My parents have only a few photographs of themselves taken before the Islamic Revolution in Iran. My obsession with these photos, and with the images we do not have, are at the core of this project.
The Revolution began with a popular democratic movement and ended with the establishment of an Islamic state. Prior to the Revolution, opposition groups tended to fall into three major categories: constitutionalist (including National Front), Marxist, and Islamist. All three opposition parties participated in the 1979 Revolution, but the Islamist majority began to slander and condemn the other parties; eventually they began to arrest, force into exile, and execute members of the opposition.
My father had been a member of the National Front party, which disbanded several years after the revolution. Members of the party occasionally took photos of their meetings and social events. In just a few years, the validating capacity of these images was transformed: from affirming social status and rank, to poignant documents used against those they captured.
Thirty years ago, a few years following the Revolution, my father (as did others) burned a number of photographs that reaffirmed his membership in the party, hoping to avoid the immediate risk of arrest. The act of destroying photographs, making them and their potential volatile content disappear was highly emotional, as though emphasizing the acute fear and anxiety that spread at the time.
I have explored other people’s family archives to create this work, and imagine the moments during which my father burnt the photos. I was fascinated by what I envisioned as a fearful ritual, meant to protect an individual, and by the idea of losing photographic evidence of a family history. My work is triggered by a specific time and place, and yet it also seeks to address private, individual histories that have happened over and over again, for different people from different nations that have experienced social and political turmoils.
Paradoxically, the burning of the photographs produced visual elements that emphasizes the presence of the individuals and their lost histories. A halo suddenly appeared around bodies, faces disappear, and a more generalized, universal narrative of loss and representation emerged.
In Persian miniature painting, miniaturists would not paint the face of a holy person. Instead, they would paint an aura of fire or light around their heads. My burned photographs exhibit similar visual forms, navigating the day-to-day appearance of people in their photographs and the potential of seeing them and their lost histories as typified martyrs. By burning them, I assume a role in this history, claiming a place in their histories, and participating in the ongoing ritual of protecting individuals by removing them from the image.
Alison Landsberg stated that prosthetic memories are those not strictly derived from a person’s lived experience, and that although they are not organically generated, they are still experienced with the body, and become a part of one’s personal archive of experience. (Landsberg 25, 26) I rebuilt these memories, although they are not directly mine. I heard them, and I live with their consequences.
In this project, I have collected photographs from other families and reproduced them, before manipulating them with fire. I make them look convincingly original, and I try to establish a relationship between the real and the prosthetic worlds.
This project includes sculptural photographs, a collection of sealed jars that contain ashes of burned photographs, and two videos that hint at the burning process. The jars represent the photographs that did not survive the fire. The memory of the photograph remains intact through the sealing process; I keep them safe, as part of the history, as fully cremated remains of an undisclosed memory. In one video, several hands slowly place photographic prints in the fire. In the gallery space, the viewer walks by the video, passing through a wall exhibiting the burned photographs, as well as sealed jars. The harsh red background of the wall is both regal and violent.
The second video on display looks much like the first, but it runs backwards. The photographs are shown in the fire, and they gradually emerge out of the fire, intact and held by hand. The final piece in the installation is a pile of burned and unburned photos, and viewers are invited to sift through them, and hold them.