“I have always pursued my dreams and I have learned to fight to get what is rightfully mine and not to let them make me sad and hopeless,” says Maryam Zand, a photographer who has no place for “I can’t!” or “It cannot be done!” in her lexicon.
“Photography has not occupied my life; it is I who have invited it to give me a feeling of content and hope,” she says.
Maryam Zandi’s photographs of the 1979 Iranian Revolution were published in book form in 2016, over three decades after the events took place. Although she tried to publish the work under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his administration demanded some parts of the book be censored — a demand Zandi rejected. The final result is a portfolio with a depth and breadth that would be the envy of any photographer. Later, she also refused to accept an accolade from Ahmadinejad.
Zandi was born in 1946 in the city of Gorgan, close to the Caspian Sea, in an area known as Turkmen Sahra, or the “Plain of Turkmens.” Her older half-brother, the writer, photographer, director and novelist Nader Ebrahimi, introduced her at an early age to world literature and writers including André Gide and Hermann Hesse. Zandi says Hesse’s novel Siddhartha made a deep and lasting impression on her when she read it aged 15.
From Acting to Photography
After receiving her high school diploma, she moved to Tehran to continue her education and graduated from Tehran University’s School of Law and Political Sciences. But a career in law did not appeal to her and even before finishing her degree, she appeared in several episodes of the TV series “Fire without Smoke,” which was directed by Nader Ebrahimi. In turn, her acting experience led her to her true professional love: photography.
She began working in photography in 1970. From 1971 to 1983, she was a staff photographer for the Iranian Radio and TV Organization and its weekly program “Tamasha.” Zandi’s first serious foray outside official Iranian media took place when she traveled to her native Turkmen Sahra and documented the daily lives of members of the mostly nomadic Turkmen tribes. She also completed sociological research about the Turkmens of Iran for her university dissertation. She published her work from this period in the book “Photographs from Turkmen Sahra” in 1983, the same year when she was dismissed from Iranian Radio and TV, now controlled by the Islamic Republic.
Baby in One Arm, Camera on the Other
It was the winter of 1978-1979 and the Islamic Revolution that provided her with the most significant opportunity to record a historical event and explore new artistic possibilities. In those days, Tehran was filled with both hope and fear. The shah’s military forces were shooting many pro-revolution demonstrators, and sometimes even passers-by. But Zandi persisted even though by then she had a baby girl.
“I couldn’t stay at home,” she wrote in the introduction to her photographs from the revolution. “Events had been taking place for some time and I was roaming with the city camera in hand. I felt responsible. I had to take photographs, to record what was taking place. I needed to immortalize the portrait of people rising up for freedom. It was very crowded and I couldn’t see much. I reached a bus station and decided to climb up its cabin, but it seemed impossible with a baby in my arms. A lady was standing nearby. I asked her to hold my daughter for a few minutes. She agreed, under one condition. I asked what her condition was. She wanted me to shout: ‘Long Live Khomeini!’”
Zandi agreed. “She took my daughter and I climbed up. Once I saw the sea of people I was frightened. I had never seen so many in one place. The sight of that infinite, turbulent, resolute sea was awe-inspiring indeed. These were brave individuals who had been under tyranny. Some were holding pictures of their martyrs in their hands, those whom they had pinned their hope on. I directed my lens in every direction and took pictures. I did not feel the passing of time. I was excited and took deep breaths after every shutter click. And with each one, it seemed that spectacular scenes were sucked into my camera, that I was there, trying to record these moments, filled me with pride. I had a peculiar mood and could hear my heartbeat just as when one falls in love. I don’t know how long it took. My babysitter got tired and kept asking me to come down and take my child back. With my daughter in my arms and my camera in tow, I marched with the crowd toward Shahyad Square. Midway to the square I went on top of a monstrous building. I still don’t know and can’t remember how I climbed the stairs of that 10-story building with a baby and a camera. I was able to take pictures that now look to me like they were aerial photographs.”
But when the revolution succeeded and the Islamic Republic was established, female photographers found that they could no longer freely choose their subjects and locations, especially as photojournalists. But Zandi’s enthusiasm for photography had become so ingrained in her that she could not stop. The solution, she found, was to turn the camera around, moving her focus from public space to the private space of artists and writers. Although this type of photography later gained in popularity, when Zandi started out, it was not common practice to capture Iranian artists and literati in portraits. The portraits, which were eventually published in multiple volumes, are distinguished by an individual and intimate style that sets them apart from portraits of the same subjects taken before.
But for many reasons the project proved to be difficult. “Whenever I called a poet or a writer and told him that I wanted to take his picture he would become worried and ask: ‘Why do you want to take my picture? I am a poet. Nobody takes pictures of poets,’” Zandi told the Iranian website Honar (“Art”) Online. “In those days [after the revolution] the atmosphere was full of factions and apprehension. And when I explained at length I was neither a leftist nor a rightist and that the pictures were not commissioned by a publication they were surprised that I wanted to photograph them without any compensation because regardless of anything else certain expenses were involved.”
Zandi says it was also difficult because camera film was not readily available. “To take pictures I had to visit several photo stores to find one or two rolls of film. This was of course when I was working on the first volume of my portraits. The conditions improved when I started working on the second volume and film imports resumed. Also, the publication of the first volume made it easier for me because people saw why I was taking the pictures. But for the first volume, I was in the most difficult situation because many were afraid and worried about what I was going to do with their pictures...and refused to be photographed.”
But the misplaced fear of her subjects was not the only obstacle she faced. Securing a permit from the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance was a full-fledged battle in itself, but she persisted as she had always done. Finally, the first collection of portraits was published in 1994, opening the way for the publication of subsequent volumes of portraits of figures of cinema, theater and music.
Like all artists around the world, Zandi has been fighting on another front for decades: Protecting the rights to her work. Her earlier work was done on analog cameras, but this did not stop publications from reproducing her works without her permission. As the internet became accessible to almost everyone, the problem worsened.
Although Iran is not a signatory to international copyright agreements, the Iranian parliament passed in 1970 a law to protect the rights of artists and writers within the Iranian market. Zandi has been persistent in invoking this law to protect her rights — but the battle continues.
In parallel with her other activities Zandi has been one of the few Iranian photographers to actively promote the work of her colleagues. In 2009, after years of discord, she and 12 other well-known Iranian photographers founded the National Iranian Photographers’ Society. She was elected the first chairwoman of its board.
Although Maryam Zandi routinely avoids political affiliations, she has been active in supporting freedom of expression and civil rights. Following the disputed 2009 presidential election, she was one of many artists and writers to be arrested because she had photographed street protests. “The interrogator said: ‘You shouldn’t have taken photographs of the protest,’” She wrote. “'It’s my job,’ I countered. ‘This is what I do. It is the only thing that I can do.’”
Refusing Official Accolade
In June 2010, Zandi became the first Iranian artist to refuse a state honor. The Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance invited her to receive a “first degree medal of art” from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but she refused. In a letter to the culture minister, she wrote: “Unfortunately, at a time when photography and photographers have come increasingly under attack and have no security in their work and life in Iran, when a number of them have been beaten up over their work, jailed, or are waiting for their sentences, at a time when a number of photographers have been forced to escape to the four corners of the world...and when I have to be afraid to use my camera in the streets out of fear, and when the work of some of my colleagues cannot be published without censorship — under such conditions I don't see any reason or desire to accept this decoration.”
The ministry retaliated by refusing to issue the distribution permit for her collection of revolution-era photographs, even though the book was already printed and bound. The Ministry of Culture insisted that some of the pictures be removed. The government also pressured the National Iranian Photographers’ Society to remove her from its board.
With the election of Hassan Rouhani to the presidency, some of the pressures on Zandi eased, but her book still failed to secure a distribution permit, and she was not allowed to sit on the board of the photographers’ society.
“I am a photographer, not a judge!” she wrote in an open letter to Rouhani. “For me, photography is a profession, an art and a duty. I am confident that my pictures from Iranian social events are documents for the nation and for future generations. History will judge how well I carried out my cultural duty. The same way that during the revolution I was in the streets and took pictures (the same pictures which the Ministry of Culture has censured for years), I was among people celebrating your victory. No matter what happens in my country, it is my duty to record it.”
Her persistence paid off. Shortly after, her collection of photos of the Iranian Revolution were published. No photographs were removed, including those that the Ministry of Culture had objected to earlier.
Since 1973, Maryam Zandi has had 19 solo exhibitions, including the 1992 Portraits from the Iranian Literati Scene at George Washington University. She has published more than 10 collections of her work and a large number of calendars on various themes. Zandi has also held three exhibitions of her glassworks, proving yet again that she is not content to simply rest on her laurels.
“Sometimes a photographer can capture what hides beneath your exterior. That’s what Maryam’s work did for our poets, sculptors, and artists,” Iranian director Nasser Taghvaee said in a ceremony honoring Zandi’s work. “She reflected who they were on the inside.”