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Photographing Iran

When Expectations Clash - Part - I

By Aarief Hussain

What a year! After being on the move constantly up until the end of August shooting in Kashmir, Bhutan, India, and Singapore, I finally scheduled some downtime for a few days in September. I really needed to take a moment to focus on myself and enjoy some solitude. But just two days into my break, I got an email officially confirming an exciting opportunity to photograph Iran.

My passion for cultural work and understanding how to showcase people and cultures paid off when I was chosen by the Iranian Embassy of Kuala Lumpur to conduct photography workshops and meet Iranian photographers, both professionals and students of photography at Tehran University, Iran. This was an opportunity to explore the land and make new friends along the way – But would it work out as I hoped, or were my expectations too high?

I landed in Tehran at midnight and was met by my guide who took me to my hotel. He told me that I needed to wait for my press / journalist card to arrive before I could begin shooting and that he would pick me up at noon the following day. But this was me – I couldn't wait for a piece of paper! I was awake and out exploring the neighbourhood after just a few hours sleep, my small camera, the Leica M, in my hand.

As I walked I could sense an air of kindness and positivity. I smiled at strangers and they smiled back at me. I was like a sponge, soaking up the signs and symbols of this often-misunderstood country. At the local market, I was captivated by the quality of the fresh produce on sale. I walked around with ease, relaxed. It was pretty easy to strike up a sign-language conversation with the vendors. Curious shopkeepers tried asking me questions but my answers in sign language eventually had them in stitches though they did understand that I'm an overseas photographer.

All too soon I had to head back to the hotel to meet my guide. Thankfully I was there first, waiting in the hotel lobby like the obedient guest for my 'first' trip out on Iranian soil – Or so he thought!! We began by walking the bustling city streets of Tehran and I was introduced to the public transport system. We then moved on to what I was, in part, here to do – capture the religious ceremonies.

You see, I had arrived in Iran in time for Ashura, one of the most significant events of the year for Shia Muslims as it marks the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, grandson of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). The entire month is a time of remembrance (Muharram being synonymous with Ashura) with mourning parades happening all over the city.

People wear black as a mark of mourning and they volunteer for services like distributing food and snacks; each area sets up a food stall where tea and snacks are available for free around the clock. I was able to witness these events on my first afternoon, and due to my continuous presence with the camera, the local people accepted me as part of them so I was able to capture these events with ease. The people were so friendly, I was mesmerised with their beauty and dedication and found it easy to understand their beliefs and their commitment to such sacred ceremonies.

Back in the hotel, I was looking at the images I had taken of the ceremonies and I felt disappointed, something was missing – The authenticity factor. It slowly dawned on me that Tehran is a modern, fast-paced city just like any other in the world. I was missing the grime, grit, and dedication of the 'real' people of Iran. I needed to capture the special moments of everyday life and I wasn't doing that in the city, not in the places my guide was taking me.

This realisation made me uneasy. My guide obviously didn't realise my love of going to extremes to find hidden gems. During coffee the next morning I expressed my unease. His look, and his silence, clearly indicated that I had just thrown a spanner in his carefully organised plans! Why was I not interested in shooting Tehran's famous locations, he wondered. He took some time to think whilst I went off to do my Photo Talk at the Art University.

This talk at the university was an opportunity for me to showcase my work as well as to meet the passionate and creative students of photography. I also got a surprise, I received my first certificate of Honors! After my 'ceremony' a lecturer showed me a photo on her phone which made me more determined than ever to leave the busy city behind and discover the heart of Iran.

But first I had to go back to meet with my guide. His look was still grim so I told him it was ok, I would take a flight home now and come back in the near future. That's when fate stepped in. As we were talking, a friend asked me if I was going to visit another city, Kermanshah. He told me it wasn't a famous tourist location so probably wouldn't have any great hotels, but if I wanted, he could ask a friend to accommodate myself and my guide.

He didn't have time to finish – I was down for this!

I'll leave you to wonder what adventures awaited me in Kermanshah! Until next time...

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