Peyman Hooshmandzadeh, Memories

Poupeh Missaghi

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Peyman Hooshmandzadeh is known outside Iran mainly as a photographer, but in Iran he is equally known and popular as a writer.

His photographs have been presented in books and exhibits in Iran and internationally. His photography style ranges from photojournalism to documentary work to art photography. He, however, says he hates photojournalism, “cannot not do” art photography, and considers himself mainly a documentary photographer. His two books of photography are documentary works.
صد عکس (One Hundred Photographs) (2009) documents people (mainly men) frequenting tea houses, Shuka Café, the Gomrok quarter of Tehran, and traditional Zoorkhaneh sports centers. اهل اسب (A People of Horse) (2015) documents the lives of the Turkmen people of the northern region of Turkmen Harbor, Iran.

As a writer, too, Hooshmandzadeh has a tendency to document the everyday, in a style he calls “hyperreal.” He has published two collections of interconnected stories.
ها کردن (Warming One’s Hands) won first place for the “Printed Press’s Critics and Writers Award” in 2007 and is now in its twelfth edition. شاخ (Horn) won first place in the short story category in the Roozi Roozegari Literary Award; in its second edition, the book was banned from further publication by the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. He also has a book of shorter writings and notes, حذف به قرینه‌ی مستی (Deleted by Drunkenness), which he handwrote in a limited edition of one hundred copies. His most recent book, لذتی که حرفش بود (The Joy of Which We Talked), which reached its third edition in less than three months, is a book about photography that includes not one picture but comes to life instead through autobiographical stories related to photography.

Hooshmandzadeh moves back and forth between these two modes of artistic expression, photography and writing. At the beginning of his career, he tried to keep the two separate, but he grew to realize that it was not possible and began to gradually welcome the erasure of boundaries. But even now he tries to hold on to some separation. When asked to provide a note for the photographic series
Memories, he explained that he does not like to write about his photographs and wants the images to speak for themselves or to be spoken for by viewers. In the end, he hesitantly wrote:
The notebooks were my diaries, from the time of the (Iran-Iraq) war and my military service, my married life, and my student years in university. When I went back to them after many years and began reading, I decided to tear them apart, to lose them, to forget them. Suddenly keeping a diary didn’t seem an interesting thing to do. I felt as if everyone could suddenly access and read my secrets, so I tore them up. But the notebooks themselves, they seemed beautiful to me and I started to photograph them.

Outside Iran you are mainly known as a photographer but not as a writer, since none of your writings have been translated. Tell us how and why you started writing stories.

When I was a kid, my father hoped I would grow up to become a medical doctor but I wanted to open a kebob store. I was not a good student and my father gradually lost all hope, believing the best I could do was to become a laborer. Before being accepted to university, I worked as a cab driver and as a laborer in a socks-knitting workshop. Toward the end of my military service, I decided to write a story about not wanting to be a laborer in order to get rid of that narrative in my head. But then I continued to write more and more stories. I published my first story in 1989. Photography came later, in 1993.

How do you see the relationship between your writer and photographer selves?

I used to try to keep my writing and photography totally separate. But my photography was seen [by critics and my audience] as being narrative and my stories as being visual. At first I tried to fight this view, but after many years I have come to accept it. Perhaps at their roots, they are influencing one another. Now I don’t even care anymore about the genre of the work with which I am engaged. A new book of mine on photography doesn’t include one single image but is instead a collection of stories. However, I still cannot do both, writing and taking pictures, simultaneously. When I take pictures, I cannot write, and when I write, I cannot take pictures.

I only know how to do two things in my life, to write and to take pictures. I have come to realize that, whenever I have distanced myself from my personal interests, concerns, and capabilities, I have not been successful. In my newer works, I try to bring the two activities together and create a third space and form, to get something that is both an image and a story. I hope that one day I can have a book about my own life that will not even include a story but just be a book of images.

For writers, notebooks are, if not sacred, at least important tools of their profession. The series Memories documents your destruction of your notebooks and erasure of their personal narratives. How do you, the writer, see beauty in the destruction of narrative? Or was it you, the photographer, who found beauty in the destroyed journals in the way you can find beauty in any other object?

Destroying the notebooks came one hundred percent from my writer self. But you are complicating things too much. I destroyed the notebooks because I did not want anyone to know anything about those periods of my life. The remaining objects were, however, beautiful, so I took pictures of them. As simple as that.

Your interest in the beauty and materiality of everyday objects can be seen in several other collections as well. For example, in the series Banknotes, you photograph Iranian currency but cover the official portraits with family photos. In the series Knives, you find beauty in pocket knives, and in the series Crushed, you document objects that have been crushed under our everyday footsteps. What is the story in these objects that you want to tell?

Knives and Crushed were responses to the 2009 protests in Iran, though at the time, I could not speak about this. The knives were symbols of dictatorship and the crushed objects symbols of people.

As for Banknotes . . . one of the first things done after the change of governments is the printing of new banknotes. A new government does not accept the symbols of the previous government, including those found on banknotes. Following the 2009 events and the widespread depression among the Iranian population, I decided to build my own imaginary government. The first step was to create my own banknotes with images of the people I love, such as my father, mother, sister, and daughter.

What are a few threads or characteristics that repeat themselves in all your works?

Content-wise, my works vary. Considering form, I have an obsession with symmetry. I see the center of the picture as the strongest position for the subject. This is a familiar concept for Iranians. In our homes, everything is symmetrical; our carpets, our windows, and even the decorations in our houses are obsessively symmetrical. So it is not strange that the composition of my images begins at the center, and the balance of the rest of the image gets defined by the symmetry.

How differently are your pictures read by the audience inside Iran and outside Iran?

Throughout my career, I have come to notice that foreign audiences do not easily connect to my work. The audience reads the work the way they want to, not necessarily as I envision they will. I do not get discouraged by negative reviews and do not get high on positive ones anymore. There are lots of photographs that I still want to take and many stories I still want to write, and that is what I focus on, rather than worrying about audience.