Pujan Shakupa depicts his home country of Iran in a silent standstill in the series entitled Waiting for Mahdi, viewable in part on GUP online as a portfolio. Renata Bittencourt Grasso talked with him about leaving Iran, the desire to return and photograph it, and how the West has influenced his view.
When and why did you leave your home country of Iran?
My parents and I left Iran when I was 9 years old. They had told me we were going to Germany for holiday, to visit my uncle who lived in Stuttgart, when we were actually moving away from Iran. We lived in the south, near the Iraqi border, where my father had a degree in the military; he also owned a restaurant and a bus company, while my mother worked as a teacher. They decided to leave Iran not for financial reasons but because they wanted a better life for their children, to live in a society where they could speak their minds. My parents grew up at a time when, as a popular Iranian saying goes, people partied outside the home and prayed inside. After the revolution, however, people had to pray outside and party inside. They wanted for us to be able to act and speak without having to think about the political situation of our country. Although my father initially wanted to fight for his country, he did not want to fight for the regime anymore.
What compelled you to go back and photograph Iran?
Mostly the thoughts and memories of my childhood, and the curiosity to see how things had changed since my family and I left Iran. I had my own ideas about Iran, having read and learned about its history, but I also wanted to understand and see things for myself. Despite having spent most of my life in Europe and considering myself partly European, I also found that part of me did not match European culture and that there were still things to be understood about myself. The first time I went back, which was around 6 or 7 years ago, I didn’t photograph so much as I absorbed everything I saw, I listened and watched and took in everything around me. I now return to Iran once a year.
How do you find that your work has been affected or influenced by the country of your birth?
Iran is not only a significant, but also a constant and indirect influence in my work, despite it not being always related to and concerned with Iran. Iranian people seem to indulge in pain and sorrow, they are, in a way, a traditionally and culturally melancholic people. Also, Iranian conception of time is slanted, it is not, by any means, specific, it has a very different meaning than that held by Europeans. Iranian culture is also characterised by waiting, by silence, underneath which seems to lie something more. There isn’t very much of a connection between the outside and inside worlds for Iranians, something evidenced and symbolised by how everything in an Iranian household may be spotless, except for the windows, which are somehow always dirty. There are many differing aspects to Iranians. They are, by nature, an ambivalent and often contradictory people and country.
Your photographs often impart or suggest a pause in time, as though to convey things in a standstill. They are static in nature, and often even quiet, muted. Do you think that’s accurate, or what message do you intend to convey?
Although they seem to convey silence, it is a silence which shields and conceals a scream; they are actually screaming on the inside, and it is a constrained scream. In Iran most people are not given the opportunity to express themselves, and people, families end up harming themselves and betraying each other as a result of the pressure from the government. It is a young country, where well over half the population is under 30, and there are more females than males at university, with the need and the desire to express themselves. But there are hardly any means of expression, no way of venting their frustration. Opium addiction levels in Iran are unusually high, most likely as a result of the lack of prospects; for, through drugs, people seem to find a way of exercising their freedom, a way of forgetting things, escaping.
While some of your photographs seem to be candid, spontaneous snapshots, others seem somewhat posed and even carefully planned out. Is the artifice perceived in some of your photographs intentional?
Although my photographs are not staged, I have a preconceived, abstract idea of what I want to photograph beforehand. I am very much influenced by the work of Alec Soth, Larry Sultan, Stephen Shore and Jeff Wall who, specifically, takes photographs which seem like snapshots but are in fact carefully and meticulously staged. My work, I think, is a mix of the two. In a way, they demonstrate how a photograph can betray you and leave you guessing, how it can lie to you. Despite often seeming like documentary photography, my photographs do not set out to provide the evidence and truths that documentary photography does; the idea of the standstill often perceived in them is not a truth, but an interpretation, and therefore neither true or false.
Whenever people are included in one of your photographs, they seem either completely uninvolved and disconnected from the photograph, or they are found staring directly at the camera. What role do human subjects play in this project?
The idea of standstill, which is observed in Waiting for Mahdi, is conveyed not through the buildings and landscapes but particularly through people. Objects and buildings and landscapes, despite being able to be imparted dynamically, are stationary, whereas with the human figure is, by nature, animate. As in Caspar David Freidrich’s romantic landscapes, the lone and anonymous figure in the distance can be identified with, but also distant and immutable because of that. Their stationary nature, the slowness they impart, suggests a standstill of ideas, of time.
What role does the influence and impact of Western culture in the Middle East, and specifically Iran, play in your work?
The influence, I believe, goes both ways. The influence of Persian culture often goes unnoticed. Much of western culture originated in Persian culture and religion. The ideas of heaven and hell, for example, first emerged in the ancient Persian religion Zoroastrianism. Today, people’s idea of Iran in the west, however, is mostly negative and completely disassociated from its historical, cultural influence. Within Iran, the only exposure and access people have to the west is through television, whereby the government manages to suppress people’s anger and frustration by creating an illusion of freedom.
See the online portfolio of Waiting for Mahdi.