Aydin Matlabi: Relationship with Revolution – Dayna McLeod

Came Like Water, Like Wind I Go

Came Like Water, Like Wind I Go

Came Like Water, Like Wind I Go

Sufi Vision

Sufi Vision

Sufi Vision

Having lived the revolution, Aydin Matlabi is a photographer to be reckoned with. Stunningly powerful in content, conflict and composition, Matlabi’s work seduces us with sumptuous imagery while kicking us in the teeth with the potential violence of political upheaval. NMP is very pleased to present an interview with Matlabi about his work and his practice, and to showcase images from his series: “Came Like Water, Like Wind I Go” that captures the uprising in Tehran on the eve of the 2009 election; and “Sufi Vision” that explores Iranian culture and Islamic doctrine.

Dayna McLeod: What is your background, and how has this personal history influenced your approach to your practice?

Aydin Matlabi: I am from Iran, both of my parents are Turks, and I see myself as Canadian more than anything else. Yet, I have an emotional attraction to my parents’ heritage. For the past six years, I have been investigating my heritage by exploring Iran. Every year, I try to find answers and create new questions. Unfortunately, it was a very bad and abusive relationship, a love/hate relationship. I was in love with Iran, but Iran just hated me. And like a fool, I always ran back to embrace her and to receive another beating. Now that I think about it, I feel foolish.

Born in Iran during the Iraq/Iran war, I was raised under bombardments and fanatical dictatorship. My parents immigrated to Montréal, and I left dictatorship for Persian street gangs. When I finally left the streets, which was the same time I started university, I decided to explore war photography, and that brought me back to Iran for the first time in 17 years.

I did not picture such a contradiction. Nothing made sense, Islamic doctrines were convoluted, Persian traditions were lost and people hated their neighbours. Just imagine Allah wearing fake Armani jeans, counterfeit Gucci shoes, and a shiny Chicago Bulls t-shirt, with an omnipotent, pretentious smile. That is downtown Tehran. You must understand that Iran is an Islamic Republic that is bombarded with American and western stereotypes. On one hand, you hear the Mullahs preaching the Koran on the radio, while the television shows the latest hits of Britney Spears. Girls in black hijab are downloading porno on their cell phones, and beside a poster of Khoeime there is an ad for Diesel Jeans. This pretense is a build-up of three generations of suppression, economic growth, cultural pride and religious imprisonment. The first generation lived through a dictatorship of the Shah and then revolution by conservative religious leaders. Their sons were drafted to fight and sacrifice their lives in a savage war with Iraq, all for the sake of Allah. And the final generation has grown up watching satellite television and living in a world of mass communication, while their parents continue to believe in the Sharia law and conservative Islamic power. The mass population prefers reality shows on MTV to the study of Holy Imams. The religious leaders have lost the battle; the only way to stay in power is by use of strength and censorship. And I was welcomed into this with pollution, car horns and a homeless child selling me Sufi poems.

My last trip in the summer of 2009 was to finish my thesis project for my Masters degree, “Promiscuity in a Islamic state,” as an alternative to getting pulled into the mass demonstrations that shocked the power base of Iran. Upon my arrival, I was greeted by people who were excitedly anticipating the elections, their excitement stemming from the emergence of hope for democracy. Crowds of smiling faces were chanting and breaking into song, they were dancing in plain view in a country that has a history of repressing such public displays. People emerged from seclusion, gathered and formed crowds, and for the first time in thirty years, they felt they would have a say in the outcome of the elections, in the future of their country: a say that could bring about change. However, their voices remained stifled. A week before the election results were made official, I received a literal blow to the head, foreshadowing the blow that would be delivered to the collective psyche of hopeful Iranians. I soon realized that my country was to revisit a violent chapter that had become all too familiar in its history.

I had witnessed my share of violence and believed I was ready for whatever may be the outcome of the demonstrations. I did not, however, expect such cruelty and brutality. I did not expect what some have called a revolution. Least of all, I did not think that I would take part in a revolution.

As I marched along with the swarm of demonstrators and became a part of them, I was no longer attempting to maintain a level of impartiality as a photographer trailing a subject. Instead, I kept in stride as we walked side by side, and in doing so, I became an outlaw in my own country. Since it was illegal for any foreign correspondents to document or participate in the demonstrations, I became the only western photographer who dared to break the law and witness the uprising.

Then like a bad nightmare, I woke up. Banished from my native land, brandished as a rioter and a criminal, I was left with nothing. That is when I decided to explore Iran with my personal vision in focus, to explore its seductive literary narrative and mythology.

DMC: In your website biography, you state that your “work has reached a new level where [you are] able to incorporate the medium of documentary photography, the narrative of art history, and the theoretical understanding of pop culture.” What was the impetus for this significant shift?

AM: I was a war photographer and a bad one. I could not stop myself from helping people. It sounds stupid, but if you want to be a good correspondent, you need to be morally silent. I could never do that; I became friends with the soldiers, citizens, insurgents, etc… I got attached to the subject. Which is a very bad idea when you know that you may never see them again. Yet my role model is Robert Capa: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” This quote is always taken to mean physically close, but I think it means to be emotionally and mentally close.

Art history is the most important rulebook for any artist! If you do not know your history, you are not an artist! Art is a language, and a great artist is able to translate that language to any audience. I truly do not believe that art is subjective and that every person has his way of reading it.

The way my photography evolved was simple: I stopped calling myself a photographer and referred to myself as an artist. That sounds so cliché, but it is true. Like a painter, I learned to create the images beforehand. It was no longer about capturing the moment, it become about creating the moment.

DMC: Who has influenced your work? Who do you look to for inspiration?

AM: Painters are the greatest source of visual inspiration. My favorite time would be the Romantic/Realist period. They were masters! Their skills were immaculate, they were inspired by their time, and when they broke the rules, they had a vision beforehand. When I look at their work, I am overpowered by their visual esthetics.

The greatest artist in my eyes is Alfredo Jarr. He is able to communicate a feeling to any type of audience. His work is always political, honest and powerful.

Finally, history: I have a naïve belief that by understanding the past you can predict the future. Reading about ancient civilization, humanity’s ups and downs, cultural struggles, etc… They inspire me to look for patterns that could happen and inspire me to understand the time we live in. Even though it never works out, it is still entertaining to try to predict humanity’s future.

DMC: How do you use symbolic language and iconic representation in your work?

AM: A simple hand gesture can demonstrate weakness or strength. There are poses that purposely strengthen the composition and prevent a fragile subject from being viewed as such. I enjoy creating narrative in a photograph; I believe a great image is one that prevents the viewer from looking away. It helps to create a dialogue with the audience. It also prevents the subject from remaining silent.

I also try to understand how western culture views Islam. There are images that have been embedded in western subconsciousness that automatically creates a stereotypical idea of the Muslim face (e.g. the famous photograph of the Afghan woman or the hidden face of a terrorist). I use eastern stereotypes and push them by mixing western iconic representations of faith (e.g. crucifixion, angels, the Virgin Mary). At the end you get an uncomfortable but strange balance. I use these symbols to guide the viewer to understand the work.

DMC: How does identity factor into your work?

AM: You know when portrait photographers say that they have the power to capture the sitter’s identity? Well that is an arrogant and ignorant lie. It is impossible to create a personification of an individual with one image; it is like saying I can describe your life with one phrase. I think that as artists, we have the capacity of creating our own identities, but to dare say I am showing someone else’s? That to me is impossible: I would never say that I am showing the subject’s true identity.

I create a metaphysical identity of a subject. I create a narrative and frame the image in a way that dictates a specific dialogue. By seeing the world through the subject’s eyes, I understand how to compose a final image.

DMC: In your series, ‘Came Like Water, Like Wind I Go’ captures the uprising in Tehran on the eve of the 2009 election. In this series we feel, as viewers, immersed in the action of the protests and not simply as spectators through the intensity of the images, their composition and movement. What is the role of conflict in this work – is it the (in)visible subject? How is this work autobiographical?

AM: I need to say first that photographing the revolution was one of the most stressful moments of my life. I have worked in war zones, but I was never the subject. Just imagine that you are in an illegal demonstration that has gathered over a million individuals, you have the Islamic guard shooting at you or beating you, that on every rooftop you are looking out for snipers who are targeting journalists or cameramen, and I am in the middle of all of this trying to frame images using a medium format camera. All I had in the back of my mind were my three rules: 1) never photograph a bloody situation, 2) never point the camera down, and 3) never become the subject. As you can imagine, the last rule did not really work out.

While framing, I was looking for frozen moments. It sounds absurd, but I felt the crowd was posing for me. I was even telling them how to stand, how to pose and where to look. And they listened. I think they saw that there were no other photographers, and figured my camera was a camcorder, because of its size. Seriously, sometimes I still wonder how I pulled it off.

The only way I can see this work as autobiographical is that I was in the middle of it. I wanted to be part of the movement that brought freedom to Iran, and I was one of the rare ones who survived.

DMC: What is the relationship between documentary and photographic truth in your practice?

AM: I do not believe in photographic truth. It does not exist. You can document an event, but you can never bring to view the reality of your experience. I just try to show what I believe to be my version of truth. With regard to documentary and photojournalism, they are as useful as the next reality TV show. For example, the 2009 summer revolution was on every channel for over two weeks. Then Michael Jackson died and the voice of millions of Iranians just got turned off. I am not mad and I understand how the media works: I just do not wish to work that way.

When I got back, every agency wanted to see and publish my images. I turned them down. I did not want my work to become a snapshot moment in the press. I wanted this moment to exist over and over again. An audience’s reaction to the work is so much stronger when they get to look at it hanging on a gallery wall than in a magazine; seeing a physical art piece forces them to try to understand what they are looking at, one cannot just flip the page.

DMC: What was your process and intent with the series ‘Sufi Vision’?

AM: ‘Sufi Vision’ is an exploration of, as well as a departure from, my research into Iranian culture and the Islamic doctrine. I wanted to let myself be inspired by the poetry and philosophy of the romantic Sufis who dared to critique and turn religion into an ironic satire. I put a face on Fatima as she whispers in the ears of Imam Reza and I recreate the flight of Gabriel after he has delivered his message to Mohammad. My intention is to make an art piece that demonstrates the seduction of martyrdom and the absurdity of it, creating an iconic vision that introduces intimate moments of faith and mysticism with a punctum of reality.

Here, I am interested in the concept of brotherhood from the Koran, the lustful depiction of the Sady (young male dancer/wine giver) and the significance of female power in Iranian history. I want to show images that bring back shape and form to a lost tale of lust, passion and religion. This narrative has always been abstracted, and is being reenacted and performed, thus giving a new and fresh look at Islamic beauty.

‘Sufi Vision’ explores the mystical realm of Persian mythology and is inspired by spiritual Persian poetry and the social experience of contemporary Iranian life. Islam has forbid the representation of any visual art throughout its history. I took it upon myself to create a visual portrait of a modern Persian vision. I am interested in examining Persian heritage and bringing to light the spiritual sensuality that has framed modern Iranian culture. Breaking the stereotypical propaganda of the Islamic regime, these images open a door to a culture that has been forced to silence. Like the great Sufi writers who bypassed the prohibition on freedom of speech, I want to use irony and satire to challenge the stereotypical imagery of Persian philosophy and show a different view of Persian mythology.

DMC: What are you working on now?

AM: I usually have a few projects that I am working on at once. The main one is continuing ‘Sufi Vision’. I have many more characters and would like to create more scenarios. The other is a project I started by representing Iranian females and males in comfortable but seductive poses. I am trying to bring back the seductive and erotic heritage of Iran. Finally I am working on a production fellowship to explore contemporary cities that have survived war and genocide.

Until then I am finalizing two exhibits. One at the Fofa Gallery in Montreal during the month of April and the other in collaboration with the CONTACT Photography Festival, in Toronto during the month of May. Both will represent work done in Iran about landscape, revolution and people.

Aydin Matlabi is a Canadian photographer of Iranian descent. He left a country of war for the social liberty of Québec. Traveling the globe and befriending a variety of cultures, Aydin tries to understand the world he lives in while depicting his emotions in his work. http://aydinmatlabi.com/