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The New York Times Lens Blog Turning Point Series: Newsha Tavakolian on Shah Naser al-Din (1848-1896)

When the Shah of Iran Took the Pictures
September 8, 2010, 5:30 pm

Newsha Tavakolian, 29, has been covering Iran for Polaris Images since 2001 and has freelanced for The Times since 2004. She discussed coverage of last year’s political upheaval in “Covering Tehran” (June 17, 2009) and shared her photographs of women singers in “A Quiet Song, With Feeling” (June 11, 2010). Her conversation with Amanda Rivkin has been edited and condensed.

Q. How was this picture taken?

A. This was a news event, a demonstration next to the shrine of the founder of the Islamic Republic. It was extremely busy. I decided not to make a cliché picture of angry people shouting, “Death to America.” Instead, I entered the shrine. Men and women are separated there. The women’s section was more quiet. I saw mourning, crying mothers, who held portraits of their sons. The draperies against the walls intrigued me, so I mixed those with the portrait. Both mother and son resembled each other, but the face of their child was frozen in time, captured in the portraits.

Q. How has this image changed the way you work?

A. I’ve grown more and more fond of timeless images that tell deep stories.

Inspiration: Naser al-Din
Naser al-Din, the shah from 1848 to 1896, brought the first camera to Iran. He portrayed courtiers and family members.

A. The collection of 19th-century photos is particularly extraordinary because, at the time, Islam was thought to ban photographs of people’s faces. The pictures exist because one person fell in love with photography: the country’s most powerful man, the shah.

Nobody else but him could have made those images of those so close to him: his wives. And even nudes and prisoners. I always thought you had to travel to faraway places or conflict zones in order to make moving pictures. But his work taught me that capturing the lives of those close to you results in unique, honest and intimate pictures. Because of him, in Iran, I always look for stories that are close to me or close to what I believe.

Q. When did you first come upon these images? How?

A. I heard the images were on display in one of his old palaces. I ended up spending the whole day in the archives, and looking at some 48,000 images collected there. It was clear people were comfortable being photographed, even though they had never seen a camera.

Q. What do you like about these images?

A. The comfort and honesty in the images. Unlike other Iranian women of that time, in pictures taken by foreign photographers, they don’t look shy or as if they are acting.

Q. How have they influenced your work?

A. The shah took intimate shots with a device almost considered to be a magic box at that time. In our modern world, nothing should be able to stop me from making the images I want to make.

“Turning Point” is an occasional series featuring images by young photographers. The column was conceived by the 26-year-old photographer Amanda Rivkin.

Previous Turning Point Columns:

Wednesday, Aug. 4
Amanda Rivkin, 26.
Inspired by Dorothea Lange.

Wednesday, Aug. 11
Aga Luczakowska, 29.
Inspired by Stanley Greene.

Wednesday, Aug. 18
Robert Caplin, 27.
Inspired by David Alan Harvey.

Wednesday, Aug. 25
Yana Paskova, 28.
Inspired by Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Wednesday, Sept. 1
Ayman Oghanna, 25.
Inspired by Alex Webb.