Ramtin Firouzian is an Iranian photographer who creates visual poems with his camera.
I had an interview with him about some of his projects, what he feels defines streetphotography as a genre, the role photography plays in Brasil and much more…
What brought you to photography? How has your path been up to now?
Cinema. First of all, it was cinema that brought me to the entrance door of photography, but then poetry led me to the higher floor of the building. Of course, I believe that I’ve climbed only a few floors up so far, and this building has countless floors and no roof.
This is the story: when I was 7, whenever all the kids were playing at parties, I would sit somewhere on my own and paint the portraits of the adult members of the family. They couldn’t really believe that I was able to paint that well at that age. I myself still don’t believe it. During my school years, painting and mathematics was my whole life.
In fact, all the loves and wishes of my life began at the age of 10 and are still going on. That’s why watching ten-year-old boys is very interesting to me, especially if they love bicycles, like I do. First, my love for an actor interested me in the cinema, just like many. I used to paint the scenes of the movies, but I did not succeed in painting them the way they really looked. When I was 14, I used to buy all the magazines about cinema. After reading them (and not understanding what they really meant!), I always cut out their photos and stuck them into a notebook. After a little, because I realized the photos were better than my drawings, I started to want to take pictures of them rather than drawing. In that moment still photography in cinema became my dream job. One year later I started going to the movie theaters and stealthily take photos of the screen at the most important moments of the movies. I believed that was the way to do it! I used 110mm negative film cartridges named Konica Centuria 200 and an old Japanese pocket camera named Sedic 22x which was my parents’ camera.
After a few months, with my pocket money, I took 8 rolls of the films to the lab for development, and I realized that nothing was exposed! This bad experience became the reason why I then spent all my time reading books about the photographic techniques, the chemistry of photography and the physics of light. At the age of 16, I bought my first 35mm camera, a Russian Zenit 122 and started taking photos seriously, mostly of nature- as many beginners do.
It is hard to believe, but only one year later I was making money by taking good photos of artworks (such as paintings for some books and magazines) with my new lovely camera Minolta x300 and the Kodak Portra 160nc films. I felt that photography was the only thing that would bring painting and math together and lead me to the cinema.
In the same years, I worked as a cinematographer in a few experimental and short films and I watched so many famous movies. When I watched Mirror (1975) and Stalker (1979) by Andrei Tarkovsky, I went crazy! I had found what I wanted to do and that was nothing but visual poetry -and actually poetry itself. For many years on, reading and writing poems was then my main pleasure, along with photography and cinema and it was in this period that I fell in love with the poems of great Ahmad Shamlou.
As a consequence, I ignored my talent in mathematics and went to college to study dramatic literature, where I read hundreds of plays and wrote, translated, and directed some others. I had the honor of becoming friends with contemporary poet Shams Langroudi, whose personality has had a profound effect on my life.
A few years later, the most famous Iranian director of photography, Mr. Mahmoud Kalari recommended me to a big movie project as a still photographer. My childhood wish was fulfilled! But after working for five movies, and despite my increasing success in this field, I decided to leave the job forever. After all that time reading all those books and poems and seeing all of the brilliant shots in the history of photography, I no longer enjoyed shooting celebrities…paper stars that I hate. Instead, I now wanted to take my own photos where the stars are ordinary people, who I believe are the real stars. They play the characters of my own tales.
Today I earn a living through cinematography and architecture photography. I’ve worked for more than 60 projects as a cinematographer and in many other ones as a film editor, colorist, VFX supervisor, director, screenwriter and so on…but actually I’m not really that happy with it because these are only my “job” and have nothing to do with my own stories and my own stories and my poetic mind.
In my opinion, “in group” creativity makes no sense. Art is formed only in solitude. It is from this viewpoint that photography satisfies me more than cinema. The only thing that makes me happy is taking these simple black and white photos, because I feel they are the sum of all my tendencies such as photography, math, cinema, drama, painting, and above all, poetry.
After more than 20 years of photography, I look for photos that are not just depictions of realities, but rather that enable abstract ideas to be visible. This is what I call “visual poems” and what I try to create, even if nobody likes them. Just like what I saw one day in Tarkovsky’s work.
You dedicate a lot to street photography. What is your personal definition of it?
First of all, I have to say that I don’t consider myself a street photographer, although others know me as one. I’m just sure I’m neither a documentary photographer nor a staged photographer. There are many definitions of street photography, many of which even contradict each other. A title that is not sufficiently self-explanatory is nonsense in my opinion. In fact, I don’t believe in definitions, and honestly, I hate them. They limit your vision and creativity. I’m looking for art. If art is definable, it is no longer art. Definability is the most important difference between art and science. I feel I’ve read all of those definitions just because I had to have an answer in my classes. Frankly, they are all stupid sentences. If I accept them, I have to endure millions of trashy photos just because they fit the definitions.
Nowadays, what we often see as street photography on Instagram or other places is summed up in a few ridiculous and repetitive templates. Sometimes I even see how stupid the most popular ones are. To be honest, I really hate many of them. Thousands of pictures are published daily showing a man walking next to the wall between light and shadow! Or somethings like this. Isn’t it nauseating? If these are photographs, then what are the works of Robert Doisneau? Of course, I also encounter some masterpieces every day, but unfortunately, sometimes they get lost in this highway.
What does photography mean to you? Why do you take photos?
For me, photography means knocking on the wall or talking from behind it. A good photo whispers in someone’s ear from afar. A real artist likes a single story to tell. He continually goes back to his own story and attempts over and over again to tell that throughout a lifetime. I take photos because I’m a poet. I want to stand at “the still point of the turning world” as T.S. Eliot said. My photos are the shades of my poems. The American poet Charles Wright said “Poetry is the shadow of the dog. The dog is out there ever on the move.” I always draw mental images of my poems in a notebook next to the same poem. Whenever I have my camera with me, I look for my drawings in the street or anywhere else. If I get the chance and see a scene like them, I take a photo. Eighty percent of my photos are taken this way and are exactly the images of my poems. The other twenty percent have gone the opposite way and led to poems.
Every poem is destroyed after its translation. I just turn my poems into photos, so they don’t need to be translated anymore. In fact, I try to translate them into a language comprehensible by the soul of all people. The photographer and writer Wright Morris once wrote: “I do not give up the camera eye when writing, merely the camera.” I steal what he says, and I say: “I do not give up the poetic eye when photographing, merely the pen.” I try to show the feelings that are not expressed anywhere else than in poetry. My photos are about the complexity of the simplest moments in life, and life itself is the only experience that is the same for all humans. On the other hand, I love pictures. As a child, I used to watch school and street moments through my fist hole and I was ridiculed by many. Today I still do almost the same thing, but I am admired by many.
Black and white shots – with a grainy feeling to them- is what I see as your trademark. What would you say these elements play in your images and what you want to convey?
I can’t reasonably explain that, in my eyes, all the emotional poems in the world are monochrome, grainy, and not so sharp. (Of course, some are a little yellow!) When I see a color photo of a person, I see his appearance and actions, but when the picture is black and white, I can see his soul and even his past, his dreams, wishes, and regrets. For me, the colors show somebody’s tears, but the grays say “I believe he had a lump in his throat a minute ago.” Of course, not every photo can be black and white. Many photos just need to be in color. Unfortunately, many people think that monochrome or color is a choice.
Interestingly, despite this love of mine for black and white images, I got all my prizes -except one- for my color photos. Right or wrong, I’m happy to think that all the awards in the world are rubbish. If I cared about awards and honors I would still imitate my own previous works and wouldn’t have these photos now.
Technically, I don’t like the shallow depth of field at all. The usual composition of my photos is multilayered and deep, and the connection of the characters in them are formed from close to far or vice-versa (what I like in cinema too). To achieve such depth, I use a small aperture and I have to buy fast (high sensitivity) films. So my photos are grainy. I usually shoot on the expired negative films, and occasionally, when I don’t have enough films, I use a cheap digital camera with a small sensor.
I’m not trying to convey any meaning at all. I just want to remind the others of common human emotions. I don’t want the viewers to connect with photos only after having to analyze the meaning. My goal is to make the audience feel my photos. As my lovely T.S. Eliot has said “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”
You are a filmmaker as well as a photographer. Where do these two passions of yours meet?
There is no meeting between these two, because they never get separated. I believe that cinema is the disobedient child of photography and not a continuation of literature nor another form of theater nor anything else.
If I want to be even bolder, I have to say that literature, music, acting, and so on have all damaged the pure cinema and caused the main element of it, the image, to be marginalized. For me, cinema is still the “train’s arrival to the station” and a 90-minute film is just 129600 photos, nothing else.
For me, the most important advantage of photography comes from its abstract aspect. When a still photo becomes moving images, it loses its abstraction which, definitely, lies in its stillness. Also, by depicting a moment without revealing what happens before and after it, Photography gives its audience the chance to actively participate in the creation of meaning as well as feeling – amd this isn’t usually done by cinema. I don’t know why this reminds me of my beloved Robert Frank who hated “the goddamned stories with a beginning and an end.”
Some of my most favorite movies are full of moments in which nothing is happening. Maybe something’s going on in the character’s mind, but there is no movement and no sound. Those moments are very warm, powerful, and effective, just like a good still photograph is.
I love Robert Bresson, Andrei Tarkovsky, Theo Angelopoulos and a few other filmmakers and of course my dear compatriot Abbas Kiarostami because they made movies with photos, with great photos, and sometimes added just a little bit of spices like literature, acting, music…and a thousand other things. Of course, I really love all these spices, but only in their own jars. After all, today I think that when most stories, feelings, and dreams can be told in one frame, the creation of the many bad films we see around has no reason other than the big revenues. Even if I get rich one day, I’ll spend the rest of my life taking only single frames.
What is the state of the art of this medium in your country, Iran?
The fact is that photography in Iran is very dynamic. In addition to the experienced masters, young photographers work passionately and, among them, are many brilliant artists.
True, there are some problems, but Iran is a great country for photography. The immense cultural and ethnic diversity drives documentary photography, the incredible geographical and natural diversity enriches nature photography, the magical ancient architecture allows great architectural photography and the political ups and downs that bring bitter and sweet events empowers journalistic photography and all of what is required for street photography and other genres. In my opinion, because of the multitude of political developments, our photojournalism has grown compared to other genres which are still young.
The aesthetic elements that immediately come to your mind once you think of your homeland?
Mountains, seas, deserts and forests side by side, long roads, amazing geometry and symmetry in architecture, people of different races and cultures that are emotionally unparalleled in the world and have always struggled.
Stupid, but sincere, question from a foreigner who has never been in Iran…are there any sorts of limitations that you feel touch your profession?
Yes, there are, but only in some genres, such as street and documentary. In big cities like my own, Tehran, in many places such as subway stations, a photographer needs a written permission that is difficult to obtain for a personal project. Another problem is that our people have not yet become accustomed to the presence of street and documentary photographers and are very concerned about their privacy…unlike the people of New York, London, Rome, Paris, and Tokyo. However, as you know, also people in those cities do not all have the same attitudes!
You are the chief editor at the “Friends in BNW”…can you tell us something more about this project? Where did the idea come from and how is it developing?
In the summer of 2015, the queen of perseverance, an art-lover lady named “Nazila Laqha Moemmtauzie”, founded the Friends hub on Instagram. The hub started as a place for 20 friends for displaying the winner of her contests. In the beginning, it was just a place to have fun. When it grew unexpectedly and became popular, she divided it into different hubs and began to look for editors with the ability to select truly great photos for each of them. All those editors (ex and current ones) are photographers I personally like, and I enjoy their photos and choices. “Friends in BnW” is one of the “Friends” hubs and also ranks second among them in terms of popularity. So far, several editors have worked under the supervision of the founder, all of whom have certainly contributed to its development.
It is a virtual gallery that is created to adhere to the true and pure art of photography. We are always looking for those under-appreciated photographers whose work is informed and sincere. In many cases, these unknown photographers create masterpieces that don’t receive as many likes as the most popular and fancy Instagram photos, but for us, artistic values is far more important than the number of likes.
In August 2018, dear Moemmtauzie invited me to work on this hub as an editor. I have done my best to choose and feature great artistic photos and after about a year I was promoted to chief editor.
Connected to this experience, what does it mean for you the job of editor and/or curator in the time of virtual galleries on Instagram? How do you think these roles are evolving? Are there any negative aspects that you would trade-off about these social media platforms?
It is very difficult to be an editor/curator in such galleries for someone who really loves photography and hangs the best photos of history on the wall of his room. Finding a good photo among all these bad pictures is like finding a small diamond in a haystack. As always, good photos are scarce and good photographers even more so. Sometimes I get desperate to find a photo that later I don’t regret. At this point, I sadly have to choose a photo that is not great for me but just a little better than the others. Of course, I have to say again that this feeling stems only from someone who really loves photography, and love is the only thing that creates responsibility. I am otherwise very happy to see that sometimes an artist who was previously unknown sends me a message saying that I have increased his/her motivation.
I feature 3 photos a day, 28 days a month. I spend 2 or 3 hours a day finding some good photos that I can defend. Most days I do not have enough time to do this, so I stay up at night until I get good results.
If you track, you will find that most other hubs, even those that are more successful and have more followers, repost my choices at least once a week as their own finds. I don’t get upset over this because the only winners of this childish game are those artist photographers I like and learn from. There are many hubs on Instagram that work on black and white photos. Except for two or three that I myself follow and enjoy, the rest feature stupid photos that don’t have the least artistic value. Unfortunately, some of these destructive hubs have a lot of followers without probably perceiving their role as enemies of photography. I was so happy to find out that Instagram started to remove the likes counter.
Every once in a while, I publish a collection of works by one of the great masters of photography history so that the younger generations realize just how majestic photography was before Instagram. Negative aspects? I must say that they are definitely more than the positive ones. So many that it does not fit into this interview, but I believe that activities like these virtual art galleries and also scientific, educational and news pages can enhance its positive impacts.
An artist you feel has particularly influenced you? In what way?
What an exciting question! First of all, I take this opportunity to say that all the moments of my life, both happy and sad, are filled with the songs of maestro Mohamadreza Shajarian who is the greatest singer of Iranian traditional music. Not only being creative, but living itself is difficult for me without his heavenly voice.
In addition to all the people and events I’ve seen, there are many artists who have influenced me and taught me many things with their works and personality. Alas, I have to mention just a few names:
Filmmakers: Andrei Tarkovsky, Robert Bresson, Theo Angelopoulos, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and Abbas Kiarostami.
Photographers: Robert Doisneau, Elliott Erwitt, Robert Frank, Josef Koudelka, Abbas Attar and all the photographers whose works I’ve seen, even the worst of them.
Painters: Edward Hopper, and all the painters whose works I’ve ever seen.
Writers: In addition to hundreds of playwrights, Milan Kundera and my most beloved writer Bijan Najdi.
Poets: thousands including Rafael Alberti, Federico Garcia Lorca, Octavio Paz, Nazim Hikmet, Nizar Qabbani, Jacques Prever, Shams Langroudi, and last but definitely not least Ahmad Shamlou.
But if you force me to mention just one influencer artist, I’ll immediately say: Andrei Tarkovsky. In what way? I said it earlier: He made me go crazy!
And an Iranian artist you want to suggest to the readers? Why?
Since the immense pleasure of listening to Iranian traditional music requires the understanding of Persian emotional poetry in the original language, I sadly won’t mention maestro Shajarian here…and say instead: the late photographer Abbas Attar. His works are an incredible combination of photojournalism and art.