|A portrait from Kaveh Golestan’s series of photographs of prostitutes in Tehran’s Citadel, 1975-1977. Courtesy of the Kaveh Golestan Estate, and T Magazine.|
by Carol Kino, T Magazine The New York Times
Since the late ’90s, Shirin Neshat has been lauded for photographs, films and videos that explore the lives of Iranian women. Her first video, “Turbulent” (1998), featured a face-off between a male and a female singer in Islamic Iran, while “Women Without Men,” her 2009 feature film, focuses on the problems experienced by four women during the 1953 coup that brought the last shah to power. More recently, her work has addressed other countries in the Arab Spring, as in “Our House Is on Fire” (at Chelsea’s Rauschenberg Project Space, closing March 1), a group of poignant portraits of ordinary men and women in Cairo, survivors of the Egyptian revolution. “I wanted to humanize the people we think of as the other,” Neshat says.
One of her most powerful influences has been the renowned Iranian photographer Kaveh Golestan, who was killed in 2003 by land mines in northern Iraq while covering the war for the BBC. A veteran of conflicts from the Belfast Troubles to Saddam Hussein’s gassing of the Kurds, he won a Robert Capa Gold Medal in 1979 for his coverage of the Iranian revolution. He also pursued his own documentary projects, like the portraits of prostitutes he made from 1975 to 1977 in Tehran’s red-light district, a walled ghetto known as the Citadel of Shahr-e No. These 61 black-and-white prints show the women in every conceivable attitude, from confrontational and preening to dejected and cowering. They are among the few extant photographs of the Citadel, which was burned down by fundamentalists during the revolution, killing many of the women in Golestan’s pictures.
|A photo of Zarin, a character in Neshat’s “Women Without Men,” 2009, (left) next to an image from Golestan’s prostitute series. Courtesy of Shirin Neshat; Courtesy of the Kaveh Golestan Estate, and T Magazine.|
Here, Neshat on Golestan:
“The Citadel has always been such a hidden and taboo subject in Iran. Even when I was a child in the ’60s, everybody knew it existed but didn’t dare speak about it. Today there is very little visual evidence, other than Kaveh’s photographs. It was a secret for men.
“When I returned to Iran in the 1990s, I discovered that most of the men I knew, even those of my generation, had visited. Everybody wanted to be there, not necessarily to sleep with the women, but to see what it was like. It was known as an intellectual hangout. Inside, men were able to see films, drink alcohol, do drugs, listen to music. Then they could return to their daily lives. But the women remained behind. Kaveh wanted to capture their spiritual and emotional plight. Many were destitute and had been tricked into prostitution. He was one of the few to really befriend them and hear their stories.
“These images represent Iran’s perpetual battle between modernity and religious fervor. But they also have a universality that transcends Iran. Kaveh really captures the human soul and the devastation of these people. His pictures humanize the marginalized. It’s also just really powerful portraiture, in the way the images are composed and set so naturally where these women lived. You see their fascination with the West in the torn-up Hollywood posters, the mish-mash of Western outfits, the makeup they wore. Prostitution has always been taboo, and Western photographers like E. J. Bellocq have documented it. But it’s even more problematic for a Muslim country, and it was so even during the Shah’s regime.
“In my film ‘Women Without Men,’ one of the characters is a prostitute. We modeled her bedroom and the brothel exactly after Kaveh’s documentation. It was a place that was supposed to represent an idea of erotica. But in fact, it was really sad.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Via T Magazine, The New York Times