Afshar’s latest publication is a visible record of the invisible; an attempt to illustrate an ancient belief about the wind’s supernatural powers
How can a photographer show something that cannot be seen? This is often a strong starting point for many photographers, as it offers a challenge and manifests a degree of mystery. Hoda Afshar’s latest photobook, Speak the Wind, is a subjective conversation between reality and poetry, based, and specific to, a story found on the islands in the Strait of Hormuz, off the southern coast of Iran. On these islands is an ancient belief that the winds can cause possession and illness.
Afshar’s curiosity and initial inspiration was sparked when she first visited the islands in 2015. She learned that this supernatural belief originated in early medieval times, when Arab slave traders brought enslaved people from East Africa to the Persian Gulf. “I was taken by the otherworldliness of the landscape and the magical experiences I had there,” she explains. “I was going through a tough time then, and a childhood friend advised me to go there to heal… I didn’t understand what she meant by that then, but I became obsessed with the place and its history.”
Running parallel to Afshar’s subjective experience is an extension of her ongoing interest in the relationship between photography and visibility. “I’m approaching it from a very different angle than I usually do in my practice,” she explains. “For example, how to image invisible entities such as the wind, spirits, magic, and so on. The idea of being possessed by history, and in this context, the history of slavery and cruelty.”
The work operates on multiple different levels. The most obvious is the dialogue between people and the landscape. Afshar collaborated with the inhabitants of these islands, who she got to know closely over the years of travelling back-and-forth, and who taught her about the history of the place. “Their narrations led the project,” she explains. “It’s multi-directional and based on incomplete knowledge, the narrative is intentionally constructed in a non-linear order and therefore is disorienting.” The levels work deeper and if one looks closely: there are faint outlines of drawings on the desert landscapes. Afshar explains that these depict the possessing wind, made by the people photographed in the book. “The fragmented text that accompanies the drawings are also taken from the interviews I did with them about the physical experience of being possessed,” she adds.
The book is also accompanied by a text, Winds of History by Michael Taussig, which eloquently contextualises the photography: “The atmospheric changes that are the winds are inconsistent and unpredictable. To the degree that the winds are the expression of history, this is history conceived of as open to chance, like witchcraft itself or the playfulness of the spirits in the winds of Africa.”
Michael Grieve has been a contributing writer and photographer for the British Journal of Photography since 2011. He has an MA in Photographic Studies from the University of Westminster, graduating in 1997, and then began working on assignments as a reportage and portrait photographer for publications. In 2008 he began writing about photography and was the deputy editor of 1000 Words Contemporary Photography Magazine. In 2011 he began teaching and was a senior lecturer in photography at Nottingham Trent University and now teaches documentary photography at Ostkreuzschule fur Fotografie in Berlin. He is the founder/director of Art Foto Mode, a project that organises photography workshops internationally. Currently based in Athens and Berlin.