Kaveh Golestan (1950-2003) was killed by a landmine near Klfi, Iraqi Kurdistan, at the age of 52 while he was covering the war for the BBC. Such an end says a lot about the photographer who, throughout his life, pioneered street photography and photojournalism, paving the way for an entire generation of Iranian artists.
This year Somerset House presents the first UK exhibition of Golestan’s portraits taken between 1975–77 in the Citadel of Shahr-e No (New Town), what was then Tehran’s red light district, a walled ghetto where 1,500 women lived, worked and died. Curated by Vali Mahlouji the whole exhibition sees Golestan’s signature striking black and white portraits cunningly interlaced with the original newspaper clippings that featured the shots, bringing the direct concerns of Golestan’s photojournalism to the viewer firsthand.
There is a boldness in Golestan’s eye; he’s unafraid to look at his subject – to make his audience look at something from which they might otherwise avert their eyes. Ordinary women are framed in such a way that the space around them, the abandoned unmade beds and derelict kitchens, become sites of a pained beauty.
Starting out in 1972 covering the conflict in Northern Ireland for the daily newspaper Kayhan, Golestan soon began working for the newspaper Ayadegan and recording events much closer to home. The area of Shar-e No by the capital was one that caught the imagination of artists and writers alike, serving as a setting for several novels written between the 1940s and 70s as well as presenting the backdrop for Golestan’s photographs. In the words of Mahlouji, Golestan’s greatest skill was his capacity to both record reality while also constructing ‘opportunities for the invisible to be seen’. His works feature as a ‘transgressive act of public exposure’, a cry for people to notice those faces they were blind to in their everyday lives.
One photograph in particular shows a veiled woman sitting in an empty corridor, her identity hidden, her feet gently crossed, awaiting who knows what. A quiet desperation fills the frame. In others this is matched with a boredom, an open restlessness of women caught in the sedate clutches of poverty. His subjects do not smile, they look sceptically at the camera, they ask what you want to see – a protective arm over a chest, unmade bed, dirty linen hanging out to dry. Posters of classic pin ups and girls clash with emaciated and enlarged bodies, Hollywood portraits smile down with empty eyes from eerie, angelic and unattainable heights.
In a way this exhibition highlights the power of the camera like no other, it shows how it is through the work of a photographer such as Golestan that certain stories are told at all. Without these photographs we would know next to nothing about the women in this area. The Citadel was set on fire a few weeks before the victory of the revolution in 1979 with many residents trapped within. The exhibition finishes on a poignant note with a timeline of the Shar-e No area from 1920 to 1980. It ends abruptly: ‘the area is bulldozed flat as an act of Islamic cultural cleansing’. Golestan’s photographs remain then as crucial remnants, a painful reminder and evidence that lives such as these were ever lived at all.
1. Untitled, Prostitute series (1975-77). Picture: Kaveh Golestan