City Of Clichés

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Tehran is a visual feast. Part 1970s time capsule, part ideological showcase, part cultural battleground, Iran's capital city is also, regrettably, a tough place in which to take good photographs. The city draws remarkably few foreigners these days, so any visitor with a camera is quickly noticed. Because official Iran asserts a monopoly over the country's image, pro-government basijis -- a plainclothes militia -- can be relied upon to turn up unfriendly, unannounced, and obstructive if you turn your camera on a sensitive subject. Nevertheless, when visiting Tehran -- as I did most recently when reporting for FP this past June and July -- I have always enjoyed taking in its aesthetic ironies. The strong reactions I elicited whenever I pulled out my camera renewed my admiration for the Iran-based photographers who make the tense political atmosphere and cultural fault lines in this great city palpable. The following selections from the wire services serve to illustrate these phenomena.


"There are no laws here." Unlike other states dressed up with old-fashioned, billboard-style propaganda, Tehran can be surprisingly self-conscious about its revolutionary imagery and seems at times to regard it as something for local consumption only. The former U.S. embassy complex, which has been re-named "The Den of Spies," is a must-see for any tourist in Iran -- not least because it displays the iconic skull-faced Statue of Liberty, an apparent re-branding of an anti-American poster from wartime Italy. There is great ambiguity as to whether photography of the murals on the embassy walls is permitted: Travel books report people photographing them without trouble, but also warn of tourists being detained and questioned. I once captured an image similar to this one, and a young man approached me and whispered in English, "Whoa! Be very careful taking pictures here! Here is Iran, there are no laws here!"


If you're worried about being treated like a spy, you may have to behave like one. Unfortunately, the ever-present risk that you might be falsely accused of spying encourages spy-like behavior. If your subject is a sensitive one, get to know it before you take your camera out. This meticulously vandalized State Department seal on the former U.S. embassy's wall -- photographed on April 9, 2009, during a gathering to mark the 30th anniversary of the freezing of Iranian and U.S. diplomatic ties -- has a surveillance camera pointed right at it, so if you require a shot for your collection, you may want to shoot the murals first, save this one for last, and depart in haste once you've got it. (Admittedly, it is still probably much easier to photograph than an active U.S. embassy anywhere in the Middle East.)


Choose a background and wait for results. Propaganda murals make excellent backdrops because something ironic often unfolds in front of them. Sometimes it's practical to stake out a piece of territory and let your subjects move into it. But it's best to be discreet: As with the embassy walls, photographing Tehran's murals of Khomeini and Khamenei can get you moved along, questioned, or even detained by un-uniformed regime supporters, and you can never be sure how much authority they wield. Here, an Iranian actor covers his face with a mask during a street event at the start of the Islamic republic's 21st Fajr international theatre festival, on Jan. 20, 2006, in Tehran. Portraits of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his predecessor, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, loom behind him.


Don't fear the green. Ironically, Green Movement graffiti and the splashes of green paint left over from the opposition demonstrations that followed the contested 2009 presidential elections are much easier to photograph than revolutionary murals, partly because they're found far from official buildings and often down quiet residential side-streets. Alas, another reason they're easier to document may be that, as my Iranian host suggested this past summer, "They're not even sensitive about these things anymore. The Green Movement is over." And yet, young people tend to smile when they see somebody photographing these minor artworks, and passing drivers sound their horns in nostalgic approval.


Aim for two in one. Iran is the setting for an intense cultural conflict, reflecting religious, generational, and class divisions. Symbols of state and military authority coexist uneasily on every street with those of barely concealed secularism. Although these two Irans tend to avoid interaction -- and Iranians who embody the latter tendency are particularly likely to steer clear of those representing the former -- neither represents alone the "true" face of Iran, and the gulf between them is worth trying to present in a single frame.

Here, Iranian women walk past a Sayyad-1 surface-to-air missile in southern Tehran on Sept. 26, 2011, displayed to mark the "Sacred Defense Week" that commemorates Iran's bloody eight-year war with Iraq.


Don't neglect the familiar. Thanks to social networking and photo-sharing sites, Tehranis now have every opportunity to depict their city for a global audience, and to compete with outside portrayals. Yet while for most Iranians the sight of "Papa Noel" -- as Santa Claus is known -- may not rise above the mundane, to a foreigner it's pretty unexpected. Of course, the longer you spend in Tehran, the more you'll notice that prohibitions against global culture have made global culture very attractive. Indeed, "Papa Noel" may well outlast some of the other bearded icons on display in Tehran.

Here, Iranian women walk past an inflatable Santa Claus in Tehran on Dec. 25, 2007.


Embrace citizen diplomacy. Most people are instinctively camera-averse when the photographer is a stranger but, as if to compensate for their government's unrepresentative political profile, Iranians -- especially young Iranians -- will often do their best to make themselves part of your travel experience. A people famous for their citizen journalism also deserve a reputation for citizen diplomacy. This young man, who was working at a lighting kiosk, saw me taking pictures in the Lalehzar Bazaar and said, "I'm a good subject, take a picture of me!" Who could argue with that?  


To find your subjects at ease, go where Iranian tourists go. It can be exhausting to pursue candid photographs when everyone is eying you -- intent on either welcoming you to their country or evicting you from somewhere. Luckily, Iranians themselves are avid sightseers and photographers. Politically neutral settings, such as the 1,427-foot Milad Tower in northern Tehran, are excellent places to find Iranians at ease with each other, and around people -- even foreigners -- with cameras.


To find your subjects as they really are, go where there are few police. Although Iran remains freer in some ways than neighboring countries such as Syria or Saudi Arabia, it is still a police state. And particularly after the democratic eruptions of 2009, the regime's panicked response has been to crack down even further. Gender relations remain the ultimate barometer of freedom in Iran, and in periods of official anxiety, unrelated men and women are routinely interrogated and punished for being together in public. Despite this, the city has an active dating culture, and couples are ubiquitous, especially in more remote parts of the city. Tehran's mountain parks give a particularly vivid suggestion of how the emerging generation of Tehranis would live and behave in a free city.

Here, a young man sits with his girlfriend in a tea house in Darband, in the foothills of northern Tehran. People go to Darband to have fresh air, hike, eat, drink tea, and most important for the youth, socialize in a calmer atmosphere.


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