On June 20, 2009, Neda Agha-Soltan was shot dead at a protest in Tehran against the disputed presidential election. The death of the 26-year-old philosophy student was recorded by someone on a camera phone and uploaded quickly on YouTube. As the bloody video went viral, Neda became the symbol of the anti-government movement in Iran.
Iranian photographer Azadeh Akhlaghi says she knew she wanted to commemorate Neda’s death the moment she saw the video. Partly because she feared censorship, she decided to broaden the scope of the work to include similar deaths – she calls them “mysterious deaths” – of journalists, politicians, student activists and filmmakers in the contemporary history of Iran.
The project, recreating those death scenes in photographs, took more than three years to complete.
Akhlaghi’s show By An Eyewitness opened in Tehran in March 2013. It has since travelled to London’s Somerset House as part of a group show. Three of the works were also featured in the Delhi Photo Festival 2013. Now, Art Heritage is showing 17 works in the series as part of Staging the Past – an exhibition of works by two Iranian photographers, Akhlaghi and Babak Kazemi – till November 14.
Seeing Akhlaghi’s works together is like peeling the layers of an onion. Narratives sometimes continue across frames, like the story of guerrilla fighters Marzieh Ahmadi Oskuie and Hamid Ashraf who were in love with each other and killed two years apart in the 1970s.
Akhlaghi’s creative process is telling of the times she lives in. In the photo depicting the death of Oskuie, Akhlaghi had to work quickly, since the actor risked arrest for not wearing a hijab in a public space. “I shot that photo in half an hour,” said Akhlaghi. “The actor came to the gallery for a week for rehearsals before the final shoot.”
Akhlaghi was at the Triveni Kala Sangam in Delhi for a talk on October 19. In an interview to Scroll.in, she spoke about her creative process and her new project that again looks at “tragic deaths” in her country between the Constitutional Revolution in 1906 and the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Edited excerpts:
What was the starting point for By An Eyewitness?
It started for me in 2009, exactly the day that I watched the murder of Neda Agha-Soltan on YouTube.
Why is Neda absent from the 17 works in this series, then?
When the Arab Spring happened, I again saw photos and videos from that online. That’s when I thought about constructing some moments of history when there weren’t cameras [everywhere] to capture the moment. I noticed there are so many murders in the history of Iran, as in so many countries in the Middle East.
I knew I wanted to reconstruct some moments of tragic death in contemporary Iran. The time frame I chose was between the Constitutional Revolution in 1906 till the present time. Then I realised that I had made a mistake, because I cannot talk about the tragic deaths that happened after the [Islamic] Revolution – I still live in Iran. After 1979, I chose only one image from the Iran-Iraq war and one about a film-maker [Sohrab Shahid Saless] who died in exile in Chicago. I shouldn’t have done that because I didn’t have the freedom to talk about all the deaths after the Revolution. That’s why I couldn’t reconstruct the moment of the death of Neda. That’s why in my new project the timeline is from the Constitutional Revolution to the Islamic Revolution.
How did you select which murders to focus on?
When I first started to do the research, I studied 78-80 characters [whose deaths were shrouded in mystery]. After two-three months, I shortlisted 40 of them and then [narrowed it down to] 30 and so on. I had to be selective. I wanted to have a poet, a journalist, someone from the national front and someone Left-wing. I did not want to have similar characters or similar deaths. In the end, the events that I chose were often firsts in the history of contemporary Iran. Like when political writer Mirzadeh Eshghi was shot at his home. Similarly, there are so many times that the police have attacked inside Tehran University; the one that I showed was the first time, in 1953 – that day has been marked as Student Day in Iran ever since.
Did the idea of reconstructing history present its own set of problems?
I think it’s impossible to reconstruct history. You can never be sure that this is what really happened. Especially if you live in Iran, because we have had lots of censorship through our history.
During the Constitutional Revolution, most of my sources are memoirs that people wrote but did not want to publish.
Around the 1970s, you can see that different newspapers have carried very similar reports [like in the reportage about the death of wrestler Gholamreza Takhti in a hotel room]. From that you can guess that Savak [the secret police] gave the article to all the newspapers. But before the censorship, before Savak, before the dictatorship, it’s easier to find the truth. We had so many newspapers, so many points of view.
For recent events, I interviewed eyewitnesses. Sometimes what one said was very different from what another person said. And that’s because they cannot remember or because in moments of shock you see things or hear things that are not there.
Why did you put yourself in all your pictures?
Because I think I am a witness myself and to emphasise the fact that this is not history, this is what I found out.
Tell us about how you constructed the images.
My assistants picked out information about what a character looked like, how they dressed, their habits from the material I collected in libraries, archives and from the newspapers. I looked at photographs and paintings from that time – paintings were a very good source for me to think about my mise en scene. I developed a storyboard for each image. On paper, I knew exactly who is where and what they are doing and I had one reference for each actor for what they had to do. For example, in the photo of the 1953 police attack on Tehran University, there is a man holding up his hands as he runs. The gesture is from a famous photograph of the 1979 revolution by Kaveh Golistan.
The captions for the photos are very elaborate…
All the captions are excerpts from eyewitness accounts, memoirs and books. I selected which passages to highlight.
What are you working on now?
I just finished shooting for my new project. It is on reconstructing some turning points in the history of Iran, starting from the bombardment of our parliament [in 1908].
When is your new show expected? Are you worried about its reception?
I have finished shooting for it. It has more characters, with 300-400 actors in some of the pictures. The most I had in 'By An Eyewitness' was 200, in the photograph about Takhti. It will take me about 10 months to finish editing and colour correcting.
In Iran you never know. But I did do this project ('By An Eyewitness') and nothing happened – I am very happy about that.