06 October 2016

A Life Between Traditions and Modernity

06 October 2016 - Written by Gemma Padley

In her series, A Life on the Road, Miriam Stanke travelled across the wilderness of southwestern Iran to document the life of a nomadic tribe clinging on to their culture and customs.

© Miriam Stanke, from the series, A Life on the Road - Nomads of Iran

I took this image after a beautiful but exhausting journey I made with the Bakhtiari tribe of nomadic and semi-nomadic people who live in the Zagros Mountains, southwestern Iran. The latter move according to the seasons searching for land on which to settle.

These people live between tradition and modernity, embracing a bygone way of life in which the rhythm of nature stands opposed to the convenience of a permanent home.

In 2012, myself and two friends – one, also a photographer, and the other an anthropologist – travelled for ten days over the Zagros Mountains, from the tribe’s summer to winter camp. We slept under the stars and huddled together under big woollen blankets, surrounded by sheep, goats and donkeys.

After passing the top of the mountains the temperature rose ever higher. The last few days were the hardest, and sometimes we only had one canister of water to share between 10 to 15 people.

Upon arriving in the winter camp, the temperature was more than 40 degrees. People bathed in a nearby river to cool down.  

On one occasion a young Iranian man invited us to visit his family home. Former nomads, the family had been settled for several generations and didn’t make the difficult and exhausting journeys anymore. They still kept cows and sheep, but had fewer than when they were travelling.

The man showed us where the family lived. As we were finishing our tour, the sun began to go down. We walked up a small hill to get back to the family’s house for dinner when this old lady suddenly appeared in front of me. She was the man’s grandmother as far as I remember and was about to bring the cows back to the cowshed.

The landscape was vast and there was not much in the way of contrast. The woman looked even more impressive and majestic as she walked down towards me with the sun disappearing behind her.

All the older women wore beautiful traditional dresses in dark colors and they mostly appeared to be proud and strong. The women are responsible for keeping the animals together, collecting firewood in the evenings, and cooking. I was impressed by their energy and strength. They had to endure a difficult way of life, but there was something quite humble about them. I could see this in this old woman’s face.

I saw this image in my mind and then, suddenly, the moment arrived out of the blue. The sunset, the cows turning around, and the woman with her proud body language – it was perfect.

Old people are treated with respect in Iran, so I asked the woman for permission to take the picture. She immediately adopted this very serious position, but afterwards hugged me and smiled.

I especially like how she is standing – in this moment I can sense the pride she feels for her hard-working life and for her family – which represents how I felt about all the women I met in the tribe.

I took two pictures, but I love this one where the cows are looking back in our direction. The animals create a sense of balance and also add context. Shortly afterwards the light disappeared, but I knew I had this really beautiful shot.


Miriam Stanke is a German documentary photographer. In her work she explores concepts of identity and cultural boundaries.

Gemma Padley is a freelance writer and editor on photography, based in the UK.


Behind the Picture tells the story of a single image by a photographer from the Photographic Museum of Humanity’s online community.

Written by

Gemma Padley

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