Following her study of 20th century Iranian history at university and later encouraged to visit the country by Iranian expats she met in the USA, Melbourne-based photographer Sarah Pannell spent a year planning her first trip to the country. “I can’t say why in particular Iran piqued my interest, but I found myself fascinated and a little shocked by its turbulent history,” she tells Its Nice That. “I finally made my way there in September 2016 and spent a month travelling around to a number of cities and provinces.”
Covering areas such as Tehran, Qazvin, Isfahan, Kerman, Urmia, Rasht, Tabriz and Shiraz, the latter two became the title of her series and the ensuing book. “Tabriz to Shiraz is a metaphorical name in the sense that it’s not strictly a journey between those two cities, but they were two places that had an impact on me and I really like the sound of both names,” explains Sarah.
A collection of landscapes and portraits, this new photo book is a visual ode to contemporary Iran and its people. Equally, it’s an attempt to dispel common misconceptions of the country resulting from the Western gaze. Forty years on from the Iranian Revolution, and after a flood of American sanctions, Iran continues to suffer the repercussions. “Traditionally, I believe a lot of the Western photojournalism coming out of Iran has predominantly been by (white) men and shrouded in clichés,” says Sarah. “And though there is absolutely no shortage of incredible documentary photography work coming out of Iran by talented Iranians, what I was hoping to communicate is an alternative perspective of modern Iran as a foreign visitor who has been lucky enough to be welcomed with unforgettable warmth.”
It’s this hospitality that has formed one of Sarah’s other projects in the country, which she is currently working on. “In a way Tabriz to Shiraz is the first chapter of my Iranian based work, as I begin to shift my focus to a longer-term project which explores the cultural importance and relevance of hospitality in modern Iranian society.” Greeted as she was with such kindness, Sarah says many of the photos she took on her first trip have actually been reserved for her later project. “It’s been an interesting process deciding which work fits where. My next body of work will have a stronger element of intimacy and human connection, where as this series is focused on stand-alone images that have a striking visual language and lead the viewer to wonder about how a particular scene came to be.”
And striking they are. A beautiful array of still life, architecture and human subjects merge to create a portrayal of Iran that finds wonderful life and vibrancy in a landscape that is inherently neutral. Though some natural features serve to brighten the images in the form of food and flowers, the real colour in the series comes from its manmade elements; paintings, textiles, playgrounds and, most notably in one picture, stained glass windows, present the viewer with bold hues that juxtapose beautifully with the beige tones of the surroundings. “My photography has always been drawn to strange and awkward scenes where human-made objects and nature meet, and with colour being a dominant part of my practice, these factors usually combine,” explains Sarah. “I love the tension been these two elements in everyday life, whether on a small still life scale or as a result of infrastructure gone awry.”
Each image in Tabriz to Shiraz stands out as uniquely and quintessentially Iranian. Whether it be depictions of its history in street murals, the iconic Persian rugs that adorn nearly every floor, or the assortment of locally grown food, the photos speak of a culture that is rich and resistant. But it’s the people, above all, that Sarah says embody the true values of Iran. “My experiences there changed a lot of the ways that I think about human interactions and generosity,” she says. “I’ve made some wonderful friendships and really treasure the help and support of my Iranian friends who helped make this project possible.”
About the Author
Daniel joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in February 2019 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. He graduated from Kingston University with a degree in Journalism in 2015. He is also co-founder and editor of SWIM, an annual art and photography publication.