Amak Mahmoodian, Shenasnameh

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2016 by ICVL Studio (here)/RRB Publishing (here). Hardcover (with a cloth slipcase), 120 pages, with 64 black and white photographs. In English and Persian. In a standard edition of 300 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Amak Mahmoodian is a young Iranian artist and curator who now lives and works in the United Kingdom. Her work centers on interrelated questions of identity and representation, often going back to her Iranian heritage, and she has recently published her first photobook which brings to light the stories of Iranian women. Its title Shenasnameh refers to the Iranian birth certificate – the main identity document issued to everyone at birth and subsequently used to record marriage, divorce, the status of children, and ultimately the death of a person. This small folio contains basic personal details, a photograph which has to be renewed every few years, and a fingerprint.

Mahmoodian says that the idea for her project came the day she and her mother were taking new photographs for their shenasnamehs. As Mahmoodian notes in the book, “for a woman in Iran, the making of this photograph is personally charged affair”. Strict standards control the creation of this image, with all women forced to wear headscarves (showing no hair), their faces shown without makeup and unsmiling, with any deviations from these guidelines summarily rejected. That day, Mahmoodian noticed that she and her mother looked very similar, and further, she realised that all Iranian women “were being made to look the same”. She started to collect shenasnameh photographs from her family members and friends, gradually expanding her collection to friends of friends, often outside Tehran where she lived. All the photographs used in the project were gathered by Mahmoodian over a period of six years.

The photobook is hosted inside a black cotton bag sealed by a red wax stamp with the national emblem of Iran, and the act of breaking the seal and retrieving this pocket sized book makes us feel that we are getting access to a very personal and profound object. The size of the book and its dark red color are intended to mimic the look and feel of a real shenasnameh, and it opens from right to left. The end paper reproduces a typical birth certificate page, with writing in Persian, numbers, various stamps, and a photo stapled in the upper left corner. In the first few pages, Mahmoodian introduces the project (in both English and Persian), with a dedication to the included women (whom she lists by their first names), and a black and white photograph of a young woman with an emphatic black X drawn across her picture, along with an ink stamp and some leftover staples.

The various headshot photographs of women that Mahmoodian collected appear in the book next to their respective fingerprints. At first glance, the images appear almost identical, the strict presentation rules striping the sitters of their personal features and identities. But soon the differences start to appear – a glance, a frown, a glimpse of a smile. These small photographs, taken out of their original administrative context and left to float in an extensive amount of whitespace, feel open ended, each spread seemingly full of missing details.

A few full spread images are sprinkled throughout the book, each one enlarged and cropped. These images are boldly interrupted by cross outs and censorship markings, evidence that these particular pictures were rejected by the authorities for one reason or another. In one close up of a face, we see just a bit of the eyes and a larger portion of the neck, the subject’s lips censored with a rough black back and forth squiggle.

Closer to the end of the book, there is a single cut out silhouette. In nearby text, Mahmoodian explains that the woman contacted her asking to remove her photo from the project. The artist granted her request, yet she wanted to highlight her absence from the book by including the empty portrait. While her image is not in the book, she is still present.

It is clear from this photobook that Mahmoodian became fascinated by the identical experiences of these women. Looking at their standard portraits, she tried to imagine their voices, houses, lives, and stories, and in the course of the project, she was able to visit many of the women whom she first met only through their photographs. When she finally was able to see them in real life, she was surprised at how diverse they actually were and how each woman was meaningfully different from her controlled deadpan photograph.

 The book ends with lines by Forough Farrokhzad, a poet and a strong feminine voice in modern Iranian culture: “The bird, was just a bird. The bird, well, was truly free”. Shenasnameh is an unexpectedly intimate project, and has moments when it even feels defiantly rebellious. While the nearly identical images reflect the limited representation of women in today’s Iran, put together in one narrative, they still tell quietly personal stories – in the face of this system, these women have found tiny ways to take back control and to define themselves on their own terms. The photobook, with its thoughtful design, movingly delivers a message about faces and identities, where stubborn diversity and subversive independence can still flourish behind the blankness of common facades and stereotypes.

Collector’s POV: Amak Mahmoodian does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar above).

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Read more about: Amak Mahmoodian, ICVL Studio, RRB Publishing

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