Look closely at these photographs and you might notice, in each one, the same woman in a red headscarf and black dress. That’s Azadeh Akhlaghi, the young photographer who researched, staged, and shot the images. The project, called “By An Eye-Witness,” is a dramatic reconstruction of 17 seminal deaths from Iranian history. It took her three years to research and select these events, from the revolutionary sociologist who died mysteriously after being released from solitary confinement to the student activist shot by the secret police. And though the images are highly cinematographic (Akhlaghi worked as an assistant director for years), as still photographs they remind me more of Renaissance religious art, the passions and agonies of the protagonists frozen in time. The series is part of an exhibition of contemporary Iranian photography that is now on show at London’s Somerset House. She talked to R&K from Tehran.
Roads & Kingdoms: How did the project start?
Azadeh Akhlaghi: It began with a political shock in the aftermath of post-election uprisings in Iran in 2009. I started to think about the revival of history. The death of Neda Agha-Soltan and many others, as well as the Arab Spring [impacted me]. I followed the news, sitting behind my computer, looking at the photos of people in Cairo or Benghazi. Then I started to think about all the freedom fighters who died in heartbreaking circumstances.
R&K: Did you feel a personal connection?
Akhlaghi: Of course. When I thought about these people, who decide to go to the streets knowing that they might be killed on that day, it was really shocking. Risking your life for freedom. And there were many people here in Tehran or other parts of the world who took this risk. It made me think about history, to try to actually see history.
R&K: So this is how the project was born…
Akhlaghi: Yes. I started doing the research and I tried to focus on the people who died in a tragic way, but as there were no cameras around to capture the moment; their death had gone somehow unnoticed.
R&K: But aren’t some of these deaths historic turning points for Iran and beyond?
Akhlaghi: Yes. Most of the killings represented are not only tragic but crucial turning points in the particular kind of struggle they represent. In other words, you could always say if any of them hadn’t died in that particular moment, our history would have been different.