The Construction of Meaning in Photography

‘Photograph… a record of a reality refracted through a sensibility’

– Victor Burgin (1986)

Shadi Ghadirian and her range of artistic photography vocalise two of her most personal identities: Iran and womanhood. However, as expressed in her collection Miss Butterfly (2011), and in various films that struggle to sieve through the web of state censor board,  personal and public are not significantly distinguished and demarcated spaces for Iranian women. However, it is not the politics of her subject matter that is the only fodder for one’s fascination; if one may look closer, or deeper, it is her process that fancies. 

In her frames, Shadi Ghadirian captures the duality of contemporary existence in Iran; imbued in life’s contradictions and an innate desire to be understood. This duality can be seen as a struggle, if not a conflict, between tradition and modernity in the prevailing sense of representation in Iran. To Shadi, this duality in representation is more apparent in the representation of women. In her collection, Qajar (1998), Shadi uses the style of traditional Qajar photography, famous in the 19th century Iran, and twitches the construction of meaning by invading the traditional space with an object that signifies modernity.

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Shadi Ghadirian : Qajar

The duality represented in Qajar answers well to the understanding of a ‘photograph’ as provided by Roland Barthes. Instead of its artistic composition, Barthes was more focused on its construction of cultural myths on a mass scale. In Mythologies, Barthes asserts that a photograph is a coded, historically contingent, ideological speech which is amenable to scientific study  and semiotic analysis. In Qajar, we can see Shadi substituting the surface understanding of the picture with a larger ideological and political meaning which is represented through well coded symbols that carry certain political meanings in themselves. Therefore, the use of a traditional style (Qajar) as a space where little objects of modernity are placed, alienates the meanings earlier associated with these two elements and conjoins them to construct a new political meaning. Interestingly, the women in these photographs maintain the facial features and aesthetic sense that was prevailing during the Qajar period. In such a frame, an object of modernity seems like an inevitable reality to which women in Iran might have dealt with in an operational sense but not in a cultural sense. 

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Shadi Ghadirian : Qajar



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Shadi Ghadirian : Qajar

Apart from construction of duality in representation of Iranian women, we see another very fascinating feature in Shadi Ghadirian’s photographic process: The symbolisation of the subject matter. 

Photography for Shadi is as symbolic as it is real. So much so, that when the urge to surface the reality, which has been brushed aside for so long, becomes irresistible, the symbols become the voice that speaks on behalf of reality so silenced. It is when the language of reality becomes too hard to gather, that the symbols become the mouthpiece of  one’s truth. 

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In Miss Butterfly, we see the frames depicting meanings that are drawn not from the referrant herself, but from the space in which the referrant is placed. In addition to this, the interplay or engagement created between the referrant and the object (in this case, the web) alienates both the referrant and the engaged object from their own meanings and reduces them to become mere symbols of a political message. 

Miss Butterfly was inspired by renowned Iranian playwright Bijan Mofid’s piece about a butterfly’s ill-fated pursuit to encourage her fellow insects to escape captivity of a spider’s web and go see the sun again. In each of the images from the collection, women are shown weaving or unravelling webs attached to the frames of light (an exit). They seemed at turns overpowered by the narrow staircases and rooms or dwarfed by the stately homes in which they are placed (Nagree : 2006). More than anything, it is the overpowering darkness that reflects the most upon the reality of the lives of these women. 

Shot in black and white, the women in these frames are symbols of multiplicity of layered meanings. One such layer is the public-private divide in the lives of Iranian women. The images show women wearing the headscarves even in the private space within a domestic setting. Some critics argued that the same was deliberately done by Shadi to comply with the guidelines of the state censor board. One might not see this distinction as relevant within the religious context but the same does come across as a constructed meaning from the direct reading of the photographs. 

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Shadi Ghadirian : Miss Butterfly 


Unlike the meaning usually associated with photography theorists, the pictures in Miss Butterfly are much alienated from the actual reality of the referrant. Such alienation is much evident in the poetic construction of the frame where the object which symbolises captivity is enlarged from its usual/normal size. Moreover, the careful selection of space and source of light, also work towards alienating the referrant (women) from their actual historical context; hence reducing them to mere symbols of general understanding of oppression. One may say, Shadi Ghadirian in Miss Butterfly, becomes the author of the photograph; metamorphosing the reality into well construed ideology and representing the same through intelligently placed symbols.  

We can see this well thought of placement of incongruous objects to create meaning in her other acclaimed works such as Like Everyday (2000) and Nil Nil (2008) as well. In all of these works, the ideological motive becomes a vantage point from which objects (including humans) are seen through preconceived meaning. 

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Shadi Ghadirian : Like Everyday 



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Shadi Ghadirian : Nil Nil 

It is through her well choreographed process, that Shadi Ghadirian imbues movement in stillness. Since the subject matter of her photograph is not the historical fact or abstracted reality but a political meaning, the pictures escape the socio-temporal existence and remain relevant till the political objective is achieved. Therefore, the referentiality and indexicality of Shadi Ghadirian’s  photography is not reflective of the world represented in the photograph but of the world ‘out-there’; that is, the world outside the photograph but yet so near. 

This subject matter, however, runs contrary to the classical understanding of photography which considered a photograph to be stillness; so much so that some considered it to be a death. Christian Metz in his Photography and Fetish (1985) argues that photography operates as a figuration of death. Metz says ‘photography is an instantaneous abduction of the object out of the world into another world, into another kind of time… photography by virtue of its stillness ‘maintains the memory of dead as being dead.’  In common parlance, photography is compared with shooting; the camera becomes a gun.

Shadi Ghadirian, on the other hand, is bringing alive the voices of the dead and the denied. With every frame and image, she challenges the ‘still’ nature of her medium of expression by constructing meanings that remain relevant, existent and omnipresent. Shadi’s camera is not a gun; it is not a flag of peace either. More than anything, it is a mirror; reflecting what ever movement and the moved fails to see through his own naked eyes. 

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The Poignancy of Justice


  –  Deconstructing humanism of Hossien Shahabi’s The Bright Day


One might brand this movie as a reflection of Iran’s fringe filmmaking culture. A quintessential offbeat screenplay intertwined with adequate cultural offerings. Perhaps, a movie that is oriented towards an audience which considers itself to be a learned lot on morality debates of the non-western societies. When, however, this 96 minutes long motion picture met my eye, I preferred to think the other way.

A directorial debut of a cinematic prodigy, The Bright Day is like a universe packed in a small cab. Like the theories of everything human about this world presented through the unravelling of two beings. Yes, this is how brief the world can get. At least in the same head that is perplexed by the vastness and vagueness it forms for itself.

Despite its strong fringe characteristics, I would call the narrative an inward shift of mirror to face the Iranian society itself. It’s a social commentary on the tragic manipulations of the nation’s criminal justice system by the far reaching hands of the rich and powerful. What could have been an old wine in a new bottle came across as a flavour that has not been favoured before. Yes, the sub narratives involved in the script opened up dilemmas surrounding individual morality and the feeblish character it practically possess.

The story revolves around a kindergarten teacher, Farhoudi (Pantea Bahram) who is taken a taxi to scale the city in order to find possible witnesses who can testify for Pousan, a man who is charged for the murder of his colleague who is also supposed to be the son of his boss. So, what withers the abstractness? To some extent, it is the fact that Pousan fathers a young boy who is a student at Farhoudi’s school. The other half of abstractness, the one which deals with Farhoudi’s overzealous attempt to save Pousan’s life, is a plot that dominates the major part of the film.

On her journey to find witnesses, Farhoudi is joined by a cab driver Kiani (Mehran Ahmedi) who too becomes extremely passionate about Pousan’s case and endeavours to do every possible thing to help Farhoudi fetching the right witnesses. Farhoudi has been informed by Pousan’s lawyer that the witnesses (more than 1) must be brought before the court within six hours otherwise the accused would meet a deadly fate. It is this period of six hours that serves the central screenplay of the movie.

Focusing on the abstractness of Farhoudi’s extremely selfless endeavour, the awkwardness of the same is realised by each and every possible witness she goes ahead to approach. Most of these people are Pousan’s co-workers who were present at the time of the questioned event when a brief scuffle between Pousan and his boss’s son led to the latter’s accidental fall from the staircase. Everybody knows this act to be an accident but nobody wants to testify the same due to the financial baits and physical threats advanced by the prosecuting party. When Farhoudi questions these people about the falsity of their decision making, she’s met with counter questions that doubt her intentions behind getting involved in the case. While Kiani’s support is purely on humanitarian and moralistic grounds, the story maintains a convenient silence about the true intentions of Farhoudi. Such is the genuineness of her efforts, that one shall be forced to put her intention under the humanitarian context only.

The movie is mostly shot in real time which contributes to its realism credentials. Every minute of those six hours is impregnated with sheds of anxiety and corresponding hope. The intelligent absence of background score from the climactic moments of the film provides a better insight into the psyche of the characters. We are rather exposed to surrounding sounds of chirping birds, passing cars and government healthcare announcements. Such closeness with the entire context of a particular plot presents the emotional gravity of the characters involved and the urgency of the situation in the most accurate way possible. It also hints towards the fact that no matter how big your problem is, the surrounding world is unaffected of its maladies.

One of the briefest sub themes of the narrative deals with the issue of gender roles and resulting sexism in the society. The widely occurring instance of this assertion can be the aspersions associated with Farhoudi’s interest in saving Pousan while no such image is built around Kiani. Such is the pressure of this doubt, that along with continuing tiredness, it leads to an unexpected outburst from Farhoudi where she screams that ‘I can be his anything. His sister, mother or daughter. It’s not about me though. It’s about a man who may face resistance for an act he has not committed.’  The other instance of such gender inequality can be seen from the fact that one of the most promising witnesses, who happened to be a woman, was unable to help Pousan because women are not allowed to testify in criminal cases involving intentional homicide.

The movie is devoid of any cinematic pretence. The frames are kept as raw and insightful as they would have been in a realist outplay of such an incident. And that is what imbibes a viewer to the depth of the existing problem. Probably, we don’t need that artificially induced rush of emotions to understand the gravity of a situation. Sometimes, the act of making us see the reality as it is can stir up deepest compassion for these are the realities we often seek to ignore in our daily processes. Processes that seek convenience of everything good, expected and under our control.

It is not just the bleakness that the director wants to portray through his narrative. It is the regrettable apathy that people have developed towards this bleakness that amuses his cause. Farhoudi’s failure to move the possible witnesses by invoking the possible plight of Pousan’s son and ailing mother shows the receding morality of people in a materialistic context. Even the most religious of beings conveniently choose to forsake religion’s offerings on piety and truthfulness by building a bubble around their conscience that somehow moulds their action to suit the ‘broader’ sanctions of their religion. This can be seen in the counter argument raised by one of the witnesses who said that ‘I would not support a murderer’ even after knowing the fact that the person he’s referring to is actually innocent.

So, I would say that The Bright Day was so inhumane that it felt too human. It exposed me to the realities I’m somewhat aware of but I would still be shocked by the visual representation of the same. The only humane aspect of the narrative, Farhoudi’s selfless humanitarian effort, also tends to retreat in the later part of the movie. As the story takes a desperate turn, we get exposed to the humanness of Farhoudi. And if the movie’s definition of humanness is anything to go by, this exposure did hurt a lot. All this while, I wanted Farhoudi to be that one shred of idealism that as a visionary I can cling to; that one fault of the narrative that could divorce me from the realism of the situation. ‘Oh, it’s just the fiction’! I wish I could exclaim. But it didn’t. Farhoudi is also a human and that too in a society that she’s done fighting against. As a human, her demeanour is also colourable by shades of emotions and feelings; a sense of attachment to the subject matter if not selfishness. And we see just that. Sigh! But so artistic, indeed.

The Bright Day is nothing short of desperation; or anxiety. It’s like a visual display of emotions where humans just get to be there. While watching this film you’ll be forced to forge certain dilemmas within. The debates you were always running away from. But it all comes down to convenience. It all comes down to that perverseness the elimination of which you started this entire fight for at the first place but ended up succumbing to the same to avoid a larger or broader harm. That’s why we see Kiani, after being rattled by the last minute hostility of a promising witness, asks Pousan’s lawyer to present him as one of the witnesses.

So, is change a utopia that the society would be done thriving for? Perhaps, it is. However, what’s more important is that how you twitch the status quo to make a little sense of circumstances around you. We may be doing it a wrong way, but we aren’t heading towards the wrong.