Shahrzad Darafsheh, Half-Light

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2018 by Gnomic Book (here). Softcover, 80 pages, with 39 color photographs. In an edition of 300 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Shahrzad Darafsheh is an Iranian photographer and artist, who lives and works in Tehran. She grew up in a family that appreciated art – from an early age she was exposed to photography, as her father, a carpet designer, was a photography enthusiast. Her mother encouraged creativity, and during the summer, Darafsheh would take classes in painting, drawing, and sculpture. She connected most with photography, and when she went to university, Darafsheh decided to study it. After graduation, she taught photography at Tehran Institute of Technology for several years.

In 2014, Darafsheh’s life has changed dramatically: she was diagnosed with endometriosis, a painful disorder of the reproductive system which quickly progressed to cancer. She had to undergo an extremely hard course of treatment, and as her body started to change, she picked up her camera and began documenting the process. Darafsheh used photography to express her emotions and feelings in dealing with cancer: “I decided to choose my sickness to be a subject for a new project. Every working progress of my health is also a progress in my work, no matter how good or bad it is. More importantly, it helps me keeping distance of my own body while engaging deeply with it.”

Last year, Darafsheh’s work was published in a photobook Half-Light. The title of the book reminds us that “everything lays under the shadow of uncertainty until a ray light start shining, and because always in half-light I pick up my camera and start taking photographs.” The book is hosted inside a cotton bag, and the title of the book can be seen through the fabric. The book has a light beige cover with a velvety-soft feel, adding an association to skin. The photographs are rather small in size, arranged with plenty of white space around them, and there is a lighter tissue page between each page, adding a pause between images. The design decisions create a very intimate book experience, reflecting the fragility and vulnerability of the subject.

The publisher Gnomic Book also wanted Half-Light to be an experiment in storytelling: the book can be read in two directions, from left to right in English, and from right to left in Farsi, resulting in two experiences. All of the captions appear only in Farsi. The book opens with a quatrain by Persian poet Omar Khayyam (in both languages), warning that real fulfillment is internal. “The worldly hope men set their hearts upon turns ashes – or it prospers; and anon, like snow upon the desert’s dusty face lighting a little hour or two – is gone.” It sets the mood for the visual narrative.

We first see the photographs through a thinner paper page, as if in a haze, or thru “half-light”. The first photograph captures the sun behind clouds, with a flock of birds like dots in the sky. A few pages later, there is an image of a overblown tulip set against white curtains, followed by a shot of what looks like a bedsheet blown by the wind as it dries in the sun. Darafsheh’s photographs are thoughtful observations, passing moments, fragments of the world. While all of them were shot in Iran, they feel universal and could seemingly have been taken in other parts of the world.

Half-Light is not a straightforward documentation of battling cancer – there are no shots of cancer treatments, hospital interiors, or medications. But there is one photograph that puts the visual flow into stark context: a horizontal image of a female body with a surgical scar over her belly. Aside from this one picture, Darafsheh largely turns her camera away from her body and its transformation, instead sharing how going through this experience has affected her vision of the world. She sees cancer as a condition to be understood, as it fosters an intense awareness of time. Another image in the middle of the book is a self-portrait: she has short hair, her eyes are closed, and she looks very serene. Visually, the narrative transitions from light to darkness: closer to the end of the book, there is an image of the city at night, a ray of light coming through the darkness, and the last photograph in the book looks like ominous black rocks. Alternatively, in the reading from right to left, the story moves from darkness to light.

Darafsheh finished the project when tests confirmed that she was free of cancer. The photobook, with its thoughtful design, movingly shares the artist’s very personal story. It demonstrates how artistic creativity can turn a photo series into a healing pilgrimage. Darafsheh works opens up issues that will resonate with many, and we can’t help but empathize with her strength and determination.

Collector’s POV: Shahrzad Darafsheh does not appear to have consistent gallery representation nor an artist’s website at this time. As such, interested collectors should likely follow up via her publisher (linked in the sidebar).

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