Portraits V; A Portfolio of Iranian Musicians


It was year 2005 when Maryam Zandi contacted me and after a brief explanation, invited me over to her atelier for taking my picture for her collection of portraits of Iranian contemporary musicians. I had never met her before, I have only seen one of her books and I was briefly acquainted with her.

When the appointed day came, I went to her atelier. After having a tea and the initial introductions, I wore the white shirt that she had earlier asked me to bring along; I was ready for the photo shoot.

She started with a quite large camera installed on a tripod, and after a couple of shots, she continued on hand. She also took few shots in black shirt in a black background. She was in the darkness, and I was in the light, I could only see a shadow of her hovering around me, and every once in a while, she would say something that I could hardly hear. The last word that I could finally hear was ‘thank you’ and the photo shoot was over. It took less than an hour. We said goodbye, and there was no other contact and meeting after that.

Few days ago I saw her in the Film museum, full of energy and with a smile on her face, just like the year 2005. She told me she had published few books in the past couple of years and the book of the portraits of Iranian contemporary musicians is in progress.  An effort that has last 20 years and some of its photos were taken 40 years ago at the very beginning of her photography career, and she said that she would like me to write the introduction of the book.

We set an appointment for the day after, a Friday afternoon.  When I arrived at her place, she first showed me her books that I had not seen before. She had done a lot of work during these years, so much that quickly going through all of them took few hours, and when she brought the initial outline of the musicians’ book, I barely had any time left. I was drowned in watching the pictures of my deceased or alive mentors, and all the old memories that were scattered in my mind were brought back together once again. Maryam brought up the writing of the introduction again, and I told her I will only do it if I feel confident that I can do it right; because I don’t have much familiarity with photography and I don’t want to write something that doesn’t match the value and beauty of your work.

From the day I left her house until the moment that I started writing, has been a couple of days. I went through her books over and over again. The beauty of her view, exhaustion of her effort, her resistance and endurance, and her intrinsic intuition from the very first shutter that she pressed on her camera, grabbed my attention. Maryam Zandi’s artworks can be viewed and analysed from different perspectives; as a pioneer artist and her aesthetic view, the impact of her artworks in the past decades, and her unique viewpoint on social documentary photography and of course other perspectives.

In the present-day photography of Iran and even in the whole history of Iran’s photography, this is the first time that a photographer, with persistency, tact, and an artistic point of view, has documented the images of Iranian eminences in different fields of art and culture; with a comprehensive approach and by contemplating each field of art over time, something which should have been done by an organization or institution which has sufficient budget and facilities in hand.

Of course, the fact that she has done all this over thirty years, all alone and with her own personal budget while dealing with the existing obstacles and limitations in the society, makes her work look appear even more important and harder.

She has a unique and special view, for sure each person has their own unique view, but her view origins from an inner awareness which is not necessarily acquired through education and training. Although there are persons who Maryam Zandi point out and praise as her mentors, but who can truly be more of a mentor than one’s instinct and inner awareness? This is the most important point that exists in Maryam Zandi and her photos, whether she knows it or not. Although her books of portraits each have a distinct and independent world, but they all have one common signature.

About this book, the portraits of Iranian contemporary musicians, which as she says is the fifth and the last volume of the portraits of contemporary Iranian artists series, I should say that Iran’s music society, not only in the current years but during those fifty years and in all historic eras of Iran, has been under pressure, slander and defamation.  Instruments have been shattered, and throats have been slit. Looking back at the Shah Tahmasb Safavi era in Qazvin suffices to get a sense of the injustice and cruelty against musicians. Although there have always been few singers and instrument players in the Qajar dynasty courts as entertainment labourer (in Farsi known as ‘amalehjate tarab’), the ‘Abaii-Ketabii’ setar (a setar without its pear shaped sound box in order to hide it in the sleeves of a cloak (aba)) was based on this period.

Breaking Nezam Shekarchi’s dutar on his head in Tabaghdeh village in east of Mazandaran, which consequently he languished and died, the order of shooting musical instruments in Naghadeh(a city in Kordestan), or mentioning the well-known Torkman Sahra musicians known as Bakhshi so despicably and bringing them as low as drug addicts, are not events to be forgotten.  Hasn’t the person who was called the ‘king of sound of Iran’ banned from singing? Aren’t half of the Iran’s population, the women, banned from singing? And so on.

The music society has always been pulled down and under pressure. The photos of Maryam Zandi in this last book of portraits has brought back voice to these silenced lips, in silence.

In this book, some eminent musicians are missing, such as Jalil Shahnaz, Hasan Kassai, Morteza Hannaneh, Pari and Mehdi Barkeshli, Roubik Gregorian, Darush Safvat, Heshmat and Farshad Sanjari, Ali Rahbari, and other well-known musicians who, as Maryam Zandi explains, were either not interested in taking pictures, were out of reach or they had passed away. Moreover, this book overlooks the Iranian folk music, which is an important and fundamental part of Iran’s music. The reason is that from the very beginning, this project had aimed the musicians, singers, and instrument players of traditional (Persian Dastgah system) and western (Classical) music genres.

Human for being, needs to have an excuse. Should be astonished. Should see the light in darkness and the darkness in light. Should feel the love and the pain so deep inside.

But in case of Maryam Zandi, I should say, the excuse seeks justification, the astonishment is amazed, the pain has come to unity, and the love has found love in itself. Between existence and non-existence, life and death, there are other things; light, astonishment, pain, justification and most importantly love. It’s only love that makes light, astonishment, pain, and justification bearable. Love is the most fragile phenomenon in the universe that we know.

Maryam Zandi from years ago has comprehended this fragile phenomenon, and along with pain and astonishment, has observed it in darkness and light, and it has become her reason for being. One can see the sharpest observation in the book of portraits of Iranian contemporary cinema and theatre artists and the tenderest one in the book of portraits of Iranian contemporary musicians.

Love is in essence and not in the person. The person is the exterior appearance. Love cannot be learnt. Love first emerges in yourself, i.e., you first fall in love with yourself. Therefore, you are both the lover and the beloved. Hence, your thoughts and your creations are your lovers. Art is the reflection of intuitive awareness in the mirror. Illumination is a way of life in which we look into life with wisdom and from an intuitive point of view. It is passing through the invisible gates of mind. With such perspective, any image and content are viewed and interpreted differently.

I believe Maryam Zandi takes her pictures in rapture. Because she is both the lover and the beloved. Maybe we should put the conventional ways of looking aside to be able to see the depth of the photographer view. We have seen the visage of our sweetheart in this mirror of the picture.

Something that does not exist and we bring into existence; is it creation or discovery? I believe it is discovery. Art is discovery, not creation; discovering the life, and imaginations that turn into tangible facts and of course are different from science. Science aims to discover the rules of nature. While art is all about imagination and turning it into reality, and having an intuitive view is a necessity in this transformation.

In the first glance, Maryam Zandi’s portraits do not appear as something extraordinary and nothing phenomenal can be seen in them, but then what is their distinguishing factor that makes them so exceptional?

Subjects are comfortable in front of her. A comfort that comes from within, or at some cases they might pretend, but none of them is playing a role. I believe it is Maryam Zandi’s charisma which in all these years could have brought more than 800 of the most prominent and well-known Iranian artists and characters in front of her camera and to make them sit so calm and confident.

In my opinion, Maryam Zandi’s point of view is a combination of Hafez and Saadi. There is something hidden in her pictures that should be discovered and perceived. Seeing the hidden essence of the subjects is like seeing beyond a mirror. But is there anything behind a mirror? There is only if there is something in the mirror itself. What is in the mirror? An inverted image. If there is no light or the mirror breaks, what will happen to our image in the mirror? Nothing? So how have we seen in this mirror the visage of our beloved?  What kind of mirror is this that neither breaks nor requires any light? It appears to be the mirror of love and intuition, and in reality, maybe it is water and moon light, in which man in early ages used to see their images in them.

The final word

All Maryam Zandi’s pictures have voices. Look at all the pictures in all her books very carefully!

The ears have been conveyers of verbal literature, culture, and music before anything is registered or seen. All aspects and details of ancient cultures, religions, secrets, and music have been orally conveyed to others for hundreds of years. And even now the remains of ancient Asian, African, Latin and even Iranian cultures and civilizations are conveyed orally and not visually.

The moment that you think you have heard something, you hear nothing, and when you think there is no voice to hear, it suffices to listen to the voice of love, nature, universe and all the things that we have in our imaginations. Is there anything else possible than the imagination in this never ending universe?

I go through Maryam Zandi’s books for one more time, especially the ’76 Revolution’, to better hear the sounds and the rows.

The most silent book in Maryam Zandi’s book series is the portraits of contemporary Iranian musicians, the one that should have been the loudest and full of sounds. This is the deep understanding and perception of Maryam Zandi from the impression of Iran’s contemporary music and will stay behind as a memento for Iran’s art.

Mohammad Reza Darvishi

04 July 2017