The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It’s time we looked at Iran through the same lens as its best photographers

“Untitled,” from the “Home” series (2017) by Gohar Dashti. Photograph, inkjet print. (Collection of Azita Bina and Elmar W. Seibel/© Bahman Jalali Estate/Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

BOSTON — Searches for the meaning of the word "imminent" spiked by 2,400 percent last week, according to Merriam-Webster. The reason was obvious: As debate raged over President Trump's decision to kill Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had described an attack plotted by Soleimani as "imminent," while at the same time acknowledging that he didn't know when or where the attack might have occurred.

Photography, which taps into a similar predicament, demonstrates that this was no contradiction. The information conveyed by every photograph feels imminent: It’s that you and everything you love will die or cease to be. Only, you don’t know when. Look at almost any photograph, no matter how banal, and the recognition comes on like an involuntary shudder, a snakelike rustle in the undergrowth of your unconscious.

The best writers on photography — Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, Janet Malcolm — all acknowledged the medium’s weird death-hauntedness. It ambushed me again in “Reimagining Home,” a photography exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Small but potent, the show consists of two discrete bodies of work by two Iranian photographers: Bahman Jalali, who died in 2010 at age 65, and Gohar Dashti, who was taught by Jalali in the early 2000s. Neither confronts death directly. But both address war, displacement and the ringing dissonance of their country’s modern history. Both funnel poetic responses through an acute self-consciousness about photography.

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Jalali’s “Image of Imagination” photographs layer Iranian photos from different eras, one over the other. The effect is like looking in a storefront window and simultaneously seeing both the interior and the reflection of the street outside. (“Iran is amassed with layers and layers of thoughts and imageries,” wrote the great modern Iranian artist and scholar, Parviz Tanavoli. “How could one be involved with one layer and ignore the rest?”)

Old studio portraits of women, for instance, hover in the spaces between an elegant calligraphic sign on a once-thriving photography studio in Isfahan, since vandalized with red slashing brushstrokes. After the Iranian Revolution, censors regularly destroyed such images of women and attacked or shut down the studios where they were made.

Iran’s traumatic history folds in on itself here until it is almost asphyxiated. Yet the images have abstract beauty.

Dashti’s photographs show large rooms in abandoned buildings in Mashhad, the second most populous city in Iran. There are no people in Dashti’s “Home” series, unlike almost all her earlier work. The abandoned buildings are converted, instead, into stage sets for nature. Dashti fills them with parti-colored poppies in loamy soil, tall reeds, mossy grass or decaying firs.

The idea of bringing nature indoors has become commonplace in recent art (think of the installations of Olafur Eliasson, Martin Roth or Anya Gallaccio). But Dashti’s desolate homes suddenly thronging with botanical life are poignant in ways that feel specific to Iran. Her series riffs on the idea that nature becomes a protagonist when human populations are displaced by war.

For Dashti, the idea is not academic. She was born in 1980 — a year after the revolution — in Ahvaz, close to the Iran-Iraq border. Dashti’s memories of childhood are laced with ambivalence. Aspects of daily existence (air raid alarms, weddings, children’s games) during a desperate war of attrition that the world watched with mounting horror felt exciting to her child’s mind. But there are no parties taking place in these photographs. Their emptiness is eloquent.

People left, Dashti among them. The war took a toll. (“People robbed of their past,” wrote Sontag, “seem to make the most fervent picture takers.”) Nature regenerates around ruins. But not all the plants in these photographs are thriving. Through quiet anomaly, Dashti’s still, silent and very deliberate pictures capture the desolation of displacement and the dismay occasioned by homecoming.

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Now is a good time to be looking at images from Iran. Though we hear or read the words “Iran” and “Iranian” on a daily basis, we are starved of any but the most cliched images of this country of 83 million people. Photography is of particular interest in the context of Iran because of the deep-rooted relationship between Iranian power and the camera since the earliest days of the medium.

Jalali was an economics major who fell in love with photography when he received his first camera as a gift. His discovery of the medium reprises the story of photography’s arrival in Iran. In 1842, two daguerreotype cameras, brought overland on a horse-drawn wagon, were presented to the Shah as a gift from the Russian and British royal houses. The Shah’s son, Naser al-Din, who came to power at 17, took to these miraculous tools. He had his own darkroom built in the palace in 1862.

So photography developed in Persia — a profoundly isolated country at that time — under his patronage and with his imprimatur. He ruled for a half-century before being assassinated in 1896.

Political leadership in Iran in the 20th century continued to be cursed by violence. The camera caught every convulsion.

Self-taught, Jalali was widely admired as a photographer even before the 1979 revolution. But the eyewitness photographs he took during that period of profound upheaval made him famous. The photographs were presented in a book called “Days of Blood, Days of Fire” (which also included indelible images by Rana Javadi, his wife). It was suppressed by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

During the Iran-Iraq war, Jalali photographed the bombed-out city of Khorramshahr (the site of a major, month-long battle), mass graveyards and dead soldiers sprawled on stony ground, helmets lolling beside them, mouths filled with dirt.

Later in his career, Jalali was as renowned for his teaching and writing and for co-founding Iran’s first museum of photography as for his own practice. He had become convinced that although the past never changes, artists could achieve something genuinely strange and open-ended by working with history’s layers, combining images of the past with more recent images.

Jalali was working on “Image of Imagination” when Dashti first met him. Her own early work layered writing and imagery over portraits taken from family albums. Her mature work, on display in Boston, is larger, more confident, even theatrical. But behind it lurk the same questions that haunt the medium itself, the answers always imminent, never knowable: What happened to my people? Where is my home? When is my time up?

“Reimagining Home: Photographs by Bahman Jalali and Gohar Dashti” through July 12 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,

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