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In Iran, everything warrants a second look. Its sophisticated culture, which goes back to the dawn of civilization, thrives on complexities and contradictions. There are layers to everything, no matter whether it’s carpets, food or politics. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, many aspects of Iranian life have been reshaped by its theocratic government. Photographers there need to be careful not to run afoul of stringent rules. It can be difficult to practice photography in public without a permit from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
Iran’s capital, Tehran, looks like many other sprawling world cities with scores of anonymous high-rises. But quite a few of the buildings that face busy thoroughfares are adorned with a unique array of public art that ranges from outright propaganda to outrageous surrealist murals. To me, they were an irresistible photo opportunity.
So as not to draw too much attention to myself, I resorted to testing my drive-by photography skills. With a friend at the wheel, I would sit in the passenger seat equipped with a lightweight Nikon DSLR and a 28-200mm lens and shoot as we were driving along. By cranking up the ISO, I could set a high enough shutter speed to offset the car’s movement and still close down the aperture a few stops to extend my depth of field.
Under Islamic law, women in Iran are required to dress conservatively. While many younger women resent this dress code, older women often drape themselves in a body-length black chador. One day as I was doing one of my mural tours by car, I noticed a lady walking alone past a wall that featured both an optical illusion created by a painter and the stern visages of Ayatollah Khomeini and his successor, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Driving along at 30 miles per hour, I had only seconds to turn my initial impression into a photographic response. But one frame captured the ironic juxtaposition of a liberal imagination with its cultural counterweight.