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Ellie Violet Bramley

A heap of broken images

Spectral Images explores the way it feels to remember, or think you remember.

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The idea of the photograph as something sacrosanct, at least in its material form, might be on its way out. Not only can images be printed and then re-printed, deleted or morphed at the touch of a screen, but cameras themselves can be bought to throw away. With images now chop-able and crop-able, so easily altered or disposed of, where does this leave the family album, and the near-sacredness of the paper photographs it holds?

Spectral Days is the most recent project by Setareh Shahbazi, an Iranian-born artist who has for the past few years been splitting her time between Berlin and Beirut.  It was given its Lebanese launch last week at the Jisr el Wati industrial space belonging to artistic association Ashkal Alwan.  It is a book of images taken from a box of family photographs-50 from 1000s-that she has been poring over, living with and working on since 2009. It is a book that both reveres the image’s ability to stir long-forgotten memories and is refreshingly reckless with the material photograph.  Shahbazi has worked with other people’s images before for the likes of the Arab Image Foundation, where archivists wear gloves and rooms are temperature-controlled for preservation, but the intimacy of this project made Shahbazi more rebellious:

“There was something in me that really wanted to be a little bit reckless with all of this… you could actually cut it if you wanted to, but there’s usually something that keeps you from cutting images, there’s something that says you can’t. So I kind of had this urge to be a little bit respect-less with the media and the photos - I used Photoshop to create images but I used it in a way that people who do image correction would not like: I used it in an amateurish way.”

Trained in Scenography and Media Arts at the State University for Art and Design in Karlsruhe, this was a self-elected amateurishness, but these were her photographs and with her photographs; “I could do what I want,” she says “and it was fun.”

The images are all from Shahbazi’s childhood in Tehran, Iran. In 1985 she and her family left for Germany, so these images document a time for the artist both happy and melancholic: “it was 1982 in Iran, there was an ongoing revolution and a war.”  Not only did her ownership of the images make her fearless in her treatment of them, but perhaps so too did the times:

“These were all scanned from old photographs, and they were scans that I did in the middle of pretty crazy times in Tehran, so I was not really bothered with making perfect quality scans.”

Add to that that these were old photos, not pristine prints-“the images themselves are from the 70s, 80s, they’re faded, the colours are pink-ish, yellow-ish”-and here was a recipe for boldness. Shahbazi was liberated from the staid reverence the historical image sometimes encourages.

“I like to use the roughness of them, and I tend to think that working with old photographs and on the computer with new media, both sources tend to come with a sense that old photographs need to be treated really well-memory and history-they have something really significant about them.  Also, working with a computer always raises the idea that everything needs to be perfect and slick… in a way I wanted to overcome this heaviness of both the history and the memory, and also the new media aspect.

Of the book’s 50 images-a few so hazy as to be indecipherable (the ‘spectral’ of the title fits)-some are of faded countryside, some of vases of wild flowers, some of children in swimming pools, bearded men in forests with boys up bare trees, and close-ups of women’s faces. In one photograph a small child hugs a very big cat.  These are some of the people that Shahbazi counts closest. The picking can’t have been easy:

“I had thousands of images to work with, and then in the summer of 2009 when there was quite a lot of political madness happening at nights I went through all these images and I picked maybe 400 of them.  It was a long, long procedure of choosing which ones to work with, scanning them and working out how to work with them… I went through different phases until I found a discourse. I think the end result has really matched the aesthetic of how I do remember things.”

The result is non-linear and heady. Shahbazi illuminates: “It’s not a narrative with a beginning and an end, it’s a bit trippy, it’s got flashbacks. Psychedelic bits appear and then disappear again.”

Then this is what memory does to you. Though memory is often a bit flighty, this book is dense: “it doesn’t come with any white spaces between the text or anything like that, there is no space to breath in it. I was not expecting it to turn out like that, it was something that happened and I became aware of it while it was happening. I don’t think it’s a sad book, I think it has a certain atmosphere to it, maybe melancholic.”

Where there aren’t pictures there are words by Mirene Arsanios, Shahbazi’s friend and neighbor throughout this project. Arsonios is a Beirut-based writer who also runs the Mar Mikhael 98weeks Project Space.  Fittingly, Shahbazi thinks the words capture this heavy atmosphere while also being part of what makes the book packed-they start on the back of the book’s hard front cover, a space usually left blank.

The words are perhaps a matter of taste. Some of them are thoughtful: “Like objects, images are broken and exchanged: a past sensation, for a moisturizing cream,” or, “I spend time pondering the tense of a photograph, whether it can be grammatically declined or not, whether flowers wither once a benevolent gaze has captured them.” Some are lovely: “I was her favorite accomplice, not because I was the youngest, but because I silently approved of her ideas such as having my hair cut short like a boy.” Some feel overly complicated for the sake of it: “Hands and pressure were like two premises that, when combined, resulted in a fallacious syllogism.”  They certainly add an atmosphere.

In the processes she has used to turn her family photos into a book Shahbazi has both revered and rebelled against the image.  By adding the atmosphere of memory-patchy and hallucinatory-she has tapped into how her own past looks to her from the "neutral territory" of her present in Beirut. Spectral Images explores the way it feels to remember, or think you remember.

The book will be on sale soon at Beirut Art Center, and other locations around Beirut.

An image from 'Spectral Days' (courtesy of Setareh Shahbazi)

“Now, photographs were just photographs: pieces of paper that could be pleated, replaced and slipped into a pocket” – Mirene Arsanios