BEIRUT: “If any human act evokes the aesthetic experience of the sublime,” academic Joel Black wrote in 1991, “most certainly it is murder.”
Black’s pronouncement springs to mind when looking at the striking photographs in Iranian photographer Azadeh Akhlaghi’s latest series, “By An Eyewitness.” In these 17 meticulously staged tableaux, the photographer recreates a century of violent deaths among Iran’s political activists and militants, creating beautiful images from barbaric cruelty.
“The idea started in 2009, after the Iranian presidential elections,” Akhlaghi explains in a Skype interview from Tehran. “Some people died in the streets of Tehran, and that was the first time that mobile phones and small cameras were used by people in the streets to capture the moment of death.
“During those days, I started thinking about all the freedom fighters who have died in the recent history of Iran. ... All the people who died tragically, and there was no camera to capture the moment, no visual documentation of the moment of death.”
Akhlaghi’s photographs are currently on show at Somerset House in London, as part of a collective exhibition of work by eight artists entitled “Burnt Generation: Contemporary Iranian Photography,” curated by Fariba Farshad. The exhibition’s title refers to Iranians born between 1963 and 1980 who have lived the legacy of the country’s 1979 revolution and the eight-year Iran-Iraq war.
“I chose to cover from the Constitutional Revolution in 1906 until the Islamic Revolution in 1979,” Akhlaghi says, “and I tried to show all the freedom fighters who died in tragic circumstances. People from all walks of life, like intellectuals, journalists, political activists, poets, writers – among every one of these groups, there’s repeatedly stories of murders. It has been going on since forever in Iran.
“I chose these people because, first of all, the whole combination covers a vast variety of resistance and defiance, from literature and journalism to armed struggle, and I wanted to have representatives from each one of these discourses. Secondly, I tried to mark out the turning points. Many of the murders pictured here are not only tragic but a turning point in the particular kind of struggle they were involved in.”
It took Akhlaghi three years to research the series, which includes murders, assassinations and accidental and mysterious deaths, as well as a few lucky subjects who died of natural causes. The photographer tracked down eyewitnesses to the original events, interviewing them about their memories and placing some of them in the final images.
“There was no visual documentation,” she says, “so I had to go and study all the official documents and personal statements of witnesses. ... In the initial stages, I tried hard to reconstruct the moment exactly as it happened, but the more I studied, the more I became sure that an exact reconstruction is impossible. So instead ... I tried to focus on capturing the spirit of the moment and the atmosphere of it.”
Akhlaghi spent eight years studying as a filmmaker in Australia before returning to Tehran, and her eye for staging is evident in her sweeping, cinematic compositions.
One particularly powerful shot restages the aftermath of the Dec. 7, 1953, police shooting of three students during a protest at Tehran University, commemorated every year on Student Day.
Smoke hangs in the foreground of the photograph. In the background, students and staff flee in panic. The bodies of students, in blood-soaked white shirts and suits, lie sprawled on the floor or slumped against the walls of an institutional hallway. One is held aloft by a slew of people clutching at his sleeves, his arms spread like wings.
The harrowing photo evokes the scene’s noise, panic and chaos, the eerie stillness of the dead contrasting with the urgent gestures of those seized with sorrow and panic.
“They’re really moving,” explains Akhlaghi, who says her film background helped her with the shoot. “They were running, actually, and they were shouting. They even had dialogue to say. I wanted people to think about [what happened] before and after the moment. ... It is more difficult than cinema, because you have to tell your story in only one picture.”
Many of the photos reconstruct not only deaths, but a vanished way of life. Akhlaghi restages the murder of political writer Mirzadeh Eshghi by gunmen on July 3, 1924, in the beautiful paved courtyard of a traditional house. The execution of political prisoners in Tehran on June 24, 1908, is shot in a spacious room with worn brick walls, stained-glass windows and an enormous pit in the middle of the crumbling stone floor.
“I had to improvise locations,” the photographer says, “because the real locations had changed. ... There’s lots of construction in Tehran, so I went and found the real locations but for Eshghi, for example, now there is an apartment block there. I had to go to the old parts of Tehran and find locations which were similar to what I wanted.”
Akhlaghi exhibited her work in Tehran before showing it abroad and says the show provided an outlet for long-repressed emotions.
“The public reacted very passionately,” she says. “There were people who had never been to a gallery. They just came because they heard about it. Among them, there were many friends and relatives of the murdered people, or people who deeply sympathized with them. There were so many people who cried and many of them came up and hugged me.
“It was full of passion and sorrow. It was like revealing a very old public secret, because many of those people are alive in our public memory, but we haven’t had a chance to share those memories and to mourn for them collectively. ... People traveled from other cities to come to the gallery and for the first time see a picture of someone they loved for many years but couldn’t talk about.”
The work has attracted criticism in some quarters due to Akhlaghi’s decision not to tackle incidents of violence in Iran since the 1979 revolution. The artist, who was unable to travel to the U.K. for the opening of her exhibition, says she chose the Constitutional Revolution and the Islamic Revolution as framing events because they mark major turning points in the country’s history.
“I think it’s important to remind people around the world of this bitter history that we have,” she says, “and the struggle of the people to fight for freedom for many years now in Iran.”
For those who look closely, a subtle detail cements Akhlaghi’s role in reimagining and interpreting these historical events from her own unique perspective.
“I am present in all the pictures,” she says, “wearing a red scarf. ... I’m an eyewitness to the history.”
Azadeh Akhlaghi’s “By An Eyewitness” is on show at Somerset House in London as part of the collective exhibition “Burnt Generation: Contemporary Iranian Photography” until June 1. For more information, visit