History & Memory: Mobile Photography in the Streets of Tehran

Originally published in July 2013 by We Are Juxt

Ryan’s Introduction

Mohsen Chinehkesh has recently come to the fore as one of the distinct artistic voices capturing day-to-day life in the streets of Tehran. His masterful blending of light, texture, and human action have made him a fundamental part of the early history of Iranian mobile street photography. 

Being photographed in public is freighted with some unpleasant political history in Iran and many of Tehran’s residents are still very leery of candid photography. That notwithstanding, Mohsen and his peers continue to find ways of capturing Tehran’s essence and sharing it with a global audience.

R: Ryan Vaarsi, M: Mohsen Chinehkesh
R: Why don’t we start with some general background information? Tell me a bit about yourself. Have you lived in Iran all of your life?

M: Well, in short, I’m 29-years-old, single, a graphic designer, and more important, a mobile street photographer. I’ve been in Iran all of my life and never thought about living anywhere else. However, I’m interested in visiting other countries, especially since I’ve started street photography. Although I’m really eager to experience capturing the streets of other cities of the world, I think ultimately I would prefer to get back to the streets of Tehran. Tehran is the city in which I was born and grew up. I spent most of my childhood on the streets of downtown Tehran. As a child, in an era when computer games were not common yet, my best entertainment was to play with others on the streets. I think my childhood memories have a great influence on my current approach to street photography.
R: Expand on that last thought for me. Are there any specific memories from your childhood that influenced your interest in photography? Do you recall when you first became interested in photography? What about mobile photography?

M: Well I think I discovered photography on my own before I knew anything about it. My father had an old 110 camera which was broken. Since it was broken my father gave it to me and soon it became one of my favorite toys. The first thing I discovered was the cool noise of the flash’s charging circuit. Today, Hipstamatic makes the exact same sound when you turn the flash switch on. Soon after, I started to look through the viewfinder. Then I began photography with a camera that had no film inside!

For me, with this background, photography has always been something more than just capturing happy moments of personal life. So I have always been looking for something different or unique in my photos, regardless of which camera or tool I used. In fact I began shooting mobile as soon as I bought my first mobile capable of taking pictures. As I said, the tool has never been my first concern. However, I admit that I always thought having a DSLR camera would help me become a pro photographer, so I bought one but it didn’t help much. I took mobile photography more seriously when I discovered a Facebook group called Fotomobers, which was formed by Ako Salemi and Shahram Sharif, two brilliant Iranian mobile street photographers. At the same time I started using Instagram. Despite all this enthusiasm, I never felt myself a real photographer till I started mobile street photography. It was neither mobile photography nor street photography that made me feel I’m a successful photographer. I’d practiced street photography with a regular camera and mobile photography in other fields, but when these two came together the magic happened for me!

R: Are there any special challenges to being a street photographer in Tehran? Do you face any legal restrictions?

M: Street photography can be quite challenging in Tehran. As far as I know there’s no clear law about street photography in Iran. The good news is that it’s not illegal in general, because there’s no law saying so. But the bad news is that there’s no law protecting you against those people who think it’s not legal. So in this field everything is a bit misty. If you are lucky enough and take some precautions, you might never face a serious problem. But there are some certain spots in which photography is forbidden and if you don’t attend to “No Photography” signs, either inadvertent or intentional, you’re likely to face some serious difficulties.

R: Are people generally open to being photographed?

M: I’ve generally found people uneasy about being photographed. Unfortunately photography has been associated with abuse and officiousness among common folk for a long time. Note that I’m not talking about personal life. Taking photos has always been an integral part of personal life in Iran. You can find old family photo albums in any Iranian house. Considering photos as a merely personal property might be one of the reasons why Iranians usually don’t tend to want to be photographed by a stranger. Although social networks have dramatically changed the situation among new generations, there are still some notions of those thoughts, especially among older people. This is one of the reasons why I prefer to stay unnoticed while I’m shooting photos. Mobile photography best fits this need for me.
R: Do you think you would be a photographer if you weren’t able to share your photographs on networks like Instagram and EyeEm? Have they had an effect on your photographic vision? Did they influence your decision to focus on street photography?

M: Definitely mobile photography networks have had a huge influence on me in different ways. Although I’d been shooting almost all of my life, I’d never found an opportunity to share my work with others. In fact I had never thought about traditional ways, like holding an exhibition or something like that. About a year ago one of my friends introduced me to Instagram and I found in it a key to open that locked door. Initially I began to share the photos I had taken over the years with so many different tools ranging from a VGA camera phone to a pro DSLR. Although I’ve always been fascinated by taking photos of the people and streets, I had discarded it due to the problems of using a camera on the streets of Tehran. Joining the Fotomobers group introduced me to the community of street photographers from all over the world. When I saw mobile street photos taken by a bunch of great street photographers on Instagram, I realized what a great tool a mobile phone could be for me! Finally I found the proper tool for my passion and since then I’ve just used my iPhone to take photos on the streets of Tehran.

So if there were no Instagram or EyeEm I might never become a true street photographer. These social networks helped me find my passion in photography and made it possible for me to connect with a great community of photographers who share the same passion. I think these social networks, along with the great abilities of the iPhone, are absolutely useful to get real-time feedback of what you do. You snap a picture, edit it right on your iPhone, and share it with the world. These aspects of mobile photo-sharing networks helped me to grow up fast and develop my own style.

R: One of my compatriots at wearejuxt.com, Brad Puet, interviewed Ako and Shahram in April. They’re both incredibly talented street photographers and the three of you seem to be establishing a wonderful tradition of mobile street photography  in Iran.

M: It’s interesting that even my connection with Ako and Shahram was only through social networks, mostly mobile photography networks, for a long time! I first met them about 2 month ago at the 1st Tehran Mobile Film & Photo Festival and we became cordial friends in a few minutes! I think it shows that mobile photography networks are able to open photographers’ minds and hearts to each other.

I believe that photography, and in particular mobile street photography, has become a truly dynamic form of interaction thanks to the capabilities of photography networks like Instagram. For me, and probably for any mobile street photographer, street photography is a kind of lifestyle and interacting with other photographers is an important part of it. These interactions include motivation, inspiration, support, competition, learning, dialogue, and friendship. In fact mobile street photography has helped me to find a lot of great friends from all over the world. I think cross-culture connections can play an important role in enhancing our understanding of other countries. Their importance becomes more obvious when there is tension between two governments, since there’s less reliable ways to obtain information.
R: How has your training as a graphic designer influenced your photography?

M: Some of my peers believe that subtle composition is one of the most powerful characteristics of my photos. I think my extreme attention to the composition is somehow due to my background of graphic design. Moreover I’ve passed some photography courses as a part of my training. Our basic photography course was about analog photography and I had the chance to work in a darkroom and process my own photos for the first time. At that time I was shooting with a Zenit 312m camera and Ilford PAN 100 was my most used film.
R: You seem to shoot exclusively in black and white, was this a conscious choice on your part or did it come about some other way?

M: My interest in black and white photography partly comes from the sweet experience of those days. When I had just started mobile photography I still wasn’t so fascinated by black and white iphoneography. There are still some color shots among my earlier photos on Instagram. Taking a color shot and then turning it to black-and-white in the editing process wasn’t so joyful for me. But when I began using Hipstamatic, with its great black and white films, I felt so attached to it. It revived the sense of shooting with an analog camera equipped with true black and white film for me. Although I admit that seeing black and white photos of great street photographers like Koci, Elif, Ako and Shahram had a great influence on me, I believe that I’ve chosen it consciously in the process of developing my own style.
R: I suspect some people may have misconceptions about Tehran, given the tensions between Iran and the West over the years. Do you have favorite neighborhoods or districts in which to take photographs? What aspects of Tehran do you hope to convey in your photography?

M: Some people don’t have a clear or true understanding of Iran. The western media has usually tried to depict Iran as a backward and uncivilized country in the past few decades. Tehran is a metropolis with all the aspects of a big modern city. It’s not wrong to say one can find more pizza shops than in Rome, more Mercedes-Benz than Berlin, more shopping centers than Paris and even more Apple stores than in California on the streets of Tehran! I think Shahram and Ako have described the city very well in their interview with Brad Puet: Tehran is a city of sharp contrasts either visually or culturally. It has seen drastic changes in the last few decades at a fast-paced rate. The result of these rapid changes has caused the cultural and economic gaps to grow more and more between different classes of society. So now the visual culture of this city contains a variety of sometimes antithetical sights: splendid modern skyscrapers aside worn, old, small buildings; Chadori women aside people with the latest fashion trends and so on. The rapid changes still continue and every day will change the face of the city. I’m somehow trying to depict my feelings toward these changes and contrasts. I want to capture the ever-changing relationship between the people and the city. I would like to record things that might not exist in future years. I’m always ready to capture a moment, regardless of the place and time, but I usually prefer downtown for a photowalk. There are more old buildings remaining there and people there tend to adhere to traditional culture more than other parts of the city. And probably you have guessed that these things remind me of my childhood.
R: You’ve recently done some street photography in Isfahan. How would you compare it to Tehran, from a photographer’s perspective?

M: I’m glad you asked about Isfahan! It was a great experience for me. Isfahan is full of historical sites and buildings that form a part of any Iranian national identity. So I felt a heavy burden when I decided to photograph them. On the streets of Tehran I usually capture ordinary places and buildings. When I say “ordinary” it doesn’t mean that I don’t respect these places. I just have never felt the need to give even a hint about the place in which the photo has been captured. I was concerned how my photos could do Isfahan justice. So for the first time I felt the need for captions. Also I felt much more responsible about the photos I was going to share. I think photography on the streets of Isfahan was a blend of journalistic and artistic approaches for me, while on the streets of Tehran it’s closer to being purely artistic.
R: How did you become involved in Fotomober? Is it strictly an online community or do you sometimes have meet-ups?

M: I appreciate my great friend Morteza Farhangi who introduced me to both Instagram and Fotomobers. He is one of my colleagues and, happily, a talented mobile photographer. I confess that my initial activity on Fotomobers was somewhat inspired by my competition with him. I kept interacting with the Fotomobers group till I met Ako and Shahram and it led to our friendship. Fotomobers has been just an online community so far but I hope we might arrange some occasional meet-ups in the future.
R: You recently took a trip to Alimestan Forest. Was this the first time you had taken photos there? Talk about the differences between shooting in nature and the street shooting that you do every day.

M: It was the first time I went there indeed. I had no idea about what the outcome of extending my photography style to nature could be. It was like an experiment for me and I really enjoyed it. Also I think the outcome is remarkable. My first attempts weren’t satisfactory due to the poor contrast between thick and twisted trees in black and white photos. But when the fog covered the forest, it let me make powerful compositions with a profound depth. Despite all the differences, the basics are the same for me in any circumstances. People are an integral part of my style either on the streets or in the nature. Also composition and framing are very important to me.
R: You mention recording things that might not exist in the future. Do you think that makes you, to some degree, a documentary photographer or perhaps a “photo-historian”?

M: No doubt street photography can hardly be free of documentary aspects. I don’t intend to be a documentary photographer but some of my photos have documentary significance. I also don’t intend to be a photo-historian but sometimes even an old family photo could be a historical document. So this is something that will be revealed in the future.
R: Do you have any projects that you’re currently working on? Do you have any dream projects—places or events that you’d love to photograph if time/money/travel was no object?

M: Well in terms of my style I recently started to capture street portraits which have not been common in my works so far. Isfahan and Alimestan have been such great experiences for me that now I’m really eager to visit more and more places around Iran and extend my photography style in different circumstances. I have no particular place in my mind right now, but if there were no limitations I would like to extend my adventure all around the world. Also I’ve found the 24-Hour Project so interesting and wish I could attend possible next events. Unfortunately I wasn’t among the participants of the project this year but I hope to be a main participant in the next round.


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