“When I was a kid, we had a photo album in our house,” says Fatemeh Baigmoradi. “I remember it vividly; it had a bright red cover.” Yet as the Iranian photographer delves further into her story, it becomes clear that the album’s cover was not its most important feature: while most family photo albums are stuffed with photographs, their delicate, sometimes frayed edges threatening to escape their clear plastic sleeves, the pages of this family photo album were entirely empty.
The missing photographs can be attributed, in part, to Baigmoradi’s father. During the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which saw the monarch Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi unseated in favor of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Baigmoradi’s father was a member of Iran’s National Front party, a pro-democracy group that wanted to establish free elections and a constitutional monarchy in the country. “Thirty years ago, just a few years after the Revolution,” says Baigmoradi, “My father burned many photos that referenced his membership in the National Front.”
These photographs had been taken during meetings and social events, which once denoted social status and political engagement. Yet almost overnight, they became evidence that could be used against their subjects. “After the Revolution, my father and many others destroyed these pictures due to the imminent risk of arrest,” Baigmoradi explains. “I met many families in Iran who destroyed their photos after the revolution. One family I met in Kerman [Iran] shared an album with me where most of the photos were ripped apart, because the prime minister [who was executed after the Revolution] was depicted in them.”
Baigmoradi had no plans to create work based on these absent photographs until 2016—the same year that she first found out her parents had burned these photographs. The catalyst came about when she decided to put together a collection of photos featuring her relatives. Over the 15 years prior, Baigmoradi and her family (like many people around the world) had relied on digital platforms like Skype to send photos; because of this, Baigmoradi found herself missing the family photograph as an object. This feeling sparked an idea in her mind. On her next trip to Iran, she began to gather an archive of family images—and she noticed quickly that the collection had gaping holes. “It was during that visit in 2016 that my parents shared with me that they had burned their photos in order to get rid of them. The act was so aggressive and so painful, and it instantly explained their lack of interest regarding photographs over the years. It seems that something inside my parents—or at least, inside my father—burned alongside those photos 30 years ago. In its place, fear and numbness settled in.”
Baigmoradi also began to look through the photographic records offered by her friends and neighbors. She recalled one remarkable gift from a close friend: a box full of negatives that had belonged to the friend’s grandfather. Many of the photographs were taken in the decades before the Revolution. “It was breathtaking for me to see my city and its people during that period,” she admits. And yet, many of the albums she looked through had only a smattering of photographs, and it was clear that many photos had been removed. She says, “To me, the empty spaces spoke much louder than the photos present.”
As she imagined her father burning the incriminating photographs, Baigmoradi was drawn to imitate his actions. She began by scanning old photos and reproducing them with chemical processes. After she made each print, she would use a torch or candle to burn part of the image away. When asked how she chose the figures to obscure, she replied that some of the people in the photos were political figures or people who had harmed or opposed the government in Iran. “Some of the photos I worked with were taken at events where I knew that some sensitivity and confidentiality was necessary, as the photos could be a concern for the people depicted,” she notes. “And then, of course, in some of the situations I would just make up stories and pick different figures to obscure.”
The mutable nature of memory lies at the center of the final resulting project, “It’s Hard to Kill.” Although the photographs in the series belong to someone’s family, the obscured faces allow the viewer to overlay their own memories, a creative space that pulls subjective recollection into play. In this way, our memories—and Baigmoradi’s, and the memories of each photo’s owner—weave together and create a new life for these faded scenes, a reanimation that buoys once-disappeared moments and carries them into the present.
In that sense, the “It” in Baigmoradi’s title (memory) is indeed “hard to kill”: neither fear nor censorship can destroy the past, and this series makes sure of that. Baigmoradi puts it best: “It’s hard to kill history. The beliefs and thoughts of other people, no matter how obscured, can never be erased.”