Iranian photography exhibition highlights poignant scenes of unity amid war

A burning motorcycle lies abandoned on a busy street in Iran. Black smoke rises from the searing flames as civilians march down the street with their backs turned to the blaze. The crackle of the burning motorbike almost permeates the monochrome photograph taken more than four decades ago.

The sharp image, titled ‘Enghelab Street’, is part of an unprecedented collection of documentary works by artist Bahman Jalali and his wife Rana Javadi. In the temporary exhibition “Living in Two Times” hosted at the National Museum of Asian Art, haunting images and photo montages by the two artists capture events in Tehran, Iran, during the 1979 Iranian Revolution and reflect on the lives and the landscapes that changed dramatically during the Iran-Iraq War.

In the ‘Days of Blood, Days of Fire’ photo series, Jalali and Javadi capture a turbulent period of protests and violence in Iran under the country’s repressive and authoritarian government. Strikes and public demonstrations swept millions of Iranians into the streets as they demanded the removal of the shah. Joining crowds in and around the city’s main streets, Jalali and Javadi captured moments of song and destruction with intervals of silent angst and reflection.

In a whirlwind of unified chaos, the Iranians piled on top of the skeleton of a large, unfinished building. In the streets, soldiers joined the people. With a semi-automatic rifle pointed skyward, a soldier is lifted onto another man’s shoulders and chants with the crowd.

[A UMD senior’s guide to a great start of the fall semester]

Between the images of smoky skies and the streets occupied by army tanks, the mental and emotional toll of months-long chaos settles. In “Pasdaran Street”, a man’s disbelief turns his attention away from the gun posed behind him and towards the foot traffic of fellow protesters.

At the end of the 20th century in Iran, the flourishing field of photography limited the coverage of war fronts to men. This left Javadi, who worked closely with her husband, with limited chances of being behind the camera. Nevertheless, at the beginning of 1979, Javadi takes to the streets to capture the atmosphere of a country in transition.

In one of Javadi’s photographs, people are stopped in their tracks, reading newspapers from a ransacked police station. Documents cover the sidewalk and hang from the branches of the trees like confetti. In another image, crowds of supporters march towards Ruhollah Khomeini, the acclaimed leader of the Iranian revolution, in a desperate attempt to touch any sign of hope for a better future.

Meanwhile, Jalali turned his lens to the shocking scenes of normalized destruction. A splatter of black paint or blood stained the ground in a photograph, eyes avoiding the evocative visual. Another photograph shows a young boy standing on a ledge in the back of an ambulance. The boy appears to be hiding from the protest taking place just on the other side of the vehicle.

Despite the hopes of the rebels, the dismissal of the shah did not put an end to the troubles. Political upheaval in Iran rekindled long-running tensions with Iraq, sparking a territorial war that claimed millions of lives before a stalemate in 1988.

Jalali worked independently to record the physical and psychological destruction of two cities – Abadan and Khorramshahr – as the two sides fought for control. Buildings and neighborhoods were left marred and desolate as structural ruins underscored the scale of loss in landscapes filled with emptiness and debris.

In another image, a car with no windows and a detached front bumper is stuck vertically in a pile of dirt and rubble. Bullet holes cascade down the side of a building. A hole in the ceiling of a hospital room allows sunlight to shine on a broken bed frame covered in fallen insulation. Packed suitcases are left among the ruins of a crumbling brick house.

[Lorde swimming in the Potomac isn’t surprising]

The structures left behind mark the damage of a past better abandoned than saved. Yet the images of people evoke an inescapable understanding of the future and of all who have been lost in the wreckage.

In one image, the barren floor is strewn with bottles, cans and corpses. A man lies heavily on his knees, his helmet removed and his hands covering his face. In another landscape, flags paint the horizon to mark burial sites as signs rest on the heads of bodies wrapped in sheets secured with rocks. These signs rest at the head of bodies wrapped in sheets fixed by rocks.

Throughout the Iran-Iraq War, Javadi was denied permission to photograph near the war front with her husband. She then moved on to photographing seemingly mundane scenes that more deeply conveyed her outlook on life. It showed his return to a restrictive society after the exhilarating days of the revolution.

After the revolution, the Iranian government reversed nearly a century of progress on women’s rights. Javadi began capturing solemn visuals, such as one of his nieces playing the violin on a bare tree, as women were forbidden from performing in public. In another photograph, which Javadi describes as a self-portrait, a dead horse lies alone at the bottom of a ravine.

Three years after her husband’s death in 2010, Javadi created a series called “Never Ending Chaos”. Even when she was unable to photograph from the front lines, Javadi said she was still obsessed with the period.

Drawing inspiration from Jalali’s Abadan and Khorramshahr images, Javadi superimposed fragments of tile images to reconceptualize scenes of violence from television footage of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

A slashed face on the forehead bleeds, cloned throughout the play. An atomic bomb explodes in a cloud of smoke, as Javadi seemingly speaks of the countless lives lost in a world caught in an endless cycle of violence.

Tracey L. Sweeney