Iranian photographer Hashem Shakeri’s series Cast Out of Heaven examines the urban developments that exist as a network of satellite cities surrounding the Iranian capital of Tehran. There are some who may refer to these areas as ghost towns, others who consider them examples of an unkept promise of paradise. The residents of these places exist in a state of near-exile as a result of the lacking infrastructure required to bring a city to life.
Throughout Cast Out of Heaven, Shakeri depicts these places as eerie, empty, and yet strangely beautiful. His photographs of residential towers and empty streets are framed by the vast emptiness of Iran’s desert landscape. For various reasons, including US sanctions and government mismanagement that have helped to spur an economic downturn in the country, the occupants of these cities struggle with hours-long commutes, a lack of educational and healthcare resources, and lives that have little prospects of improving. What began as a massive national affordable housing project has so far resulted in a further crippling in the quality of life for those who have no other choice but to live in these cities.
In this interview for LensCulture, Gregory Eddi Jones speaks to Hashem Shakeri about his early beginnings in photography, the theme of exile that runs through his work and the entangled relationship between humans and their surroundings.
Gregory Eddi Jones: First off, I’m curious just to learn your history as a photographer. I think I read that you are self-taught, is that correct?
Hashem Shakeri: I was introduced to photography by my mother, and my first proper encounter with a serious photo happened very unexpectedly, out of curiosity. It was a photo by Mohammad Farnood, a former photographer at Sipa Press. It was an image of helpless and desperate Iranians living near the borders who had to leave their homes with their naked children, because of the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq, which was a turning point in my life.
I still don’t know exactly why I became a photographer, and I still don’t know if my concern is just this medium or not, but I think it is the only tool with which I have been able to write poetry so far. It allows me to express my feelings and emotions like a poem, and it gives me the opportunity to explore. Photography is perhaps the most liberating feeling I experience which is important in art. According to Freud, the value of art as a source of joy and consolation has no limit in life. The enjoyment of beauty has a special character that creates a mild intoxication. It is something that helps us overcome life.
GEJ: I’d like to talk about your series Cast Out of Heaven. How does it relate to your concerns as a photographer? What spurred your interest in photographing these cities and communities being developed around Tehran?
HS: This project is part of a larger trilogy about three contemporary issues that exist in Iran and have occupied my mind. An Elegy for the Death of Hamun and Cast Out of Heaven are the first two parts, which deal with the subject of exile, isolation, restlessness, self-alienation and the abandonment of people living in Iran today.
In An Elegy for the Death of Hamun, the people of the Hamun region in Iran find themselves hopeless and weak in the face of nature. Nature which has previously been overused and exploited by the profit-seeking approaches of a minority there. The people of the region once lived together peacefully next to fertile nature, but now they have been defeated by its infertility. And now, in Cast Out of Heaven, my project about the housing crisis, it is these structures that have defeated human beings. They themselves are the ones who happen to have created these structures in the past against the environment and against their own nature. In this project, you will see these structures are replacing the mountains and natural resources of the land. All of this leads me to the conclusion that human beings have become alienated. And this is the main concept of my work.
In Cast Out of Heaven, I investigate some new definitions of contemporary exile as a kind of forced rejection by the ruling structures. People have to move from where they have always lived. The hard core of metropolises is expelling its citizens because more and more people are unable to live in a city like Tehran due to economic problems; the crisis of shelter and this forced rejection, which for me can be seen as exile, is the same confusion that I saw before in Sistan and Baluchestan. I met many people in these satellite towns who told me that they were exiled there.
GEJ: Is it fair to consider these developments failures, or does it remain to be seen the degree to which they still have the potential to prosper?
HS: Cast Out of Heaven is about the Mehr Housing Project specifically, which is one of the plans of the ninth and tenth governments of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the ex-president of Iran. It could have been one of the greatest national housing projects of the country. It was launched after the revolution and promised to be a great help in accommodating the lower class of society and young couples who couldn’t afford to buy a house, but unfortunately the project has proved inefficient, costly and challenging. It was a huge economic project for the country, which lacked proper and accurate expertise and its incorrect and unprofessional implementation has caused many problems, the remnants of which are still present after 15 years.
The project had some problems; a lack of cultural and sports facilities and shopping centers within the radius of a few kilometers of these towns, a lack of compliance with national building regulations and standards in the design and construction of the project apartments, the use of low quality materials to build the houses, the employment of unqualified teams and executives, contractors and builders, the non-standard output of the constructed buildings and finally the failure to design and implement the necessary infrastructure for settlements before the transfer of land and the implementation of construction such as drainage, sewage, street gutters, drinking water, electricity and asphalt began.
When a neighborhood or a town is created, it is definitely necessary to first consider the urban planning of the area in order to design schools, clinics, fire stations and shopping centers, etc. The lack of these facilities in the Mehr Housing Project has been one of the disadvantages of this plan and, with the rising of inflation and the recent economic crisis in Iran, it eventually turned the idea of making the lower class of society homeowners into a big nightmare.
GEJ: I’m curious to know more about the individuals and families who have chosen to move to these cities. Did the majority of these residents arrive with expectations that these cities would thrive? Do they feel stranded, or abandoned? In some ways, I read the subjects in your pictures as accidental exiles.
HS: If I want to describe the inhabitants of these areas, I have to start by saying that they consist of several groups. There are those that tend to move to big cities like Tehran to make a living and struggle with the economic crisis so that they can find suitable jobs. Since the distribution of welfare and facilities in Iran is not the same, the capital is one of their priorities, but because the price of housing in Tehran is very high, they are forced to live in one of the satellite towns around it.
Then, there is another group of people who can’t afford rent and therefore can no longer live in the capital. They are forced to live around Tehran despite the fact that they still have to work there, so every day they journey to the capital. This group is much larger and its population is increasing every year. And finally, there is another group who initially looked at the project as an investment opportunity and years ago decided to own a house in these satellite towns. Initially, they expected something better. Many of them are still waiting to receive their houses as the completion of these projects is postponed every day.
As I explained before—and it is very evident in the way I tell this story—these satellite towns have very few facilities that you expect of a big city like recreational centers, welfare, education and hygiene. They are just a series of buildings built in the middle of the mountains. The lack of amenities has caused many problems. In general, for the years I have been working on the project, I have found that most of the residents I met are forced to live in these areas. I came to the word ‘exile’ you mention in the middle of my conversations and companionship with these people. Most of them had either lost out in their lives or were no longer able to continue living in Tehran, and some were even broke. I have been told repeatedly that they have been exiled here; that they do not enjoy it but they just have to continue. They say they have to live there against their will. The best advantage about these areas that I heard is the weather, which is better than in the capital.
This sense of remoteness and abandonment is further intensified by the fact that none of the elements that could turn this public space into a social, warm and urban place are present there, resulting instead in a feeling of abandonment and rejection among the residents.
GEJ: Can you talk about what your interactions were like with people in these cities? In your work I notice that there are no photographs of personal spaces or interiors of dwellings. You’ve decided to show public, rather than personal life in these places. Why is this?
HS: Since the very beginning, I wanted to create a poetic narrative with an atmosphere of ambiguity and suspense. This is a deliberate decision that formed in my mind from a process of intuition and many years of companionship with the residents of these areas. Although I made many friends there over the years, I deliberately decided to stay away from their interiors, and by chance, I was able to reach this atmosphere by wandering around the houses of the residents. It eventually became an artistic choice.
In the process of discovery, intuition, and trial and error, I came up with this component because I didn’t want to evoke my audience’s emotions and feelings by showing closeness—even though my life was very close to them. And the aesthetics I chose to use work with the first part of my trilogy and my environmental concerns, where I also try to portray the lonely man’s encounter with hard and sterile nature and these massive structures that have dominated human beings. The encounter of contemporary man and high-rise buildings that have grown like mushrooms in the middle of mountains.
Of course, I am still thinking of a new approach to represent different walks of life in the interiors, and this is a challenge for me. I would like it to be in line with this world of thought and my type of aesthetics. I am not going to show the atmosphere of the interiors in a bold and obvious way that would provoke the audience. For the time being, this connection and my living with people there is still present and I am not going to allow this connection to be cut off. At the same time, I am trying to practice and test various ways of picturing the interior atmosphere to reach the language I want.
GEJ: There’s a very distinctive quality in your work that comes from overexposing your images. Your work is awash in light and vibrancy, which may speak to the harsh desert sun that hangs over these cities. The quality of light has an almost sterile quality, or perhaps to me it feels indifferent in an odd sort of way. Could you talk about the ideas behind the aesthetic handling of this project?
HS: In this trilogy, in order to achieve the feeling of being in a timeless and placeless world along with a real and documentary atmosphere that is both surreal and apocalyptic with absurd aspects, I needed a flatness and minimalism. This photographic style instills a sense of stillness, bewilderment and loneliness that seems to linger after some sort of tragedy or crisis has happened.
After a long period of trial and error, I eventually decided on this flat, minimalist and dusty atmosphere using a medium format analog camera with several stops overexposed. I think it is in line with my approach and the topics I follow and I am very satisfied with the result of my work.
GEJ: I think one of my first impressions of this project is that the photographs are incredibly beautiful. I wonder what tension you might find in the gap created by beauty in image making and the very difficult living conditions that the people of these cities have to bear. To me, the beauty comes off as an irony of sorts, as if the pictures are trying to maintain the original promise of paradise that these places were marketed as. Is it accurate to say your pictures participate in this notion of false promise?
HS: This is a question I am often asked. This very paradox was really important to me. The gap in which I thought I could create a little space of reflection for the audience is my approach to the issues around me. I would like to achieve a very deep stillness, bewilderment and despair in the middle of beauty and I think what the audience generally interprets as the beauty of photos is exactly this same stillness, suspense, ambiguity and depth of atmosphere that I happen to be wandering in. I deeply believe that it is very different from conventional beauty and it has other meanings within it. Personally, I have a big problem with photographs that are merely beautiful, simple, perfect and conventional. It is not part of my taste at all. If by beauty you mean exactly the same thing too—something that brings paradoxes and other interpretations with it—then yes, in a way it can be true, and it is a part of my approach, which also contains irony.
From the middle of this beauty, I intend to reach a metaphorical, ironic, and paradoxical atmosphere that brings both stillness and depth, the aesthetics that are beautiful from my viewpoint and at the same time very bitter from a social point of view. It is neither just bitter nor just beautiful; the combination of these is deeper and more thought-provoking for me.
GEJ: I’m very curious to know more about the censorship you face as an Iranian, and the challenges and risks you take on as a result of that. Does censorship affect your approach to image-making and storytelling? Would you be doing anything different if that censorship was not in place?
HS: Our perception originates from the position and determination of our existence. Therefore, what I see and photograph is entirely dependent on my social and historical condition, both in form and content. Censorship is also a part of this situation that definitely affects my perspective. Any restriction, for anybody, anywhere, is absolutely reflected in the way they perceive and work—and it is effective.
In general, on one hand, we encounter various restrictions and obstacles when photographing in public spaces, and it brings about many difficulties. On the other hand, the contractor of this project was related to one of the government organizations, as a result of which the job had its own restrictions, and I was banned many times from photographing some areas. The fact is that for a photographer like me, photography in general is always accompanied by a sense of awareness and caution and at the same time agility, quickness and ingenuity, and these limitations, which are a challenge for many documentary photographers, have taught us some skills over the years. And these constraints force me to think of telling different stories in different ways, and I try to do my job with different tricks.
Obviously, if it weren’t for censorship, I would be a different person, too, not the one I have grown up to be at 33-years-old. Certainly, my life has been subconsciously formed in the context of such a structure that has overshadowed even my interests and tastes.
My subconscious mind censors a subject before it even makes an image and does not allow it to reach the imagination stage at all, and I have to practice constantly in order not to get stuck and also in order to escape from this stage, so that my self-awareness is first liberated and my subconscious mind may be affected.
GEJ: You titled the first part of this trilogy as an ‘elegy.’ Would you say there’s still a sense of activism in your work to raise awareness, or are you rather documenting what’s already a lost cause?
HS: I would like to raise my awareness by living, intuition and discovery. And to increase my understanding of my own society, I need to self-reflect, rethink, and review myself and my project while I am working on these social issues. I have to criticize myself all the time to find out if my awareness is true or not and to find out how correct my approach is. I’m sure that if my own living is honest, this awareness will convey to both me and the audience. If not, it’s like trying to insist that my project has a message that I haven’t received yet as the creator. My greatest motivation is the discovery of social structures that are hidden.
I started this project to try to break common stereotypes, and fortunately after me, a trend was formed. The area became more visible, more photographers went there and spread the voice of the people. There were more discussions about this area. I even tried to practically help there as much as I could, apart from photographing. Now, the question that is on my mind is whether the awareness of a work of art can bring about collective action that results in a change in people’s material condition? Despite the positive trend that formed and the fact that the news and discussions about the region increased, I am still living there to reach some deeper layers and there are still no significant changes there at all.
GEJ: How do you feel about these ideas further down the line of the project?
HS: The question that remains and demands a different debate is whether awareness can change the material reality of our lives on its own. This has occupied my mind for a long time. What is going to change with individual activities? Not only here but also in the wider world. For example, we all know about the process of exploitation of the environment and climate change. Can we stand against it by just informing people and sending photographs and images? To what extent does the work I produce have the people of this land as the audience? To what extent is it addressed to the Iranian people? To what extent is its audience those who should hear and see? Do the art market, the media, publications, critics and exhibitions that should transfer my work to the audience, which is a missing link in my country, work properly? How can I make a change when I cannot even present my work here?
Why is my work more promoted outside Iran than in it? I need the people of my country to get familiar with my work first so that we can think about what collective actions we can take to remove the material and social structures that create deprivation and poverty. What makes the process of removing deprivation and poverty at hand? Now we all know making dams has caused damage; there is no more water there, only drought, poverty and deprivation. But then again, why has nothing changed? And the next step; what can I do as an artist?
Editor’s note: We discovered Cast Out of Heaven in LensCulture’s HOME International Photography Prize 2021. For more thought-provoking discoveries, check out all the other winners, jurors’ picks and finalists here.