Once famed for its agriculture, Sistan has suffered from drought, famine, and depopulation for years; BJP catches up with young Iranian photographer Hashem Shakeri on his images of the crisis, and on the Iranian photography scene
Born in Tehran, Iran, in 1988, Hashem Shakeri studied architecture in TAFE (New South Wales Technical and Further Education Commission of Australia), and started his professional photography career in 2010. In 2015 he was Commended in the Ian Parry Scholarship, and in 2017 his images were included in the Rencontres d’Arles exhibition Iran, Year 38, alongside work by photographers such as Abbas Kiarostami and Newsha Tavakolian, in a show curated by Newsha Tavakolian and Anahita Ghabaeian.
An Elegy for the Death of Hamun, Shakeri’s ongoing series on climate change in Sistan and Balouchestan looks at the effect of drought in the Iranian province, which is located in the southeast of the country, bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan. It has been suffering from drought for the last 18 years, which has created severe famine in a region once famed for its agriculture and forests. “Nowadays, the Sistan region has faced astonishing climate change, which has turned this wide area into an infertile desert empty of people,” writes Shakeri. “Drought, unemployment, and hopelessness for the future of this land have made 25 percent of the population in Sistan migrate in recent years.”
BJP: Why did you decide to photograph this story?
Hashem Shakeri: I’ve been closely following the problems in the province of Sistan and Baluchestan, Iran, for the past five years, I am especially concerned with the disadvantaged people who live there in dire conditions. Previously I couldn’t find the opportunity to get there for reasons of security, the distance of the province from the capital, and its sensitive geographical position – it shares borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Covering the various aspects of the issues faced by this vast province, which is the largest province of Iran, was very expensive. Finally, the final project for my university studies in Denmark gave me the motive and the opportunity to make this idea happen.
BJP: The text mentions both climate change and politics when discussing why this area is now without water, which one has had the bigger impact?
HS: It is true that climate change is happening, but I believe that this is down to the wrong approaches taken all over the world by modern, industrialised humans towards nature and the environment. With regard to this area, there two main sets of causes.
The first set of causes lies in the fact that Afghanistan refuses to conform to Iran’s water rights. The Hirmand River Agreement was signed between Iran and Afghanistan in 1972 but the Government of Afghanistan has built numerous dams which violate its water rights agreements, including four at the Upstream Hirmand, which block the water flow from reaching downstream to the Iranian territory. Since 1999, with decreasing rainfall and intermittent periods of drought, the volume of water that used to pour from Hirmand River into Lake Hamun declined steadily. There is now a major drought, which has persisted for the past 18 years.
The other set of causes, which Iran is to blame for, includes the inefficient management of water resources, wasteful withdrawal of groundwater, excessive dam construction, half-completed water management projects, and disregard for the future of the province – all of which have caused precious underground water resources to dry up completely.
BJP: How long did it take you to make this series?
HS: Right now, as I’m answering your questions, I’m in Sistan and Baluchestan for the second time so I can continue it. But the series so far was shot over about 20 days, I travelled for about 1400km around the province, mostly working along the borderline. Of course, it isn’t finished yet because there are many different issues that need to be included. As soon as I receive a financial contribution to the project, I certainly intend to go on with it.
In this project, I have mainly focused on the problem of drought and all the adverse consequences that it has brought to the local people and their lives. I took a single narrative line to give the project a consistent quality, but I know that I need to get back there in the near future to try to capture the other dimensions of drought as a social catastrophe – including pollution, unemployment, and fuel smuggling, all of which occur at the expense of human lives. I feel this urge, this sense of responsibility, that makes me want to capture the deeper layers of the situation, the suffering and the predicament of the people of Sistan and Baluchistan.
BJP: Why did you decide to shoot this series on medium format?
HS: In 2013 I went South Korea for a cultural event and, thanks to a Korean friend, tried a medium format camera for the first time. I was fascinated by the perspective, the atmosphere, and the stasis of the format but, unfortunately, couldn’t afford one then. That very day, I started forming ideas about doing this climate change project with a medium format camera. Then I came to do my final university project at the Danish School of Media and Journalism, and the university lent me a medium format camera, giving me an opportunity to make it happen after so many years.
This project is my first experience with an analogue medium-format camera and I am very pleased with the results. But the serenity and stasis that you can find in images is the result of about ten years of adventure and experimentation. The idea is that, at a time when everything is happening so rapidly, it may be better to slow down a little bit, pause and press the shutter in a more thoughtful manner – to resist the fast pace of the world so one can get a glimpse of the souls of things instead of trying so hard to capture the movements, the acts.
BJP: The images have a very consistent bleached-out colour – how did you get that palette?
HS: In my first visit to the area, I tested shooting with my digital camera to control for the sharp and direct sunlight. I decided to shoot three to four step-overs for each frame to deal with the sharp sunlight and be able to capture this forsaken, forgotten, desolate land using flat lighting and atmosphere – which I had already imagined before I got there. I took most of the photos in intense sunlight to achieve the intended atmosphere. In most projects, before I get my feet on the ground I try to imagine what I will face and decide the optimal approach, so I won’t be stupefied when I get there.
BJP: What other projects are you working on now?
HS: One of the things that’s been on my mind for years, which I’m very concerned about, is the lost identity of contemporary humans. Take for example my Haunted series – it’s a long-term project aiming to study the mental state of contemporary Iranians, lost in perplexity, restlessness, and alienation, but it attempts to reach a universal view. It’s a project that narrates metaphorically and poetically, and it allows me to intuitively explore and gain insight into complex human relationships, and all the various degrees of certainty or uncertainty that distinguish personal worldviews.
I’ve also started another project recently about people who have been driven away to the margins of Tehran for their economic status, I’m further developing An Elegy for the Death of Hamun, and of course, I have several other experimental projects that are still in the concept phase.
I consider myself primarily an artist rather than a photographer, because I believe that all artistic media have common roots, it’s just the medium that differs. I’ve had experiences in other art media as well but the medium that I pursue most seriously is photography, documentary photography in particular – with artistic roots because I believe that photography isn’t enough on its own. We, as photographers, need to cultivate our artistic insights and discover wider dimensions.
BJP: What was your residency in Denmark?
HS: It was a funded six-month stay as a student at the Danish School of Media and Journalism, and it was a very valuable experience for me. I had the chance to be challenged and to experiment, to express reckless ideas and still be listened to, no matter how radical those ideas were. I also had extremely valuable team experiences. I could exchange ideas with early-career professional photographers from different parts of the world with different cultural backgrounds.They became warm and supportive mentors and friends to me.
All of this was so, so valuable and I’m so grateful and happy to have had the experience, especially when I come from a country where the academic space for visual storytelling and photography is minimal. I hope that I can continue as a learner, as an art-lover, and have the opportunity to always challenge myself and explore new ways. Otherwise, there is nothing artistic about what I do.
BJP: Which images did you show at Arles?
HS: Arles staged an exhibition called Iran: Year 38 in 2017, which considered Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Curated by Newsha Tavakolian and Anahita Ghabaeian, it included images of the days after the revolution of Iran, the events of the Iran-Iraq War, and the daily lives of contemporary Iranians, and was very warmly received.
My project was about the last eight years of my late grandmother Madi’s life. She inspired me until her last moments, and I loved her dearly. In her later years, Madi suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and, after a stroke, lost her ability to speak. But her spirit of hope and love, her desire for life, were invincible. Her spirit has stayed with me since then, and will inspire me to the end. The project lasted for more than eight years, until she wasn’t among us anymore.
BJP: How did you get into photography in the first place?
HS: My mother was the first person to open the door to art for me, and the first time I got my hands on a camera was with my mother when I was a child. It inspired a curiosity that stayed with me for many year, but my most serious encounter with photography happened later in my life, about 12 years ago when I was a student of architecture. I was just walking around one day when I noticed that the university was hosting a photographer who had documented the Iran-Iraq war, and he was presenting his work among the students.
Curious, went in to see what was happening and came across his images of the war. I was so overwhelmed I was moved to tears. When I came out of the exhibition, I saw myself as a would-be photographer; the same day, I sold some antique pieces and an old analogue camera that I had had since childhood so that I could get a better camera. That day, the course of my life changed completely.
BJP: What do you like about photography?
HS: I dearly adore the “moment” of photography. However, one can say that the “moment” isn’t exclusive to photography, it’s there in all the other artistic media, and what’s more, it’s not just about art – you can find it in, say, a live interview, a short talk or a dialogue on a theater stage before thousands of people. It can be the moment of receiving the most precious award in your lifetime, the moment of playing a musical piece for a musician, performing a dance in the toughest condition for a dancer, presenting a speech in a most critical situation in the history of a nation for a politician.
It can be an atmosphere, a state of charisma, a spirit, a decisive moment or a breath. It’s very difficult to describe in words but the “moment” should be discovered and, in the case of photography, I can call it the “optical unconscious”. The moment that I wish to discover in my work isn’t the one that can be found on the stage or on the silver screen or anywhere else. This is the moment that can be found only in documentary photography. And if you’re a smart and sharp photographer, you can achieve it without any artificiality.
It’s a moment that’s full of energy and spirit, a moment that’s frozen as it breathes, and it’s conveyed to the audience with the same spirit, energy and atmosphere as if everything was alive and breathing. It gets into your heart and that’s all.
BJP: What’s the photography culture like in Tehran and Iran? Do you plan to stay there?
HS: Shooting socially-concerned photography isn’t easy in Iran, especially in public places. However, we have many talented and motivated photographers in Iran, whose works don’t reach an audience because of the closed space and geographical constraints. I think that’s where the biggest problem lies, because if a capable and motivated photographer can’t expand his/her world by connecting with other cultures, being encouraged and criticised and reaching out to his/her audience, he/she will soon get frustrated, and there won’t be any improvement in their work. Despite all these constraints, I’m hopeful for the future of photography in Iran, just as Iranian photographers have been very influential in the past.
Personally speaking, the raw material that inspires my art is the social context which I grew up in. I’ve lived in Iran for years and I’m very familiar with its culture and people. So I’m going to stay here, though that doesn’t mean that I’ll give up travelling, going on adventures and doing different projects around the world, just as I’ve done in the past, because all nations in the world share the same human characteristic known as identity. I believe an artist can’t separate from his/her roots for good because he/she will lose the source of his/her art. I know this from my own experience, and because I can name Abbas Kiarostami, who loved to make films in his own country.
BJP: You’ve had a lot of success in the West, is this still important and if so why?
HS: I think it’s natural for any artist to want to make sure his/her work is seen and to make sure it touches the audience, whether at home or abroad. And there’s nothing else I could wish more for because the greater the audience, the greater the motivation. And also there’s this other thing that’s so important to my job – the fact that, as my projects receive greater attention, they become financially more productive, which gives me the means to continue with more personal projects.
BJP: What do you hope to show about Iran, and what do you think about the way it’s usually represented in the West?
HS: The ultimate hope for me is that we see the day when every artist and thinker with any belief or perspective can freely produce and present his/her art. With regard to the Western media’s perspectives on Iran, I have to say that I find them mostly reductionist and problematic. I am disappointed by the views of Western media and editors toward the East.
I’ve always avoided appeasing editors to get my work published and I’ve tried to do my job as an independent photographer, whether I can sell it or not. And I’ve never given in to power relations for my personal projects; that’s the red flag to me. I absolutely oppose perspectives that are forced into the minds of the audience; it’s a consumerist perspective rather than insightful, true art. Consumerist perspectives try to impose clichéd images that the audience can easily consume, just as in consumerist cinema.
In the end, I would like to thank Søren Pagter, head of the department for photojournalism at the Danish School of Media and Journalism for all his cordial companionship during the course of this project. Special thanks goes to Fatemeh Sagheb, my sincere friend and colleague, who accompanied me in this trip. I also wish to give thanks to Ali, Mohammad, and Mohsin, my kind fixers in this project.
++This article was updated on 18 September to include the curators of the Iran, Year 38 exhibition and the title of the series An Elegy for the Death of Hamun, and to correct the spelling of “Beris”++