Iran: a country shaped by multiple narratives. Iranians have become a subject of attention due to Iran’s complicated approach towards the traditional and modern. In everyday life, in both towns and cities, Iranians lead normal lives. Looking at normal people, things, and places on a normal day is a way to grasp how this difficult dynamic plays out.
The Beauty of the Mundane: Snapshots of Everyday Life in Iranian Towns and Cities is a new photo display by Arman Azimi, a PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center. The exhibition is humbly displayed in the CUNY Graduate Center’s Middle Eastern and Middle Eastern American Center, which is located on the sixth floor of the Graduate Center in New York City. Though unconventional (the exhibition covers the walls of a computer lounge and classroom), the photographs are profound and worth the trip.
The images highlight three Iranian cities: Tehran (the present capital), Esfahan (the historic Safavid capital), and Khansar (a small town). These photographs showcase Iranian culture through images of Iranian art and architecture, and also more common sites, like metalworkers and markets. Azimi has visited Iran a number of times, and his photographs show the incredible things he witnessed. While there are a fair number of photographs from these three cities, the majority of the images were taken in Khansar.
Azimi’s photographs depict a constant battle between the traditional and the modern. This is a common dynamic in Iran; there is a push-and-pull relationship between modern society and traditional, Islamist society. His images show that this dynamic exists not only in cities, but is present in smaller towns as well, such as Khansar.
One image shows the modern skyline of Esfahan with buildings spreading across the horizon and a mountain looming in the distance. On one of the building’s roofs, there is a picture of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the modern Iranian government. This juxtaposition is representative of the tension between preserving tradition and advancing progress in Iran. The Ayatollah’s position amongst the modern skyline shows the important role he played in shaping present-day Iran with the creation of a traditional, Islamist government. Azimi expertly captured an image that is both powerful and striking.
In another image, a fully-veiled woman walks across a busy street. The image of a veiled Iranian woman seems common in the U.S. Images of veiled women have led some people to assume that Iran is a country filled with women who are forced to be completely secluded and veiled at all times. Azimi, however, weaves this picture in expertly to his project. He shows that, yes, fully-veiled women exist in Iran, but this is not the only narrative.
On the other hand, there are images that show women dressed in very modern clothing. In particular, one photograph from Esfahan shows three fashionable female shoppers. Two women are holding smart phones (one of them is busy texting), and they are all wearing vibrant colors. They wear a different type of veil than the woman crossing the street, and their clothing is much more trendy. This breaks the stereotype that all Iranian women are harshly veiled and secluded, and proves that there is no single Iranian narrative.
These images reveal a play of diverse narratives in Iran. There is no single story, but rather many different ways that ordinary people live. This is an important element of Azimi’s photographs: individuals make up Iran, and each individual interacts with his or her culture in his or her own way. While some people are more traditional, others are modern and embrace current trends and ideas. Iran is a country where these varied narratives can be clearly seen, as Azimi captures through his beautiful images that truly show “The Beauty of the Mundane.”
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By Sean Scarisbrick
Sean is a graduate student at Hunter College where he studies Middle Eastern history. He is particularly interested in cultural history and language’s contribution to culture. He loves Shakespeare, Malala Yousafzai, Game of Thrones, foreign languages (Arabic, Spanish, and French), and Arabic street art.