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Staged to suggest the ground realities

How does a photographer beat the government ban on shooting on the bloody streets of Iran? S/he recreates a verisimilitude of a particular violent incident, lovingly bringing back to life the period details, the mise-en-scène, the dramatic gestures of horror and the splatter of blood that are somehow too operatic to be real.

This is the strategy of the majority of the 12 Iranian photographers featured in the exhibition organised by the Goethe Institut Max Mueller Bhavan opening at Studio21 on Saturday evening.

The same photographers are also spotlighted in the current edition of the limited-issue magazine, PIX, being published by the same institution for the past three years and distributed free.

Rahaab Allana, editor of PIX, and the curators Tanvi Mishra and Kaushik Ramaswamy are here for the opening.

The perpetual play between illusion and reality is the most arresting aspect of this exhibition.

“Illusion” could be a series of drawings of a woman in deshabille superimposed on actual photographs of the interiors of a flat, or a retelling of the story of the legendary lovers Shirin and Farhad wrapped in the famous hand-woven carpets of Iran.

Many viewers may not feel comfortable with this manipulation of reality but the tension is almost perceptible in the images of Ali Nadjian and Ramyar Manouchehrzadeh. There is an element of suspense.

Why are the men looking anxiously out the window while another person is being comforted by two women? Why does the woman at the fridge look worried when the man lets himself in? The political instability of the country is suggested through these images without making a statement of it.

Reza Nadji’s photographs of a depeopled Tehran falling to pieces and stacked with debris recall the work of the Japanese photographer Masataka Nakano in his book, Tokyo Nobody. The latter shot the city without a soul in sight, although the decay is missing.

Ata Mohammadi’s images are near-perfect. But the juxtaposition of objects one does not associate with the other creates an unmistakable sense of subversion.

However, reality in the raw shatters the delicate unreality these photographers create. The outstanding documentation of life in war-torn Somalia and Afghanistan by Mahdieh Mirhabibi and Majid Saeedi, respectively, leave no doubt about the power of the image when the camera does not flinch at the sight of the charred and mangled body of a boy killed in a suicide bomb attack. Reality can also be grand as in the photograph of the government officers burning opium in Herat.