Amak Mahmoodian

19th June 2020

My name is Amak, I was born in Shiraz in 1980. I am an Iranian photographer, film maker and curator living in the UK. My work questions the identity, it expresses something personal, which pertains to a general issue.

For me the hallmark of photography is telling the truth, photographs are magical and full of mysteries. I explore my own identity through my projects and each project is a chapter of my life and a journey, inside and outside .

Amak Mahmoodian

Photographic Museum of Humanity

It was only two decades after photography was invented in Europe that the art form arrived to Iran. According to scholars and historians, as early as 1844 (1260 in the Iranian calendar) an Iranian, for the first time, stood as the subject for a photographer. The portrait was made by the Qajar King, Naserod-din shah.

In 2004, I visited the Golestan museum and worked on my archival research for two years. Golestan Archives are located in central Tehran, which was once a home for Qajars, and the King’s wives, Harem women. I decided to use some of these old historical photographs as talking points as they have unlimited things to say. I looked at the archival photographs from the Qajar period and chose a number of photographs, which I used as mask.

In my practice, I decided to tell my story through the others, the others who lived in the past and their lives and stories still exist in the present. I recalled my past to realise who I am today – archives build a bridge between yesterday and today. We can reframe our past to tell our stories, to explore the similarities and the differences.

Which faces would have to be concealed behind these historical masks? I started taking photographs of people around me, whom I see every day. In some photos there were so many masks on a face that I forget the real face. The ones hiding behind the mask of the past has many of the past attributes that I can see and feel. The masks of the past mythifies the absence and presence in my work.

Amak Mahmoodian

Photographic Museum of Humanity
Amak Mahmoodian Neghab photographs

We were asked to look at a short interview on this link,

‘The mask can hide the woman’s face but it can not hide the ‘truth’ which is behind the mask.’

Amak Mahmoodian

Colin Pantall’s Blog

It is funny how masks are used for so many art and photography works. I myself use masks as a symbol or as sculpture frequently within my artworks and photography. They are shields which hold a different essence behind them. In Mahmoodian’s series the subject is culture and history and the role of women, my subject is the hidden mental health illness or the shame and secrets connected with domestic abuse. What ever the subject the mask is a symbol for the meaning is the same, it is a protection or a wall for hiding something either voluntary or involuntary. It is about truth and fiction.

image from Colin Pantall’s blog

While trying to research this particular work I became confused with the different ways her work was presented by different websites and blogs. I cannot even explain the confusion I am finding about the work as I actually do not know which works are formed in the series ‘Neghab photographs’, are they a series or are they part of a bigger project? I am confused.

However, while researching I found some inspirational images of Mahoodian’s work in exhibition which then led me to find other works and a project called Shenasnameh which can be found in a very rare collectors book of only 300 signed and numbered copies, of which one is on eBay for £395.

Shenasnameh, Amak Mahmoodian image taken from Collector Daily

The photobook is hosted inside a black cotton bag sealed by a red wax stamp with the national emblem of Iran, and the act of breaking the seal and retrieving this pocket sized book makes us feel that we are getting access to a very personal and profound object. The size of the book and its dark red color are intended to mimic the look and feel of a real shenasnameh, and it opens from right to left. The end paper reproduces a typical birth certificate page, with writing in Persian, numbers, various stamps, and a photo stapled in the upper left corner. In the first few pages, Mahmoodian introduces the project (in both English and Persian), with a dedication to the included women (whom she lists by their first names), and a black and white photograph of a young woman with an emphatic black X drawn across her picture, along with an ink stamp and some leftover staples.

The various headshot photographs of women that Mahmoodian collected appear in the book next to their respective fingerprints. At first glance, the images appear almost identical, the strict presentation rules striping the sitters of their personal features and identities. But soon the differences start to appear – a glance, a frown, a glimpse of a smile. These small photographs, taken out of their original administrative context and left to float in an extensive amount of whitespace, feel open ended, each spread seemingly full of missing details. 

A few full spread images are sprinkled throughout the book, each one enlarged and cropped. These images are boldly interrupted by cross outs and censorship markings, evidence that these particular pictures were rejected by the authorities for one reason or another. In one close up of a face, we see just a bit of the eyes and a larger portion of the neck, the subject’s lips censored with a rough black back and forth squiggle.

Closer to the end of the book, there is a single cut out silhouette. In nearby text, Mahmoodian explains that the woman contacted her asking to remove her photo from the project. The artist granted her request, yet she wanted to highlight her absence from the book by including the empty portrait. While her image is not in the book, she is still present.

Collector Dailey
Shenasnameh, Amak Mahmoodian image from Collector Dailey

The Shenasnameh in Iran is a national identity similar to a passport which includes personal details such as name, place and date of birth, fingerprint, and information on one’s parents. After the age of 15, a photo of the owner is added as well as additional pages for registering marriage, children, divorce, and death. 

I do like are other presentation techniques that Mahmoodian uses such as the example from the project Shenasnameh above where small ID photographs are used with their fingerprint being presented below their portrait.

Six years ago, I was waiting in a reception room, holding the birth certificates of my mother and me. We looked similar in our ID photographs. That same day my fingerprint was fixed next to my image, and my mother’s fingerprint next to her image. Despite the outward similarity of the images the fingerprints were different; the scar I had on my finger became part of my identity next to my photograph. I decided this meant something, that our identities were entwined with these official identities, with these prints and these papers. In the following three years, I collected similar images and fingerprints from different women in Iran. Each was different from the other, and had a story to tell.’

Amak Mahmoodian

Photo Eye Bookshop

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