The internationally acclaimed Iranian artist Azadeh Akhlaghi was recently in Delhi as part of an exhibition titled ‘reVisitations’, curated by Prof. Sabeena Gadihoke, which displayed some of the artist’s best-known work, Organised by the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre (AJKMCRC), Jamia Millia Islamia, in collaboration with CREA, the four-day exhibition was held as part of the university's centenary celebrations. Akhlaghi, a photographer and filmmaker who uses conceptual and staged photography to create large-scale tableaux, conducted guided walks through the exhibition. Akhlaghi has been named the 2019 Robert Gardner Fellow in Photography by the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology, Harvard University. She is a Sovereign Arts Prize Finalist in 2016 and a recipient of the prize from the UN-Habitat Photography Competition 2009, London. Her works have been displayed at the leading museums across the globe.
In this interview, Akhlaghi talks about her popular works, “Me, As the Other Prefers” and ‘By an Eyewitness’, the depiction of death as a visual metaphor in her work, training under Abbas Kiarostami, and the unnamed new series she is currently working on.
Tell us about “reVisitations” and your association with it.
Well, I was here in India 4-5 years ago as I had an exhibition at Art Heritage. Then I had a talk here at the AJKMCRC, Jamia Millia Islamia, a couple of years ago. And this time because I was going to Goa for the Serendipity Arts Festival, Prof. Shohini Ghosh and Prof. Sabeena Gadihoke suggested me to have an exhibition here as well with CREA. Also, I had another exhibition in Kathmandu and so we already had the prints ready with us which we brought here for ‘reVisitations’. It’s really wonderful to show my work to the students and have them as an audience. They are very curious and ask very interesting questions. Still, I am in touch with some of the students that I met during my previous trips. In fact, one of them is writing her thesis in New York on my work.
Your work, “Me, As the Other Prefers”, is being exhibited in India for the first time. What is it about?
We, as women, always have to pretend to be someone in front of the others, especially in a country like Iran. It’s an idea that I worked back in 2007. It came to me while I was thinking about how the others force me to behave differently in different situations.
So the people in those images are relatives or friends, basically, people that I knew. So, I asked them how they preferred me to look like, what they wanted me to wear. And I took them to my place and I showed them all the clothes that I had and I simply asked them which one they wanted me to wear.
So, they chose a dress for me and I took the photograph. In all of them, I am looking into the camera. Nobody else looks into the camera except me. It’s like I am having this gaze into the eyes of the other. I did some exaggerations in the photographs like in the one with my grandmother I had this very fancy dress that depicted her desire for me to have kids and a good husband which I didn’t fulfill. And, in the one with my philosopher friends, I put so many books behind us to show that it’s their life and that’s how they preferred me.
Your most famous work “By an Eyewitness” is also a part of the exhibition. Tell me about the creative vision behind it.
The last image that I shot for “Me, As the Other Prefers” depicts me sitting next to a dead friend. That was like a transition from “Me, As the Other Prefers” to “By an Eyewitness”. Life is the most important thing that we have and so the main idea was to think of all these people who could risk their lives. It was around 2009 when we had the Iranian Green Movement and many of my friends were going to the streets. Every day I was thinking about what would happen if one of them died that day or if I died for that matter. Also, I wanted to unleash the power of the camera.
When a photograph is available from a tragic moment everybody would recognise the moment and if there is no photograph then there are only names or numbers for all those who have died. So I started to think about all the freedom fighters that have died in the recent history of Iran. In our country’s history, we have this vicious circle. We have always had a series of oppressions and then people make a revolution happen but after two years we have another dictatorship. So that’s the other idea like how we could break out of this vicious circle by showing the history as accurately as possible; maybe we could learn a lesson by thinking about all the freedom fighters who have died for nothing. There are a total of 17 images in “By an Eyewitness”. It starts from the Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1908, when the bombardment of the parliament happened, and it goes to the Islamic Revolution of 1979. It also covers the eight years of the Iraq-Iran War during the ‘80s. The project involved three years of research and the shooting took about 20 days.
As an artist how do you see death as a visual metaphor in your work?
At the end of the day, I am an artist and so even if I have to depict a dead one I want to make an artwork out of it. So that’s why I always think about all these details and try to have the best possible lighting. I want to make it look beautiful. When I first started working on ‘By an Eyewitness’ I actually got quite depressed, thinking about all these deaths. I started having dreams about death. But then I got started with my new project and the realisation hit me that history is sad which helped me move on.
You assisted Abbas Kiarostami early on in your career...
The most important lesson that I learnt from Abbas Kiarostami was that you can never capture the truth because you can never know what really happened. As soon as you turn on the camera there is no truth anymore. That’s perhaps why his cinema became more and more simple. He found it difficult to use the actors and the camera in a conventional way. In my projects, I also deal with the same challenge. How to capture the truth? Also, I learnt to appreciate life better while working with Abbas.
Tell us about your new work that you have been working on for the last few years.
Well, the new series is still incomplete and unnamed. It has 15 images in total and it’s about some turning points in the history of Iran between the Constitutional Revolution and the Islamic Revolution. The new series is much bigger in scope. In every image, I have more than 500-600 characters acting at the same time. This time, I also focus on the nobodies, not just the named ones who sacrificed their lives in the hope of a better future. It’s already been many years since I have been working on it but it is still a work in progress. I think it will take at least two more years to complete.