Features

Photographer Documents Iranians Celebrating Yalda

December 19, 2020
Saleem Vaillancourt
4 min read
Photographer Documents Iranians Celebrating Yalda
A Black Lives Matter gathering held via Zoom. Courtesy of Magnum Photos / Thomas Dworzak.
A Black Lives Matter gathering held via Zoom. Courtesy of Magnum Photos / Thomas Dworzak.
A dancer during an online dance party held via Zoom. Courtesy of Magnum Photos / Thomas Dworzak.
A dancer during an online dance party held via Zoom. Courtesy of Magnum Photos / Thomas Dworzak.

Shab-e Yalda – also called Yalda Night, the longest and darkest night of the year – is an ancient Iranian festival marking the winter solstice on Deember 20 or 21. Yalda this year falls on December 21 – the longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere. Family and friends have for generations gathered on Shab-e Yalda to eat traditional foods such as pomegranates and watermelon, and to read poetry, in particular the poetry of Iran’s 14th century poet Hafez, until past midnight, in a bid to ward off evil and to avoid misfortune.

Now a photographer is documenting Iranians celebrating Yalda and warding off evil – but online, via the longest zooms of the year – and he is invited Iranians around the world to help.

Yalda has its roots in Iran’s Zoroastrian past when the winter solstice was seen as an inauspicious night. The forces of the Zoroastrian legend Ahriman, a symbol for the destructive spirit in the Zoroastrian faith, were said to be at their peak on the longest night of the year. Gathering together was first intended as an act of protection – safety in numbers – and these gatherings evolved into the modern tradition of celebrating Shab-e Yalda with friends.

The Islamic Republic tried to stifle Iran’s Zoroastrian customs when it came to power after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But Iranian customs and the ancient heritage of Iran’s people have proven resilient. Yalda is one of many festivals, from Chaharshanbeh Suri to Norooz, that have survived and thrived despite an ambivalent or hostile Islamic clergy.

Iran’s cultural institutions relented and in 2008 even added Shab-e Yalda to its list of national treasures. But celebrating Yalda during a pandemic means that Iranians – in Iran and around the world – will this year be warding off evil and enjoying their Hafez via Zoom and other video call platforms.

Now Thomas Dworzak, a German-born Magnum photographer based in Paris, France, is photographing a Vogue magazine series on holidays in the time of coronavirus, including Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza and other festivals. Dworzak has also photographed events earlier in the year such as dance parties and Black Lives Matter gatherings.

Dworzak told IranWire about his plans to also photograph Iranians zooming their way through the longest night of the year – and his hopes that more Iranians will contact him to share their own online Yalda events for Vogue.

You are photographing a number of traditional festivals now being held online. Do you think people are still enjoying the festivities despite not being able to gather together?

The history of this, there is a fatigue with Zoom, people are fed up with doing it, but people are trying to be creative. The ones I’ve seen, starting with Hanukkah last week, people are enjoying it. I think with medium-sized groups it works better – there’s more communication and people can talk. What does work better ... is when there’s a little bit of a choreography.

Someone takes the lead, someone is the MC; it’s easy with religious services, because they’re more formal. During the Hanukkah gatherings, there was a rabbi talking ... instead of a group of people gathering together in a Zoom room.

Taking a screenshot of these gatherings is very humbling, in a way. It is exactly what you see. Your Zoom grid looks exactly like my Zoom grid. There’s no space for framing, there’s nothing I can do. I am trying to be a photographer – I’m sticking it out and seeing what I can capture. But a lot of it does not look very nice or appealing. This is what confinement and quarantine means. It’s an interesting intimacy, photographically, you get very close to people. That’s the upside of it. I’ve seen impressive [Zoom] grids – you see lots of people and there are interesting dynamics. You see the faces of people: usually in religious gatherings you just see the backs of people’s heads.

What do you hope to capture in this year’s online Yalda gatherings?

When I’ve been to real ones, they’ve been like a party, so I don’t really know what people will be doing. I’ve signed up to a few official Yalda evening events, so they don’t really say [in advance] what’s going to happen. I would imagine a lot of family gatherings – families getting together. But I don’t know what to expect at the Yalda gatherings tomorrow.

How can people share their online gatherings for your Vogue project?

I would be more than happy if people will let me photograph their gatherings: you can send me details of your events at [email protected].

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