From the harems of the Qajars to the Iran-Iraq War – a history of photography in Iran
|Image by Bahman Jalali. Courtesy REORIENT.|
The emergence of photography in Iran dates back to the mid-19th century, shortly after its invention in Europe in 1839. There have been academic debates regarding the exact date, but according to the remarkable collection of historic photographs in the Golestan Palace in Tehran, the very first photographic images taken in Iran can be dated between 1839 and 1842. The Iranian Qajar monarch, Mohammad Shah (1808 – 1848), was the first person to be gifted a camera by Queen Victoria. After a few training sessions with the instrument, the monarch’s young son – 11-year old Nasereddin Mirza – showed great enthusiasm for it, and became passionate about learning everything about the magic box that captured light.
In the following years, the young prince mastered the technique, and took his camera everywhere with him in the palace, capturing pictures mostly of himself, his jesters and clowns, members of the harem, his servants, royal events, and local monuments, in addition to people of lower social ranks serving the royal family. With his photographs, Nasereddin Mirza brought a certain personal and candid quality to the art of portraiture and self-portraiture in Iran. The future Shah’s passion for photography and documenting everyday life played a crucial role in promoting modern art and the science of photography in Iran as a new form of visual contact with the rest of the world. Not only did Nasereddin Shah promote a new ‘magic’ art in Iran, but also embraced photography’s power as a limelight for his social status as a ‘modern’ monarch.
Since the development of photography in Iran, the camera has been loyal as a means towards political ends. The Qajars relied deeply on the visual arts to confirm and solidify their new positions, and also tried to create an identity for themselves as modernisers and reformers, as well as give a completely new picture of Iran to the Western world. Nasereddin Shah established a contemporary iconography of Iran through his own actions and imagination, drastically different from what European travellers to the ‘Orient’ usually depicted. Although the photographs taken by the young monarch did not portray a genuine image of Iran, they introduced to viewers the dominant visual traditions of the long-ruling Qajar dynasty, and also opened a dialogue between two different representations of Iran and the surrounding region: one presented by local artists, and the other depicted by European travellers.