Iran, Year 38: 66 Iranian Photographers

Eglise Sainte-Anne, Arles; 03/07/17 to 27/08/17

I wasn’t expecting to appreciate this collection quite as much as I did. I had expectations of dry, serious documentary works on unrest, war, poverty and Otherness, and for the first couple of sections this was the case. But then it opens up into a diverse selection of thematically linked photographers, some restrospective and some contemporary, and few of them resemble traditional documentary photography – or each other.

Why am I surprised? I guess there isn’t really such as thing as an archetypal Iranian photographer in the same way as there isn’t an archetypal British, or French, or Colombian photographer. The connection, such that there is one, is that much of the work does address issues of cultural and national identity; sections are called things like “Who Are We” and “What We Should Be”.

A lot of the shows at Arles this year are based around a specific country, but I think this one pulls it off better than the others. You feel like (and it is only a feeling, as I have no direct knowledge of Iran) you’re getting a more fully-rounded set of views of the country.

Main takeaway

I came away knowing more about Iran precisely because some of the images made me stop and read the captions.

So this exhibition made me more aware of something that I thought about a lot over the time I was here: I may only be speaking for myself, but I find a photograph compelling for one (or both) of two reasons: it is interesting on a purely visual level, or it is an inherently interesting subject, captured in a photograph. The sweet spot is, of course, the photo that meets both criteria. And I had pre-emptively written off this exhibition as I’m ‘not that interested’ in Iran. Yet some of these images were sufficiently visually attractive that they drew me in – they made me interested.

This insight might be screamingly obvious, but I’m realising the importance of the raw visual appeal of the image – because not everyone is inherently interested in the subject matter. The aesthetic is the enticement to look closer and longer.