An Anglo-Iranian and an Australian photographer join forces to provide "a counter to the heavily skewed images that we so often see" of Persia
In October 2016, Maryam Khastoo and Jonathan Clifford went to Iran to work on Khastoo’s ongoing project on her mother. Born to Iranian parents in Wales, Khastoo has visited the country regularly since she was a child, and lived there from 2010-2014; her mother now lives in Tehran, and Khastoo and Clifford spent ten days with her, Khastoo taking photographs and Clifford shooting film.
After they’d finished work in the capital they “felt the need to get out” says Clifford, who was raised in Australia, and headed north for the quiet towns between the Caspian Sea and Alborz Mountain range. “Everyone we spoke of our plans with insisted that we go south to Isfahan, Shiraz or Yazd, which are the most common destinations for visitors to Iran due to their historical importance,” says Clifford.
“But although these places certainly appealed, the idea of heading north, where Maryam has family, and staying with them on their orange and kiwi orchard, seemed a much better way to unwind after the hustle and chaos of Tehran.
“We’d also discussed the idea of doing a road trip-style project prior to going to Iran, and felt that it would be more interesting, both for us and an audience, if we headed north,” he adds. “It’s not somewhere tourists generally go, though it’s the preferred destination for many Iranians who are looking for somewhere to retreat to for a few days to relax.”
The pair, who first met on the University of Westminster’s MA Documentary Photography and Photojournalism course in 2014, took photographs along the five-hour trip and once they’d arrived, focusing particularly on the people they met. The portraits include a shot of Khastoo’s cousin Nathalie, but many are of strangers, who were initially reticent but happy to get involved once Khastoo had explained what they were doing.
“Many of the images we made would have been very difficult to get, had it not been for the fact that Maryam speaks fluent Farsi,” says Clifford. “Once she had explained the purpose of the images, everyone was willing to be photographed.
“We intended the series to be an honest reflection of the lives of everyday Iranians, who are seldom included in the present conversations about Iran,” he continues. “Although we recognise that the country has some very concerning ongoing issues, and believe these shouldn’t be ignored, we also see that there is more to the country and its people than is often reported.”
The pair hadn’t collaborated photographically before but, says Clifford, tried to use their differences as a strength, producing “a set of individual but complimentary images”. Both shot on 120 film, Clifford on a 6×7 and Khastoo on a 6×6, and the dense cloud and rain they encountered once they’d passed through the Alborz mountain tunnel “meant we mostly had fairly flat lighting, which helped keep some consistency throughout the images”.
“The constantly changing colours of the scenery as we drove north was certainly something we noticed and tried to make sure to include in the images,” he says. “The landscape between Tehran and the Alborz mountain range is incredibly dramatic and beautiful, starting with dry, rocky terrain and getting increasingly green the further north you go.”
Clifford and Khastoo then returned to Britain and started editing their work, planning a newsprint publication including both this series and images by other photographers in the region, and an exhibition and short documentary. Their work took on a extra dimension when US President Donald Trump announced a travel ban on immigrants from Iran and six other countries in January, says Clifford – a ban which federal judges blocked, but which the White House is still working on securing.
“We never planned on the project having any particular political motivation, but we both feel that this situation is too important to ignore,” he says. “We present these photographs in the hope that they will serve as a counter to the heavily skewed images that we so often see of this complex and misunderstood country.”
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