Iranian photography on show in London

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Burnt Generation at Somerset House features work by nine contemporary photographers who have lived and worked in Iran: Azadeh Akhlaghi, Gohar Dashti, Shadi Ghadirian, Babak Kazemi, Abbas Kowsari, Ali and Ramyar, Newsha Tavakolian, and Sadegh Tirafkan.

The exhibition, produced by creative consultancy Candlestar in association with Somerset House, attempts to move beyond cliché by eschewing stereotypical portrayals of the Middle Eastern country.

Candlestar Director Fariba Farshad, who curated the exhibition, explains that her aim was to “present work from as wide a perspective as possible”. Part of this process involved looking “sideways” at both public and personal histories, she says.

“I wanted to tell the story of contemporary Iran through the lenses of artists who belong to the ‘Burnt Generation’ – the generation who have never known any other reality than that of post-revolutionary Iran,” explains Farshad. “They were selected on the basis that their work in one way or another conveys a sense of being trapped, either literally (in their own home or country) or psychologically. Many of the works speak of desperation and loneliness or of the social, personal and political consequences of war. The show also offers glimpses of escape – of the inner dream worlds that some of the artists fashion from their contemporary reality.”

Of the 35 images on display, most of which have not been seen outside of Iran, some employ a documentary approach while others are more fine art or conceptual based. Dualities such as reality versus fiction, and public versus private, pervade many of the images. For example, artist-duo Ali Nadjian and Ramyar Manouchehrzadeh (Ali and Ramyar) explore the theme of home as a private, safe space, but at the same time hint to a less agreeable world outside. Images from their series We Live in a Paradoxical Society are on display in the exhibition.

Elsewhere, Gohar Dashti, in her recent series, Iran, Untitled, photographs her subjects in a desert. The staged scenes show groups of people engaged in various activities – in one, a group of men square up for what looks like a cock fight; in another, people wait in line with luggage; elsewhere a group stands in a hole in the ground, their arms raised in the air. The images, five of which are on display, recreate real events against a dusty desert backdrop, and in doing so, tread a fine line between staged and documentary photography, offering a fresh view on contemporary Iranian society.

“Overall, the show speaks of the dual life of the Burnt Generation,” says  Farshad. “On the one hand there is the cultural reality of contemporary Iran, and on the other, there is the life of the shadows in which the artists develop subtle strategies for non-compliance.”

Burnt Generation is at Somerset House, London, until 1 June. Admission free