world’s oldest civilizations, (dating back more than 5,000 years), since 1979 Iran is most commonly known for the Islamic Revolution that toppled Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and took 66 Americans hostage, holding them for 444 days. Iran is daily in the news, with its military activities in Syria and Yemen, its support of Hezbollah, endless negotiations over its nuclear program, and its detention of reporters like the Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian. “Death to America” is a chant heard in televised demonstrations in Tehran, setting the outside view of Iran as a hostile one to the West.

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In contrast to this public view, I’ve been fortunate to know many Iranians who live in the United States, as well as abroad. Without exception, they love the United States and the common theme among them is a love of life and all it has to offer. With these contrasting experiences in mind, I determined to make a trip to Iran.

Getting into Iran as an American is no easy task. Reams of paperwork, multiple passport photographs, and multiple visits to the Iranian Interest Section in Washington, D.C., are required. Iranians work on a different time scale, and waiting (and waiting, and waiting) are part of the process. The government of Iran is suspicious of one’s prior travel, and does a thorough investigation into who you are. (It’s possible to go with a tour group, but tours are heavily monitored by the government and I wanted freedom of movement.) In the end, it took me over a year to obtain permission to visit Iran.

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Visa in hand, I scheduled a flight. Since 1979, Iran has been subject to a range of economic sanctions, including ones which eliminated direct flights from the United States. Iran is not a close destination. My flight took me through Istanbul, Turkey—with a 7 hour layover. Layover included, total travel time from Dulles to Tehran was 20 hours.

Arriving in Iran was a bit of an emotional let down. Based on my experiences with Iranian officials in the United States, I had expected a high degree of security and curiosity about an American’s arrival. At the airport, I found only a single disinterested official at Passport Control. A glance at my visa, a scan into the computer, and I was on my way without even eye contact or a single question about the purpose of my visit. (I have reason to believe that the arrival experience is highly variable, and your visit may go a very different way!)

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My first experience of the country was an extremely long drive from the airport to my host’s house in northern Tehran. Tehran is one of the biggest cities in the world, with more than 17 million people. It is spread out over more than 200 square miles, and the airport is more than 30 miles south of the city. It was an appropriate introduction to a city and country that are impossible to pigeon-hole, with variety and diversity which are difficult to comprehend.

 

Being inside Iran is much different from hearing about it from the outside. While not an easy country to absorb or function in, the people are warm and welcoming, and there is a vast range of poverty and wealth among a people who have been isolated from much of the West for more than a generation. (Although only the United States and Canada have official sanctions against Iran, the complexity of those sections affects travel, banking, postal services, and foreign businesses who also do business with the United States.) Despite all the international conflict concerning Iran’s political role and its present history, the people within Iran continue to flourish in an environment that’s all their own.

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Working as a photographer in Iran is beset with challenges. I was based in the northern part of Tehran, making day trips to other parts of the country. Each place presented unique difficulties and opportunities.

The primary challenge I try to address in any place is blending in. As a street photographer, my goal is to be an observer. This means being as unobtrusive as possible while maintaining enough involvement to understand and appreciate unfolding events so that I can time decisive moments. In most western countries, these needs are solved by being mindful of one’s dress and manners, and generally taking the “when in Rome” approach is enough that I can fade into the background. Not so in Iran. One can’t blend bone structure and skin color. Although there is a fair bit of ethnic diversity in Iran, it’s all diversity from within the region and, unsurprisingly, I was immediately identifiable as a foreigner no matter where I went, simply because of the color of my skin, hair, and the structure of my facial bones. No matter my efforts to adapt, I was regularly approached by strangers who started every conversation in broken English. Being mistaken for a local wasn’t going to happen. While this interfered with my ability to blend, it also led to some opportunities for interaction which otherwise wouldn’t have taken place.

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Photography inside Iran is not common. I occasionally saw some Iranians at famous places making images with cell phone cameras, but I didn’t see any DSLRs, mirrorless cameras, or film cameras, except a camera carried by a German tourist. Carrying a camera definitely singles you out.

I work as unobtrusively and quickly as possible, and make it habit to have only one camera out at a time. I try to carry only a single camera with lenses in my pockets, or at most carry only a small courier bag. I use Fuji X-Series cameras, which are smaller and quieter than a Leica, and to the uninitiated appear to be amateur pocket cameras. I wouldn’t advise carrying a large DSLR with a zoom lens because you’ll appear to be a journalist (read: spy). That said, most Iranians had little to no reaction if they saw the camera.

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The images here were made with the X100s and its Wide and Tele companions. This set up of 28mm, 35mm, and 50mm (equivalents) allowed me to do 90% of my work while remaining extremely unobtrusive. The Wide converter stays on my camera most of the time, so I was able to carry just one lens, a spare battery, and a spare memory card. In a place where you want to stand out the least amount possible, this was a great kit. It is also relatively fast to change lenses without attracting attention.

 

A few shots required pulling out the X-E1, however. Architecture in Iran is immense, and even the 8mm Rokinon ultra wide angle (12mm equivalent) that I carry struggled to pull in the details. (None of those shots are included in this post—these are all X100s. Additional images can be seen here: http://fjamesconley.com/iran)

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Traveling to places where one doesn’t speak or read the language is not uncommon. Traveling to places where one has little chance of grasping the culture, however, is rare. It’s extremely stressful and overwhelming, taxing one’s creativity as well as one’s emotions. But it’s also liberating to be lost. Removed from even absentminded awareness of so much of what’s going on, the mind has little choice but to double its efforts to observe and make sense of things. Lost, it’s easier to perceive humanistic patterns. Lost, it’s easier to put attention on the gestalt. Lost, it’s easier to let your deeper self emerge.

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The aesthetics of lostness have a quality of their own. The feeling on many levels is one of isolation and disconnectedness. Like any state of mind, these aspects are revealed in the work. My interpretation of the images I made in Iran reflect this: isolated moments; overwhelming scale; and a puzzlement of things. I endeavored to embrace the lostness, however, because the alternative was to find a false narrative which would devolve into stereotype. In the lostness, I sought the commonality of humanity instead of looking for the superficiality of difference.

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Iran is a country, and not a political entity. Whatever its government’s present role on the world stage, Iran’s people and the country itself are magical. I look forward to returning again.

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Additional images can be seen here: http://fjamesconley.com/iran

Here’s my contact info:
website: fjamesconley.com
twitter: @Philatawgrapher

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36 Comments

  1. Nice shots of a most interesting country. I find your high contrast style OK, it’s not really what I would call HDR. However, I think you should call it the “Aesthetics of loss”. “Lostness” is not really a word: after all you are either lost…or not. “Loss” is about grieving or missing or having lost something, which I think is what you are saying. If the neologism was intentional then I don’t like it much.

  2. Superb images and narrative James. You have managed to capture the very ancientness of the place, getting lost can be an effective exercise, often yielding creativity and basic human contact, generally missing in urbanized Western settings.

  3. You have a great way with words and have chosen a fabulous region to explore. So jealous. Hope you will return and produce a larger project

  4. I like your images but I think you could do a little better with the text. The US and Canada are absolutely not the only states that sanction Iran.
    And what’s more: A guest post on a photography site might not be the best place to elaborate in detail on US-Iranian relations, I’ll give you that. But I dare to say that there are some more variations and aspects to that matter. A whole people might not just either love or hate another people.

    Oh gosh, and I so didn’t want this to sound like an angry criticism.

    So again: Respect for your efforts to make this possible and to your photographic skills.
    Best
    Daniel

    • If we were to lump whole of USA as one people
      the same way USA government, USA mass media lump people of countries as
      Iran
      what would then be said about USA people :
      paedos, rapists, genocidal, baby killers,
      killers of elderly,
      invaders, stealers of other people natural resources.

      Would the USA people put up with any of these if it was done to them.

  5. Wonderful images! I would agree that the contrast is pumped too high in some instances. A Monochrom along with a lower contrast 35 Summicron 8-element or CV 35/2.5 might have added a bit to the atmospherics of the antique and a gentler touch to faces. The tile work in one of the mosque images must have been interesting in full color.

    About 10 years back, a friend whose consultancy was based in Beirut but for a Japanese concern sent him to Iran. Upon checking out of his hotel, the clerk refused to accept the Lebanese pounds or Euros he had handy. “Only American!” and so he obliged. He then asked him what the sign behind the desk said. “Death to America!” remarked the clerk, with a wink of an eye.

  6. Very nice photos! I visited Iran for business in 2002, some weeks after President Bush said the country was part of the “Axis of Evil”. Of course my wife and parents were a little bit scared but I found the most hospitable people I have ever met, and I have been lucky to visit more than 70 countries. As Westerners, we use to make that terrible mistake of assuming that people from “bad lands” support their governments, when the fact is the opposite, they are victims of those dictatorships. Furthermore, Iranians showed lot of courage when some years ago they demonstrated against the government.

    • I think USA government, UK government, western mass media proved
      they themselves are the real “axis of evil”.

      People who are evil call other people evil.
      People who are decent call other people decent.

    • Huge amount of forgiveness people of countries as Iran, Irag, Afganistan, Syria
      have for people from USA, UK is amazing.

      The decades of killings of children, elderly, women for oil done by USA, UK
      The destruction of hospitals, schools , water, electricity, done by USA, UK
      would the USA, UK so readily forgive …. we know the answer.

  7. Wow, nice snaps! But with that said, I have to say that you have more balls than me. Iran would not be one of my travel destinations, quite a dubious place. Some years ago a Canadian photojournalist was beaten to death while being detained. I can’t remember her name now, but you know what I mean. Anyways, well done.

    • Haha! I definitely remained on my best behavior, and respect the rules of the visa I traveled under. There were many missed shots, but that’s the sacrifice of being a guest in a place that–yes–will arrest first and ask questions later.

    • Didnt we just have mass protests about USA police brutality, police killings civillians in USA.
      Check out huge number of dead USA civilian prisoners in custody in USA.

    • Didnt we just have mass USA protests about USA police killings, police brutality on USA civilians.

      Check out the huge nuMber of USA civilliAn deaths in USA custody .

  8. Your beautiful work and prose brought back memories of living in Iran in the 70s.
    Motshakiram!

  9. James–your work and words remind me of entering China in 1981–then heading for the S Western interior–even today–once outside of Chengdu, Sichuan, the silence of isolation is easily observed…if it is sensitively observed and commented on as you have herein. Thanks for bringing us this story–you had a ton of work to do to get into Iran and you brought fine images out. I was in graduate school at Cornell in 1979–where many Iranian students–who had been sent abroad by the Shah–where present when it went from bad to worse. I found them to be a gregarious, generous, life loving bunch who simply wanted to carry on in freedom–both from the Shah and the Mullahs. Good to get your perspective: “click”.

  10. Uh too much post-processing. Hihglights are dead, black level is too strong… Too much mid level for b&w… we want to see the originals! 🙂

      • My first thought was that many of these pictures look very “processed”. On closer examination, many looked to have excessive HDR or perhaps some other localised contrast adjustments applied. It is most evident in pictures such as the interior courtyard looking out, but also very obvious on some outdoor scenes. It’s a shame as in my opinion it rather spoils what are basically interesting pictures. I also think it was a shame not to show some in colour, as I presume Iran like other places in the middle east and Asia is quite colourful. For example, I think the buildings made of sand and the shop on the street would look much better in colour, as I find in some cases the subject is a little “lost” in B&W. The narrative is interesting, but it’s a shame the pictures have been so heavily processed in my opinion.

        • F off 😉 Easy to comment on technicalities whilst someone has actually travelled so far for his passion. You ought to congratulate the guy.

          • Post-processing cannot be reduced to a simple technicality. It’s an important step in the artistic process (like darkroom process was). So no matter how far you travelled, you can sometimes spoil interesting photos with questionable or unsubtle aesthetic choices 🙂

    • I think it was all very well done… An interesting, enjoyable narrative; documented with some excellent photos. I am grateful.

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