Meandering into the depths of Behance one late night led us to the sublime works of Tehran, Iran based self-taught photographer Sara Medghalchi.
Through her photography, Sara documents her observations during her travels abroad and in her own city. In Tehran, she is especially keen on documenting the areas of historical importance that are being gradually destroyed by modern construction — the intersections between modernity and traditional.
Sara studied English Literature from Allameh Tabataba’i University, and now teaches English at a school in Tehran. We had a long conversation with her over Skype, and through many emails, about her life, work and inspirations.
Tell us something about your childhood. Where exactly did you grow up in Iran?
I grew up in Tehran, but I’m originally from Tabriz, a city in the North East of Iran. My parents were born there. I grew up in a very big family and while growing up, we used to attend a lot of big family gatherings and visit relatives quite frequently. While growing up, therefore, I ended up spending most of my time with family and not with friends.
However, life in a big city eventually changes everything. So things started changing around me when I was in my teens. A lot of my cousins and one of my aunts left the country, and one of my aunts passed away. That’s when I actually started to think more about myself and then I went to the university in Tehran.
You went to the Allameh Tabataba’i university right? What did you study there?
I was studying mathematics, because traditionally people in Iran expect you to be a teacher, engineer or doctor. But during my last grade in high school, I just decided to drop everything and study something that I was genuinely interested in, and that’s when I decided to study English literature.
I have always loved languages and have tried to learn different languages throughout my life. And being a teacher was kind of my thing. Even as kids, I used to play games with my sister where I would play the part of a teacher.
Did you enjoy studying English literature? Did it influence your life in some way at that point?
Yes, it was very interesting for me, especially because I come from a country which has all these political issues. There’s the university life and then there’s the social life where everything is related to politics. In fact, when I started studying in the university, we used to refer that particular time as “the golden age” because we had some really good professors and I made some great friends. The first two years were very good.
Studying literature also made me really conscious about what was going on in my life at that time. When we used to read prose or poetry (which is my favorite), we had to always read in-between the lines, look for symbols, and try to find out what the author was trying to communicate. I could also identify myself with a lot of the fictional characters, which was quite interesting.
All of this made me much more aware of my own self. And even now, when I am writing, photographing or teaching, I feel that I am a lot more aware of myself in those moments.
Who are some of your favorite authors in literature?
I love poems, plays and short stories. Among poets, I really love Pablo Neruda. I also like a lot of women writers like Jane Austen and Oriana Fallaci who has this book called Letters to a Child Never Born. Then I also love Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway, and JD Salinger.
How did you get into photography?
So there are a few things in my life that are very important to me — learning various languages, travelling, my profession as a teacher, and photography. When I was a child, my father used to do a lot of photography with one of those old Canon cameras. I used to watch the whole process of the development of the photos. I still have his camera with me. So that triggered my initial interest in photography and in seeing things through a lens, but I didn’t pursue it professionally for a long time.
I started doing this professionally only a couple of years back. I have got my own camera now, and I am a bit more serious about pursuing it. I take my camera with me everywhere now. Photography for me is like writing. It’s a way of expressing myself, and it’s extremely personal.
When I was a child, my father used to do a lot of photography with one of those old Canon cameras. I used to watch the whole process of the development of the photos. I still have his camera with me.
Could you talk a bit about your series ‘The Floating Realities’?
‘The Floating Realities’ is an ongoing series that I have showcased in several exhibitions now, and a lot of people have had very different interpretation of the pictures. And that’s really interesting for me.
In terms of the thought process, I think because of my English Literature background, I always have these multiple folders in my head where I am constantly storing concepts and images. Apart from that, I capture anything that catches my eye while I am out on the streets. So I always have a lot of pictures that I haven’t shown to anybody and a lot of pictures that I feel are worth showcasing.
What triggered the ‘Eyes Don’t Lie’ project?
Well, this series started when I was travelling in Nepal sometime back. I have seen a lot of street pictures by different photographers where the subjects are directly looking into the camera. I have always been curious to know if the photographers asked those people to look into the cameras or did that just happen in the moment.
The people in Nepal don’t usually like to be photographed, but on one of the nights I started taking pictures of some of the people passing by on a street with my camera and realized that they’re actually looking at me directly. For instance, there was a man passing by and there was just a small moment when he looked at me and I happened click his picture right then. Then there was a woman holding a baby and she looked engrossed in some thought, but she looked at me when I clicked her photo.
I have my own interpretations of what these people are thinking while I take their photos. I personally believe that eyes really do not lie. If there’s no conversation, and if you and I are just looking at each other, I will instinctively know what you are thinking.
I have seen a lot of street pictures by different photographers where the subjects are directly looking into the camera. I have always been curious to know if the photographers asked those people to look into the cameras or did that just happen in the moment.
Do you consciously think about how people are going to react to a certain series or a certain photograph?
That’s a very interesting question because I have been thinking about that for sometime now. I believe that a part of photography is about interpreting it the way you like and the the way you see it. People who have come to see my pictures in the past have told me how they perceive them. And sometimes, that surprises me as well because I wouldn’t have looked at those pictures in that particular way.
So to answer your question, when I take a picture, I don’t think about what people might think of it. I have something in my mind about the picture, but I’m really open to see what interpretations come up after I showcase them. And when that interpretation really happens, especially the kind that’s different from mine, I think that’s where the real influence of photography comes in. When someone sees a picture on the wall, stops and thinks about it for a few minutes, that’s really when the art is being created.
On that note, there are artists who believe in art for art’s sake and then there are those who consciously strive towards bringing important changes in the society through their art. What’s your view on this?
Well, I think that depends. Most of my pictures are just for the sake of my art, my philosophy and my way of living. They are very personal in nature. But of course, I am affected by the issues in my country, and photography could be a very good medium to showcase those issues and to actually send out a message into the world. So I do have a few pictures in my portfolio which are about trying to change the way we see things.
How does Tehran inspire you? Tell us a bit about the contemporary art scene there. Also, do you face any limitations here in terms of your art?
Tehran is a very competitive market these days, especially for photography. I think that’s happening around the world actually as anyone can be a photographer in a way with all the available cameras and technology.
The limitations are actually innovations for me. I think photography provides a new way of expressing yourself and explore what’s happening around you. And when things do not go the way you like them to, you try to document them and showcase them to other people. For example, I have this series called ‘Life Dies Here Everyday’ which documents the city of Tehran. It’s one of my favourite series. And I think it’s also the answer to the question you had before — this series shows my objection to something that’s happening in the society. It’s about a very historical region in Tehran which is being destroyed continuously.
When you come from a country with a strong cultural background, where these kinds of things are constantly happening around you, and where there are a lot of intersections, a sense of creativity allows you to document them. In fact, I think that schools, institutions and the government here should encourage creativity more. Unfortunately, the society here does not welcome creativity too much. But if you really care about it and if you have the drive, you will just do fine.
When someone sees a picture on the wall, stops and thinks about it for a few minutes, that’s really when the art is being created.
How big a role does technology play in your work, especially in taking it to a wider audience?
I feel that these days everyone is sort of just making posts, or taking photos just to put up on their Instagram.
I do have a lot of pictures on my Behance page and then a lot of those images also go on my Instagram as well. But for me, social media is just a tool, a medium for showcasing my work. I have put up my work out there to get comments and criticism from people who actually care about photography. I love to read people’s genuine comments on my work, not just compliments. It also gives me an opportunity to speak to people like you, people from around the world who share the same thoughts. That’s about it.
What are some of your most important concerns right now?
I am worried about how people in my country keep building a lot of new apartments and keep tearing down a lot of the old districts in the process. The new architecture is replacing the old buildings in the historical regions of Tehran, and that doesn’t make sense to me. I’m worried about the changes that modern life is bringing into our lives. It’s sort of like the city is losing its identity.
I am also worried about our education system, especially because I am a teacher. I’m really worried about the next generation in terms of what they would bring into the society. We come from an educational background where we do not teach life-skills to our children; we do not teach them how to really think and live. Apart from being a teacher, I’m also a teacher trainer, so I am really trying to do whatever little I can to bring a change in the way we develop and educate our children.
And at a personal level, are you planning to exhibit your photography more widely?
I’m kind of picky about that. It’s just that these days there are too many people who are into photography, and therefore, there are a lot of exhibitions and a whole lot of pictures to look at. So I’m really choosy about where I want to exhibit. But of course I’d love to exhibit more widely.
You can read the rest of the Issue 1 here.