After a visit to Tehran in January, witnessing Kaveh Golestan’s work at Photo London this May was incredibly resonating. The prolific photojournalist’s exhibition, aptly named “Prostitute” (1975-1977), embodied an excruciating silence of the Tehran women. Hidden deep in the red light district, we learn that the forgotten women work tirelessly at Shahr-e No, deep in the basement of a dimly lit Somerset House. Their fragile yet strong faces confront our own illusions of late twentieth-century life.
Golestan’s “Prostitute” allows us to intrude into the real – the rooms in which these women live and work, their environment and consequently the myriad of contradictions that exist in modern life. Essential in providing context, the exhibit shares a timeline alongside the photographs and newspaper articles to help us delved deeper into these women’s pasts.
A wall was erected around the district in 1953 after the coup d’état, and as a result created the ghetto known as Citadel Shahr-e No. Shortly before the cultural revolution of 1979, Golestan captured the everyday life of these women; powerful images show some lounging on their beds, others staring softly at the camera while another leans against the wall of a darkened room. These natural, unassuming yet striking photos went on to form a photo essay of the Citadel by Golestan, exhibited at the University of Tehran briefly before it was shut down.
It was only a short while after these photos were taken that a mob set fire to the district and left several dead. Many of these women were arrested and executed by the Islamic State in an act of cleansing. After the fire destroyed the district, a lake was then erected, which features a handful of the photographs. This lake evokes an emotional response from the viewer, who can see it as a living symbol of how, even now, religious theocracy exists. Therefore, Golestan’s work serves as a reminder of a sensitive issue and offers an earnest look at a forgotten world. Alongside the bravery of the Tehran women, Golestan’s own bravery rings through in his message to us – sharing the truth is invaluable.
Coleen MacPherson is a Canadian writer and theatre director with a thirst to explore the world. She trained at École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris, where she mentored with French playwright, Michel Azama. She is currently developing a new play through the Arcola Theatre Writers’ Programme.