Iran, June 2009. A mostly apolitical 26-year-old became the face of a revolution.

When the then-incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected, protests broke out questioning his landslide victory, asking for a re-count of votes. Neda Agha-Soltan, who’d just stepped out from an “underground" music lesson with her instructor (women are not allowed to sing in the country), was shot dead by security forces even as she was only observing the scene, much before she reached the site of protests. With countless camera phones as witness, and despite intermittent Internet and media access in the country during the time, Soltan’s death went viral everywhere else around the world, except in Iran.

It was only a few days later that Azadeh Akhlaghi, photographer and once assistant director to the late Iranian legend Abbas Kiarostami, came to know of Soltan’s death.

“Everything was filtered in Iran at that time—we didn’t have SMS, no Internet,"Akhlaghi, 38, recalls. “And then suddenly the Internet started to work and I received this email with a video [of Soltan’s shooting] from someone I met at a film festival once, asking me if I was okay."

“I knew a very beautiful girl, exactly like Neda, who died exactly a day after her. She was 22 years old, she was a student too, but nobody knows about her. No one. And that was because there was no camera to capture the moment."

It was this idea that Akhlaghi set out to explore when she started working on Be an Eye Witness—a series of 17 photographs recreating deaths from the years of the Persian Constitutional Revolution (1905-1911), the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and also some from the Iran-Iraq war from 1980-1988.

She started just around the time that Soltan’s death—her first name loosely translates to “voice" or “the calling"— had become a rallying point for the 2009-2010 protests against Ahmadinejad’s re-election. After exhaustive research spanning over three years, the photographer got together a producer and a crew, just as with a motion picture project, and embarked on By an Eye Witness. For three years and a half, Akhlaghi pored over any available records of the deaths that she shortlisted, to piece together context and details. This included coroners’ reports, newspaper reports and accounts from newspapers of other countries too. From her first selection of 80 incidents, Akhlaghi settled on her final set of 17 pictures which reconstruct, through a hyper-real aesthetic filter, the death scenes (or their aftermaths) of athletes, writers, students and other activists. Staged with an immaculate eye for detail, the pictures feature a whole cast of actors or friends, wearing time-appropriate costumes and make up—not one person in the frames does not belong there. “I [also] tried to find eye witnesses, memoirs of people..." Akhlaghi says, meeting me at Delhi’s Triveni Kala Sangam where Art Heritage has showcased her project. “It was very difficult as many of their accounts were different… because of memory and also because of censorship," she says. “So it was tough sometimes to decide which one was telling the truth and which one was not."

A recreation of Gholamreza Takhti, the Olympic gold-medal wrestler’s room in Atlantic Hotel in Tehran, January, 1968. Photograph: Azadeh Akhlaghi. Credits: Art Heritage.
A recreation of Gholamreza Takhti, the Olympic gold-medal wrestler’s room in Atlantic Hotel in Tehran, January, 1968. Photograph: Azadeh Akhlaghi. Credits: Art Heritage.

One of the most talked-about deaths in the series is that of the wrestler Gholamreza Takhti. A gold medal winner at the Melbourne Olympics of 1956, his death in a hotel room in 1968 was alleged to be a suicide. To most Iranians for whom Takhti was a hero, however, this was unbelievable. He was great, a well-loved man, and a world champion too, why would he do this? To add to the public’s disbelief, none of the documents about his death were published till as late as the 1990s or the 2000s by the Islamic government, says Akhlaghi. “In a country like Iran, we seem to be stuck in this cycle where we have a revolution, after which everything is fine for a while before another coup d’état takes place and many people go to prison… So if somebody dies, everyone says the dictator has killed people, that the SAVAK (the secret police and intelligence service, active from 1957 to 1979) was involved," she says. “Even if the person [died in other ways], unless we have the documents, and for many of them we don’t."

To create a picture of Takhti’s death then, Akhlaghi used visual cues from the iconic last picture of Che Guevara, the Argentine revolutionary. Known to be taken by photo journalist Freddy Alborta, the image, called ‘The Corpse of Che’, played a large part in catapulting the Marxist revolutionary into a legend-like figure. Akhlaghi plays on Takhti’s hero-status, and skipping over the unclear circumstances of his death, focuses instead on the wrestler’s body being wheeled out of the hotel room. A handful of officials, a photographer (possibly from the coroner’s office), and a man carrying what looks like Takhti’s handwritten note before his death, look on. In the far corner of the picture, at an angle directly in the viewer’s sightline sits Akhlaghi herself, wrapped in a red scarf. In each and every picture of the series, Akhlaghi wears the same scarf, actively positioning herself as a bystander, much like the philosophy student and aspiring underground musician Neda Agha-Soltan was, during the very beginning of the Iranian Green Movement. In one picture, she’s visibly shaken and running towards the victim, in another she’s a quiet vision whose reflection you catch in a cleverly placed mirror, and in yet another, you can only see her red scarf, fallen on the ground. It is the photographer as the eye-witness.

“You know, in the beginning, when I talked about the project with my cameraperson and with my group, everyone suggested I make the pictures black and white. But I didn’t want to. I wanted [viewers] to see history as vivid as possible, as colourful as possible, like the history now as it is happening… I also wanted my red scarf to be seen in all of them, to be noticed. That’s why I never used red for any other character in the pictures— they’re always in blacks and browns and greys," says Akhlaghi.

Her style of staged pictures, which look like stills from cinema, isn’t only due to her roots in filmmaking. There is also the unmistakable influence of Baroque painters like Caravaggio and later neo-classicists like Jacques-Louis David. At one point during her research for Be an Eye Witness, Akhlaghi spent hours at the Louvre studying just the colour and play of light in their paintings.

“What they did by painting is very similar to what I’m doing with photography. They basically reconstructed a history," she says. “They read the Bible or whatever else and tried to imagine the history." It is also the reason why her images are wide, and extremely large. The print showing the murder of three students at the Faculty of Engineering at Tehran University on 7 December 1953, for instance, is a panoramic view of four separate images stitched together. The corridor at the cusp of a staircase is marked by confusion and smoke as faculty and students try to run, after Azar Shariat Razavi, Ahmad Ghandchi and Mostafa Bozorgnia were killed by the police. Even now, the day is remembered and marked as Iran’s Student Day.

A recreation of the three murders at the Faculty of Engineering, Tehran University. December 1953. Photograph: Azadeh Akhlaghi. Credits: Art Heritage.
A recreation of the three murders at the Faculty of Engineering, Tehran University. December 1953. Photograph: Azadeh Akhlaghi. Credits: Art Heritage.

“I couldn’t focus on many, many other killings. I started with a list of 80 incidents that I wanted to do, but settled on the 17 largely due to budgetary constraints. Also, I couldn’t reconstruct the deaths of those who died in the Green Movement after the revolution, I couldn’t do it, obviously," she says, referring to the state’s hawk-eye watch and censorship. But in line with inspired dissidents like fellow Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi— who in 2010, after being put to house arrest and banned from writing any scripts for 20 years, still managed to release three films (This Is Not a Film, 2012; Closed Curtain, 2013, and Taxi, 2015)—Akhlaghi still finds a way to do whatever she wants.

For now fortunately, her measures aren’t as drastic as Panahi’s. If there were writers from the more recent Chain Killings (the decade of 1988-1998) that she couldn’t talk about, she instead traced back a 1924 killing of political writer Mirzadeh Eshghi in the courtyard of his home, by two unknown gunmen. She also remembers in the series, the feminist poet Forough Farrokhzad, who crashed to her death while trying to avoid an accident with a car full of schoolchildren. “She was a very free woman, many Iranian girls still think about her. She died at the age of 32. And for many of them like her, [if not for] that moment of their deaths… they could have changed the history of the country," Akhlaghi says.

Being an Australian citizen too, Akhlaghi could live and work from there, easily evading Iranian censorship. “But I prefer to stay in Iran. I think it makes you more creative, when you’re always thinking [to work around censorship]," she says, walking out into Delhi’s bright October sunlight to pose for pictures—only this time, with a green scarf casually thrown on.

By An Eye Witness is part of Art Heritage’s show ‘“Staging the Past"– An Exhibition of Photographs by Azadeh Akhlaghi and Babak Kazemi’, on till 2 November, at the Shridharani Gallery, Triveni Kala Sangam, New Delhi.

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