Showcase: Iran, Beyond Stereotype

Nov 30, 20090 comments

Picture 34Paolo Woods arrived in Tehran in 1999 with a bag full of black-and-white film. Like many photojournalists before him, he headed to the former American embassy, where the hostage crisis had begun 20 years earlier; a landmark of Iran’s tumultuous political past. He was struck by the contradiction of what the building represented and what was actually occurring around him. Children passed with balloons. Women chatted loudly in groups. Taxis zipped past, emblazoned in vivid colors. The vibrancy of the city belied the historical heaviness of the symbolic building before him. “I knew I was on the wrong path photographically,” Mr. Woods recalled. “I had first started photographing by what I had seen in other photographs of the country and what my colleagues were shooting. I recognized there was a way of dramatizing with black-and-white film, which I was not comfortable with anymore. I realized quickly that there was much more to Iran than just political turmoil and religious fundamentalism.” On a hill overlooking Tehran, where families and friends gather weekly to enjoy the sprawling view of the city, Mr. Woods was at a picnic. A man walked over with a video camera and asked if he could talk into the camera and testify to what happening around him. Baffled by the question, Mr. Woods asked if this was for a news broadcast or a documentary. “This is for my American wife,” the man replied. “She does not believe we do everyday-to-day things like this in Iran.” He explained that his wife had refused to visit Iran over the 10 years of their marriage because she equated the city with political violence and suppression. The moment underlined the importance of Mr. Woods’s goal: to overcome the stereotyped imagery of Iran. Mr. Woods, now 39, was raised in Florence. He became enamored of the photo printing process as a teenager. He eventually opened his own laboratory and a small gallery. His work focused on fine art photography and fashion. In 1999, the city of Florence asked him to organize a show for Paolo Pellegrin in his gallery. The two photographers became friends. Mr. Pellegrin asked Mr. Woods to join him on a trip to Kosovo. Returning to Italy with images and text that he sold to local magazines, Mr. Woods realized that photojournalism allowed him to reach a different, wider audience. He sold his gallery and changed his focus to longterm projects, beginning with an exploration of oil and its socioeconomic and environmental effects, in collaboration with Serge Michel, a French journalist. Mr. Woods and Mr. Michel returned to Iran in 2005, the year Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president. Their goal was to capture the cultural, political and religious complexity of the country through individual portraits. The work, “Step on My Eyes,” is to be published next year in Paris, where Mr. Woods now lives. (The title is based on a common Iranian expression of thanks, meaning — in essence — “I am nothing before you.”) Iran is infused by ancient Persian customs and holds strongly onto a unifying Islamic faith, despite the politically imposed use of Islam by the authoritative regime. Simultaneously, Iran displays a modernity that sets it apart from its neighboring countries. Mr. Woods and Mr. Michel describe it as a “mysterious puzzle that still gives one the impression that some pieces are missing.” It’s these missing puzzle pieces that Mr. Woods finds so fascinating. “Everything is surprising and very contradictory,” he said. “A person who is a reformist modern person can also hold beliefs close to the regime or vice versa.” He found the contradictions summarized by a sentence scribbled on the wall of a house he visited: “Yankees go home but take me with you.” Mr. Woods tries to distance himself from classical photojournalistic language. He is interested in the challenges of capturing an image where there is no apparent action. And he expresses his discomfort with what he feels is the tendency of photojournalists to focus on suffering. “Pain is very aesthetic,” he said. “The journalist has played too long with this element. I think our world is made up of many different aspects and pain is one of them, but it is not the only one that should be addressed. Viewers are becoming tired of certain stereotyped images of pain and are curious for a different ways they can learn about world problems and issues.” Mr. Woods embraces the square format as the shape closest to how a camera views things and brings a purer element to a picture. His simple framing focuses on the subjects’ forceful presence. His elegant, clean compositions force viewers to immerse themselves in details that open a rare glimpse of Iranian society. “If images are too confusing, the amount of information and ideas do not come across,” he said. “I also like how these portraits look like they have been staged, even though they are not. They allow the viewer to keep on discovering new things.” Among the more powerful of his photographs illustrating the contradictions across Iranian society is a portrait of two brothers: one belongs to the paramilitary militia, the other takes part in opposition rallies. Iranians can immediately pick up on details that help pinpoint which is which. Otherwise, the pictures are accompanied by Mr. Michel’s extensive captions. “The visual language and written text feed off one another,” Mr. Michel said. Mr. Woods’s Iranian series gives viewers the rare chance to explore everyday life in Iran. “Before adding new images to a world which is drowning in images, one has to reflect why one is doing so,” he said. “Images should be linked to something you want to say and not be about trying to create sheer beauty.” Source and photo gallery: