Amak Mahmoodian’s new book, Shenasnameh will be launched at Photobook Bristol on Friday. Published jointly by IC Visual Labs and RRB Books, Shenasnameh tells the story of Iranian women throught their fingerprints and the identity photographs they must make for their Shenasnameh (a passport like book which is a birth certificate and identity document). It’s a beautifully made book that mixes an attention to the vernacular uses of the identity photography with love, compassion and feeling for her fellow women. It’s a book of personal identities that come through eyes and looks and the turn of the mouth, mixed with official identities of fingerprints and photographs rejected due to an ‘excess’ of make-up or hair.
The project started 6 years ago when Amak was having her Shenasnameh picture taken with her mother. These are the heartfelt and very beautiful words that Amak says about the project.
The idea came to me immediately. I saw the pictures of myself and my mother in the day and I went home and thought, I’m going to make a project about that. The same day I started asking my neighbours if I could borrow their birth certificate photographs.
It’s a very personal project. Birth certificate pictures are very personal and it’s a personal narrative of my own life; first of all because I’m a woman and I’m from Iran, so I know what it is like to be an Iranian woman. That is a very difficult thing to be. Sometimes I find it very difficult to express myself – simply because I am a woman and I am Iranian and because of that it is impossible to talk about my feelings because I will be criticised by both sides; by people in the west and by people in Iran. And the person missing is me, the photographer because I always found it very difficult to express myself with spoken words.
I always write, or paint or photograph and this book is a narrative of my life. It’s not about headscarves or hijab, it’s about the differences between these women. It’s about who they are.
Part of who they are is to be found in the photographs. Another part is in the fingerprints. This is such an important part of their official identity but people find it really hard to see this. These photographs and fingerprints are my life story.
I didn’t know it could be a book at first. I believe all good books start with some personal stories. It doesn’t matter if they are going to be successful or not, but each person must have a personal reason to create a book.
I started to collect the pictures with my friends and family and then friends of friends, in Tehran and then in other cities. At first I didn’t ask other women because I didn’t know if I had the right to ask other women.
As I collected them, I started to notice how different they were, especially in their look. It was really emotional for me, because in many cases I had their photograph but I had never met the woman. I would imagine her voice and her smile, her eyes, her life. And then I would go and meet the woman and when I knocked at the door, it was like I was going to meet a photograph.
Sometimes I was really shocked because the woman was so different from the portrait I had imagined from the photograph. So each woman was different from another and then each woman was different from her photograph.
The differences came through the eyes which were really strong. And that was the reason I used the fingerprints, because fingerprints are part of our identity even here. Both those eyes and the fingerprints belong to the same person and have the same use, but they are completely different when you compare them.
One of the photographs in the book has been cut out. This woman was a friend of my neighbour and I met her at a religious festival. I tried to have different faces in the book; religious women, non-religious women, young, old, different generations, so there would be diversity. So I saw this woman at this religious meeting and she was really happy. Her name was Shirin and Shirin means sweetie in Iran and she was so nice. We had a chat and after 5 minutes she trusted me and said, “oh yes, you can have my picture, we’ll meet tomorrow and I’ll bring it along and you can have the fingerprint and the photography.”
I was very happy because she had a very special face, a very kind face. And I got her fingerprint and her photograph.
Then one year later I got a phone call from my neighbour who told me she was getting married and she asked me to remove the picture from the project. I’m not sure what happened to her; maybe she got married to a religious man, maybe she thought it would be a sin, maybe she didn’t trust me in the end.
So I removed the picture from the project, but I included the empty edges where I cut out her picture in the book. She is not in the book but her absence is.
Another example is one day I was walking in the street and I found a torn up identity photograph on the street. It’s about self-censorship. Sometimes these passport photographs are not allowed because of government standards (of how much hair you can show), sometimes you don’t allow them to be shown because of the standards in your heart. Some women are also afraid the picture will be used, that it will be published somewhere or put on the internet. So to stop that happening, they tear it in half. It’s really interesting to me, it’s another layer, one of self-censorship.
Sometimes I didn’t get the fingerprints. The day I started the project I asked 14 women for fingerprints and only one said yes. Maybe they thought I would use it for something illegal, but I had many negative answers, especially from older people.
I had the photograph of one woman, and she was from Shiraz, so I went there and I was looking to meet her. We’d spoken on the phone and I’d seen her picture so I had this image of her. But she had died six days before I arrived. But I went to her house and I could feel her everywhere because everything was still the same. She was absent but still present. And I had a very nice chat with her son and he showed me this huge fig tree in the garden that she had so loved. So when I left, I didn’t feel that I hadn’t met her. I had met her through all the worlds she had belonged to. It was a very happy feeling, a very emotional feeling.
The book started through the Room Review at IC Visual Labs two years ago. All my projects are personal so I wasn’t sure if the project would work as a book. But I was really lucky with that Room Review because I had the line-up of photographs on the table there and Rudi Thoemmes said, This is a book, you don’t need anything else.
I started making dummies, I cut my own hair and used this in making this beautiful book as object. Then I was very lucky and had a show in Singapore and that gave me the confidence and the voice to make this book and express my love for these women.
And that’s how the book came about.
My message for these women is all love. When I see these faces, I feel love. I fly through these pages and I can hear their voices and see all these beautiful faces and these different fingerprints. And as I look, the stories of their lives come to my mind, the houses where I chatted and drank tea with them. So for me, the message of the book is confidence, power, beauty and love!
But for other people, especially for western people, I want to tell them to see Persian women as the way the are, as something more than just the cover because they are so much more than that and they have their personality and each of them is herself. This is a book about who women are. That’s the message of the book for everybody.