Iran “is such a complex place that people will, of course, tell you not to go there”. In the first chapter of an ongoing body of work, the Melbourne-based photographer challenges the “narrow and misleading” ways in which the Middle Eastern country is often portrayed
In 2016, Melbourne-based photographer Sarah Pannell spent a month couch surfing her way across Iran. Travelling from the capital, Tehran, north to Qazvin and west to Tabriz, south to Isfahan and Shiraz, and then east to Kerman and Yazd, Pannell stayed with a total of 15 families who welcomed her into their homes. “I wanted to investigate the deeply positive things that I had heard about hospitality in Iran – as a foreigner being welcomed in, and, whether that was true or not,” explained Pannell, when BJP-online interviewed her in light of her new photo book, Tabriz to Shiraz, which launches with an exhibition at Hillvale Gallery in Melbourne.
The level of hospitality that Pannell experienced was unlike anything she had before and allowed her to experience the country in a very different way than if she had been exploring alone. Rather than producing a simple travelogue taken purely from an outside and subjective perspective, Pannell was able to go deeper. Her observations were led by the friends that she made; the resulting pictures reflect that experience. “It is a very personal body of work,” she continues, “it is as much a reflection of myself as it is a reflection of them”. From an assortment of parks and cafes to the varied interiors of peoples’ homes, Pannell’s images frame what could be mundane, everyday scenes and spaces in unusual and unexpected ways.
Pannell first became interested in Iran while studying International Relations, with a major in Middle Eastern History and Politics, at university. “There was one particular class where I had to do an assignment on the Iranian revolution,” she remembers, “that was about 10 to 12 years ago now. I have remained interested in the region ever since.” A few years later, while studying photojournalism in the US, Pannell met a group of people from Iran. Hearing about the challenging decisions they had made to move away from their families, rekindled her interest in the region.
“It is such a complex place that people will, of course, tell you not to go there – especially a decade ago,” says Pannell. This, however, proved a motivating factor for Pannell’s trip. In the West, many people’s perceptions of Iran remain coloured by the events of 1979, and the instability and unrest that followed. The 1979 Iranian revolution (of which it is the 40th anniversary this year), driven by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, toppled the US-backed leadership of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Khomeini established an Islamic republic and worked to eliminate the westernisation of the country permitted by his predecessors.
“I am interested in how Iran is portrayed, particularly in the West – how complicated that is and how damaging it can be as well,” explains Pannell. “The way that it has been portrayed in western photojournalism, in particular, is quite narrow and misleading. You see the same cliched images; it does not give a clear idea of what it is like there.” The photographer was determined that her work should not have a political edge. Rather she wanted it to be led by the people she encountered en route.
In every place that Pannell stayed, she endeavoured to experience and understand the surroundings through the eyes of her hosts. “You are putting yourself in a particular position, which I had never really done before, and it can be quite emotionally taxing,” she says. The photographer reflects on one image, in which a young woman on a bike – a small bandage covering the left-hand side of her forehead – gazes into the lens. Pannell accompanied the woman to a female-only park, a growing phenomenon across the country, where she was attempting to ride for the first time. “There are security guards at the entrance who are male, but, apart from that, when you go in it is filled with women and children,” explains Pannell. “Obviously, I had never been to a place like that before. It was really nice to be there with her; it was a surreal experience.”
Pannell returned to Iran in 2017. This time she explored regions including the Gilan Province that borders the Caspian Sea and Kurdistan in the mountainous region bordering Iraq. Her debut photo book, entitled Tabriz to Shiraz, comprises 40 images from both these visits. “This book is made up of the photographs that do not quite fit,” she explains. “The idea is that it tells the story in a more overall sense; that it offers a glimpse into the Iran that I experienced. Later down the line, I am going to dive in a little deeper.” Pannell plans to return to the country this September to continue shooting this longer term body of work. “ I want to continue to explore the idea of hospitality,” she says. “I am always shooting with that in mind, which is why the couch surfing element was, and continues to be, so important”.