Monday, November 07, 2011

Photographing in Iran

Bakhtiari Couple, Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari Province
Bakhtiari Couple, Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari Province

Somebody recently wrote to me asking for advice about photographing safely in Iran. They wondered if I needed a permit for some of my photographs, and whether my photographic gear was safe.

Iran is a wonderful country in which to photograph. Iran has a thriving photographic community and art scene, with plenty of highly talented photographers producing outstanding work. It has the rural charms of neighboring countries like Pakistan and Tajikistan, and like them, it has a rich and storied history. However in comparison to its neighbors, Iran is arguably more diverse. Its urban centers are wealthier. It has many stunning architectural forms and details. Its poets are famous the world over.

Woman walking, South Tehran
Woman walking, South Tehran

Iran is famous for its beautiful women too. What's there not to like?

Everywhere I've photographed in Iran, I've done so without a sense of inhibition. This has gotten me into conversations with government police and security officials a couple of times in Tehran, but never elsewhere.

Couple on motorcycle, Tehran
Couple on motorcycle, Tehran. This was one of the photos that got me into trouble.

The first time was in 2007, when plainclothes policeman in his mid-20s took exception to my street photography outside a popular cinema in central Tehran. He angrily confronted me in the street and while he didn't speak English, he made it clear he wanted me to accompany him and his colleague in their car. I had absolutely no intention of doing that. With the help of a young woman managing an Internet café, he questioned me for about one hour, letting me go only when he determined that I was a genuine tourist. He claimed I needed a permit to photograph anything other than well-known places in Tehran.

A few weeks later, I spoke with a member of the official tourist police in Isfahan. He spoke fluent English, and in great contrast to the plainclothes policeman, he was a thoroughly nice guy. He said there was no need for a permit, arguing the plainclothes policeman was out of line.

Friday Prayers, Tehran
Friday Prayers, Tehran

The only other kind of photographic incident I've had in Iran was in 2008 when I went to photograph the Friday prayers in Tehran. Perhaps whether I was naïve or simply did the right thing, I had no hesitation in wanting to photograph the prayers. As far as I was concerned, I wasn't doing anything out of line. I wasn't a reporter, so I didn't need a journalist's permit. I was merely photographing a public event, like any other. My Iranian companion that day, however, didn't see it that way. She was deeply concerned that the authorities would stop me and possibly detain me, which worried her enormously. After having barely arrived, she was proven correct. Several senior security officials questioned me for some minutes, wanting to know who I was and why was there. After conferring with their higher-ups, they allowed me to photograph the prayers for a few minutes.

In retrospect, I don't think either of these situations were particularly serious. I was probably not in danger of being arrested. Of course, if I had accidentally photographed something of a sensitive military or governmental nature, the situation could have been very different. But that is pretty much the same in many countries these days.

One thing I did not attempt was to photograph police officers arresting or detaining young people for wearing too much makeup or having the wrong kind of hair. From the perspective of documentary-style street photography, these scenes were often compelling and would have made wonderful photographs. However the police officers made it clear that they were totally against such photography. I didn't want to try their patience.

Unfortunately the Iranian justice system can be highly politicized. As is widely documented, innocent people can be detained for long periods while being denied their basic human rights. This fact alone can certainly make oneself cautious. Outside of Tehran, however, it seems to me there is little reason for any special caution. Iran remains a wonderful place in which to photograph.