In October 2007, I had the unique pleasure of stumbling across the Fundació Antoni Tàpies during my first visit to Barcelona. I was struck by a black-and-white photograph dating to 1979 on the temporary exhibition bill (see below). It featured a group of men and women gathering outside a ransacked concrete structure with shattered windows and thousands of documents littering the street. A graffito of Ayatollah Khomeini sprayed onto the plundered building overlooked the crowd as individuals stood in place feverishly reading and collecting papers by the handful. These papers were in fact sensitive material that had been stored in a governmental building; as the crowd read on, they slowly were uncovering the workings of the deposed regime’s bureaucratic and security apparati.
The photograph is a visual document of the revolutionary fervor and social unrest that rocked Iran from 1978 to 1979, and it has been adopted into the collective memory of the Iranian Revolution. It serves as a historical milepost, capturing an instant of momentous change– of a society throwing off the shackles of an oppressive regime and unaware of the one to follow. Mesmerized by the image, I felt compelled to enter the Fundació’s doors to see the work of Bahman Jalali (1945-2010), the photographer featured in the exhibition.
Born in 1945, Jalali developed a passion for taking pictures during his youth. While he originally studied economics and political science at Melli University in Tehran, he soon dedicated his life to photography and joined the Royal Photographic Society in Great Britain in 1974. From the same generation of photographers that included Kaveh Golestan, Jalali helped popularize Iranian photography within the general public and the international community. He gained notoriety for documenting the the tumultuous events of the seventies and eighties, producing iconic images of a country in the midst of transformation and defending itself from an imposed war with Iraq from 1980-88.
After the ceasefire between Iran and Iraq in 1988, Jalali traveled to various regions in Iran and captured aspects of quotidian Iranian life, such as the daily labor of the fishermen in Bushehr, the routine tasks of the residents of Massouleh, and the traditional desert architectural forms of Yazd. He later moved away from the documentary style of his youth and imaginatively experimented with negatives dating to the later years of the Qajar Dynasty that ruled Iran from 1785 to 1925 . While the Fundació displayed many series produced during Bahman Jalali’s career, I was captivated by his Qajar-era photomontages as well as his photographs chronicling the 1979 Revolution and Iran-Iraq War.
As I followed the various series of the exhibition chronologically, Bahman Jalali’s evolution as a visual artist was evident. A methodological feature of Jalali’s photography was his preference for pictorial essays that illuminated a particular time and place. His early work was concerned with excerpting images from the present which helped frame the visual history of Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War. Jalali himself understood the significance of his work during those years, stating that, “we construct history through photographs. They shape it for us.” With his later Qajar-era photomontage work however, Jalali came to reevaluate the position of photography within the creation of history; photography does not just document the present, but can extend back through temporality and shape one’s understanding of the past– acting as a bridge between history and collective memory.
We use our memories and experiences to make sense of a visual documentation of “what was.” However, while we sometimes imagine memory to be rooted in experience, it often is shaped by significant political shifts or changes in our own personal beliefs. Thus as time progresses, reevaluating photographs can dramatically reshape our own recollection of the past and help retrieve moments that have fallen through the cracks of our memory or excluded from a dominant social history.
His first series– titled Days of Blood, Days of Fire (Tehran 1978-1979)– was done in collaboration with his wife Rana Javadi and chronicled the popular uprising that overthrew Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Taken over a period of sixty-four days, the series tracked the progress of the revolution from December 10th 1978, when millions of anti-shah demonstrators marched through the streets of Tehran, to February 11th 1979, when the final remnants of the Pahlavi regime collapsed when the Supreme Military Council finally declared itself neutral. Jalali produced iconic images of several major events, such as the departure of the Shah on January 16th and the return of Khomeini to Iran from exile on February 2nd.