“The Revolution Was a Wave that Overtook Me”A Conversation with Photographer Parham Taghioff by Milad Odabaei

Parham Taghioff was born in 1978, the year of the Iranian Revolution. Implicitly referring to the systematic re-writing of history in the aftermath of the Revolution, he jokingly tells me he was born in the “year zero.” He traces his interest in images to when he would look at the newspaper with his grandfather. Parham’s early daily routine, including “reading” the paper, unfolded during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988. Given the destabilization of words and images in his work and our conversation about it, I am struck by the fact that young Parham could only decode images from the paper during his early years.

Parham completed primary school during the years of “Reconstruction” (1988-96) and transitioned to college during the “Reform” period (1997-2005). In Iran, “Reconstruction” commonly refers to President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s shift away from the bellicose political culture of the Iran-Iraq War: the “red siren” of Iraqi air raids, daily celebrations of the martyrs’ life/death, and long lines for basic necessities. The Reform movement refers to the period following Mohammad Khatami’s election in 1997, in which he demanded a more open civic and political culture that had been gradually foreclosed upon by the consolidation of power during the war. Parham recalls the passionate investment of his generation in the Reform movement and the shock of what many call “the Ahmadinejad episode” of Iranian politics. While it might still be too early to decipher the meaning and significance of this episode, one thing he credits it with is moving past what in hindsight appears as the highly reactive political culture of the Iran-Iraq War, and the Reconstruction and Reform movements. He tells me that he is often terrified of looking back at his generation’s passionate and hopeful investment in the Reformist movement. Ahmadinejad’s presidency, including his contentious second-term election and the ensuing violent events in 2009, was a shock to Parham’s peaceable and calm sensibilities. It also provided an opportunity to reckon with the history that was both his and foreign to him. He tells me that he “couldn’t work for a few years during this time.” When he resumed work, Choogh-Alef was the result.

MO: Parham, we are sitting in this room with two of your photographs from the same 2012 collection. Tell us about the collection.

PT: The title of the collection is choogh alef or “bookmark.” Choogh alef in Farsi has two meanings. It recalls maktab-khaneh, the traditional schools where in an older period teaching and learning took place. In these schools, the master and the pupils used sticks to navigate the lines of the Quran and religious texts. The stick was used to avoid touching the letters and to guide the reading of the text. It was also used for another kind of guiding: the master used the stick for disciplining the students.

MO: Let’s also note that Choogh alef also refers to the stick-like shape of the first letter of the Persian alphabet, alef. The term suggests that the discipline that guides “the letter” and makes possible deciphering it is internal to the letter itself – a theological idea.

PT: Yes, this concept was very interesting to me in reckoning with these historical images in relation to what I was facing. In these works I am putting some marks on images. I choose the images, place them along texts and other images, and I try to extract new concepts through these markings. The camera is an instrument like the choogh alef: a somewhat accessible and democratic instrument that anyone can use to mark things. A layperson or a professional photographer can use it to document and demonstrate his or her vision through an image. He or she can frame the image, cut it or sever it from its background and in so doing, mark it anew. The camera, like choogh alef, guides and disciplines you and allows you not to get lost. At the same time, the disciplining and the framing can produce a particular vision or ideology. Consider news photography that frames and projects images at us, disciplining and guiding us.

I’ve used the camera here not to produce a particular ideology or reading of history, but to produce a series of confrontations and questions from the historical discourses that I was preoccupied with. Using the camera, I’ve tried to produce a new experience. I’ve used images to make new images: re-imag-ining older images.

MO: The key word with choogh alef seems to be discipline. In addition to maintaining order in school, choogh alef allows us to keep our distance with sacred words; we can get close to them and read them without touching them. What were you trying to forge a relationship with through the camera? Tell us about the images and histories you are working through in this collection.

PT: The images relate history. I am preoccupied with history, the history of Iran. Perhaps I can say that these works reimagine history and perhaps, with this reimagining I can stand on a harder ground and find a more stable position in relation to it. I’ve been researching and working through historical events such as the 1953 Coup and the Constitutional Revolution and this work consciously and unconsciously affects my photography.

There are three sets of images or archives that I am working through together in this collection. One is the Qajar photography around the Constitutional Revolution. The second set, which feels more tangible and closer to me, is of the Iran-Iraq War. The third set is composed of Western texts on photography, which are available in Iran in censored form. While I was trying to develop a sense and history of photography both in Iran and in the West, I came up against these texts in censored form. Unfortunately we don’t have a systematic and rigorous history of photography in Iran that can make sense of the contemporary moment of Iranian photography. We know about some moments of it, such as the Qajar moment, more than others but we are still in the process of thinking through photography in Iran. In a sense my collection also engages the history of photography in Iran.

MO: It might not initially be obvious why and how the censored images of Western texts relate to the Iranian Constitutional Revolution or the War. However as you said, in your effort to understand the history of photography in Iran, you have come up against the censorship of texts that would elucidate photography and its histories. This provides continuity across the three archives that you channel here. This is interesting and important. It speaks of a very complex and interesting relation to the West and Western cultural, intellectual and technological developments and productions, on the one hand, and to our efforts to sort through the history of Iran and developments therein, on the other. If the continuity that you suggest is there, and it seems to me it is, the censorship of the latter is also the censorship and obfuscation of the former. Your collection suggests that something has been rendered invisible or out of reach across the three archives. The covered bodies of (mostly) women in the photographic texts connect to the out-of-focus or cropped images of the clerics who were at the forefront of the Constitutional debates and struggles.

MO: Why the Constitutional Revolution? Why the War?

PT: Photography arrives and develops in Qajar Iran almost around the same time as it does in the West. Initially it’s confined to the court. The images of the Constitutional Revolution are significant because we see the camera entering the space of social and political developments. The camera plays its part, produces images and documents and an archive of something new that is forming, a “public.” It is a part of it.
An important later development is the War. At this moment many news photographers are emerging and their work is situated within a political and military effort. Their work is directly part of an ideological project that continues after the war itself ends. We can see this in the series titled Jang-e Tahmili, “Imposed War,” produced by Nashr-e Defae Moghadas, “The Holy Defense Publishing.” This series, which still continues to be published, claims to document and to demonstrate to the world the violence and crises imposed on Iran during the war. This is the claim of the publisher and not simply my characterization. Their work emerges in an international space of competition and combats characterizations of Iran as a menace by predominantly Western and Arab media. The images documented that Iran was the subject of an injustice by Iraq and the regional and international coalition that backed it.
My work is exploring different possibilities within these archives while considering the history of photography’s development in Iran.

MO: In this collection we have the 1906 Constitutional Revolution, then the War, and the particular form of censorship and revisionist history which closely relates to the post-revolutionary years. The 1979 Revolution itself is directly absent in this collection!

PT: Perhaps this is because I didn’t directly come into contact with the Revolution but have directly lived and interacted with its aftermath. The Revolution was a wave that overtook me.

MO: Yes, but let me insist: you could have brought forth and re-imag-ined the 1979 Revolution as you did the Constitutional Revolution, as a question or as a problematic. It’s interesting to me that you have not. Perhaps the Constitutional Revolution and the War have been more important in Iran’s last century. Or perhaps because your life trajectory coincides with the Revolution, you are too close to confront or reimagine it. In your own words, the Revolution was a wave that overtook you.

PT: Perhaps. The history and the imagery of the war, among these images, are most tangible for me. But what is interesting to me is that my audience paid more attention to and was better able to relate to the censored images than those from both the War and the Constitutional Revolution. The images of the War were perhaps too painful. Perhaps Constitutionalism doesn’t produce the same difficult affect but is distant and beyond the grasp of our historical memory.

MO: In your work in this collection, and also elsewhere, history, including the history of photography in Iran, emerge as a central problematic. If we can think of the contemporary moment through your work, when do you think history emerges as a problematic, as an image that requires deciphering, or a textuality that demands a reading and a re-reading? Let’s also note that you’ve been speaking as if you read texts with your camera. Your work references our religious tradition, in reference to which you are cultivating a textual photographic practice. You’re reading and re-imag-ining history after the War, the periods of Reconstruction, and Reform, and in the midst of the political crises of the Ahmadinejad presidency.

PT: I didn’t work a few years after Ahmadnejad’s election. The events of ‘09 were also terrifying for me as a person who understands himself as a peaceful quietist. In hindsight I became more critical of the Reformist movement and their strategies. I became more focused, interested and obsessed with questioning history and the question of history. During this period the present collection was conceived. I wanted to review our history by choogh alef and see what’s going on, what has happened. I wanted to see if we can extract a lesson in this review. It seems to me being with these questions, even without answers, can have a lot of important consequences.

MO: Last question – do you think that in the last decade after the Reform movement something happened? Something that in the aftermath of the Revolution and during the War you and your grandfather were looking for in the paper? Something that we all looked for in the Reformist papers of the late 90s and early 2000s?

PT: No, not the event we were looking for. But something else has happened. In the last 10 years we’ve changed a lot. I’ve changed a lot. I am sometimes terrified of how I perceived the world I was living in 10 years ago. I am much less naively hopeful about political reform and change. I now feel lots of our views and practices were ideological, and in this sense similar to the ideologies of war and the Revolution. I feel like today I have arrived, and perhaps we have arrived, at another year zero. I am happy to start over, reading, thinking and looking anew.

– Milad Odabaei is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology and the Program in Critical Theory at University of California, Berkeley. His research examines the practices of reading, translation, and history-writing in modern Iran where “translation” of European social thought has emerged as a central form of intellectual production. He studies the intersection of translation and the movement of Iranian political discourses, including Shi’a Islamic political discourse, in the modern period. His dissertation, “Giving Words: Translation and History in Modern Iran,” offers an examination of the emergence of translation in the nineteenth century prior to the 1906 Constitutional Revolution; its developments in the twentieth century around the 1979 Revolution; and identifies the fault-lines that underlie contemporary post-revolutionary practices of translation and that constitute their limitations and potentialities.

His research has been recognized by the Social Science Research Council as well as the UC Berkeley Institute of International and Area Studies, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, and the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion.

Milad presented a paper on Translation and History in Modern Iran: the case of the Enlightenment at the Gingko Library – British Institute of Persian Studies Conference on the 1906 Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906, which took place in September 2015 in London.