Moments of death, crime scenes and mourning: Iranian artist Azadeh Akhlaghi reconstructs and freezes dramatic turning points in her country’s history. Do they also conceal a message for Iran's current leaders?
On the summer evening of 20 June, 2009, a bullet hit student Neda Agha-Soltan in the chest. The 26-year-old from Tehran had taken part in a demonstration against the contested re-election of Mahmud Ahmedinejad as the Iranian president. A video of Neda as she lay dying was beamed around the world, and she became the icon of what has gone down in history as the failed Green Revolution. How does the death of a single person alter the fate and consciousness of an entire country? And what about those dying moments that were never documented – because there were no witnesses, or because somebody had all the evidence destroyed?
Inspired by Agha-Soltan, artist Azadeh Akhlaghi has reconstructed and photographed 17 political assassinations and tragic deaths from the last hundred years of Iranian history: deaths, crime scenes and sorrow that shaped her country. By An Eye-Witness is the title of the series that has come out of this project.
With this series, Akhlaghi is addressing Iranians from different generations, political convictions and backgrounds. “I want people to remember deaths regardless of the reasons. It is about turning points in our history,” says the 36-year-old in an interview with zenith. Akhlaghi makes up for the things that journalists and photographers missed at the time of the offence. To do so, she evaluates reports from eyewitnesses, literature and interviews with relatives and friends.
Even when documentary images exist, she doesn’t use them. Nonetheless, scenes often seem authentic. The re-enacted images of the 1967 fatal car crash of avant-garde poet and film director Forough Farrokhzad, for instance, caused a great deal of confusion, Akhlaghi explains. When the images were first exhibited in Tehran, rumours spread that they were from the recently released archives of the SAVAK, the much-feared secret services of the Shah era.
In March 2013, only three months before presidential elections in Iran, Akhlaghi exhibited her pictures in a small Tehran gallery. A bold move. Though the date coincided with the Iranian New Year celebration Nowruz, the turnout was enormous.
“People were so touched and visibly moved. Some were happy, others sad, but I could see admiration on all of their faces,” Akhlaghi says proudly. And it wasn’t just art friends and collectors there, but also former political activists, socialists, and relatives and friends of the victims. “Some visitors came in a chador and were obviously devoutly religious. For many of them, it was their very first visit to a gallery.”
Looking at the re-enacted murder of activist Taghi Arani by the Shah’s secret police in 1940, one mother saw an almost direct reflection of her own son’s story – he had been killed in the 2009 demonstrations in Tehran by the loyalist Basij militias.
Political assassination is still a weapon in the arsenal of the Iranian secret service. Since the revolution in 1979, thousands of members of the opposition have been taken care of in this way. For understandable reasons, Akhlaghi does not deal with the Songs of the Islamic Republic in her photos. But it is certainly possible to discover allusions and parallels to the here and now.
Azadeh Akhlaghi, born in 1978 in Shiraz, is a photographer, film-maker and translator. She studied in Melbourne and was a director’s assistant for film-maker Abbas Kiarostami. By an Eye-Witness was exhibited, together with other works by Iranian photographers, in the exhibition Burnt Generation in Somerset House London. She lives in Iran.
Equally clear are the references to art history. Akhlaghi says she was guided in particular by Baroque artists such as Caravaggio. Classical and neoclassical oil paintings also seem to have served as models, for example in The Execution of Bijan Jazani, on the hill of the notorious Evin Prison in northern Tehran. The image composition is clearly reminiscent of Goya’s The Third of May 1808.
On the other hand, Akhlaghi’s version of the death of the political poet Mohammad Yazdi Farrokhi, murdered by an air injection on 17 October, 1939 in Qasr Prison, calls to mind Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat. To create it, she studied around 400 paintings for their use of colour, light and composition. She also found inspiration in documentary photos, for example from the Vietnam War or the Kent State massacre. The research extended over three years, leaving Akhlaghi precious little time to produce the photos: the scenes were planned down to the last detail, but all had to be taken in winter. “For the murder scene of Eshghi, a political poet and newspaper publisher, I stuck leaves from potted plants onto the branches of the tree by hand,” she says. The death occurred in summer.
The political references are also partly hidden in the details. “If you look at the picture of Hamid Ashraf’s murder more closely, you can make out a wardrobe with fur coats and high heels in the mirror. That’s how the socialists disguised themselves back then to evade the police,” the artist explains. The insurgent was killed in 1976. Looking more closely, though, we see that the soldiers at the crime scene are wearing uniforms from various epochs: the officers depicted just left of centre are wearing the camouflage pattern of today’s units. Some viewers in Iran may well read this as a denunciation of the methods of the current regime.
But Akhlaghi also wants to address the West: after all, the British and American secret services pulled the strings to orchestrate the 1953 coup against then Prime Minister Mohamad Mossadegh. As such, according to Akhlaghi, they also played a part in the murder of three Tehran students.
The images were not just exhibited in Iran, but also entirely produced there – partially in the original settings, which brought particular production problems. For example, they had to to depict women without hijabs, since at the time head coverings for women were not obligatory. Akhlaghi didn’t want to put wigs on the models, as she was afraid of compromising authenticity. So it had to be done quickly.
Akhlaghi was ultimately unable to realise some of the scenes she planned to, such as the massacre on the eve of the revolution in Jaleh Square in 1979. “For the shooting, I would have had to have Mujahedeen Street blocked off from six o’clock in the morning. Women without headscarves and a mountain of dead people wouldn’t really have left a good impression.” In all the images, a young woman with a red scarf can be seen: Akhlaghi herself. “With this, I wanted to point out that none of us were there. None of us were able to stop time and avert the deaths of these people.”
This article was first published in the 3/2014 edition of zenith.