Light Into Memory: An Interview with Amak Mahmoodian

Amak Mahmoodian possesses an engagement with photography that clearly comes from the heart and through the mediums’s ability to deeply affect us. Her work doesn’t seem be at the service of the industry and its trends – rather, it feels as if she is finding her own path. It is the light that emanates from the image the shows her the way. Her interests span the photographic archive, the body, memory, history and ways in which we reactivate these embedded features for the present. Her work re-purposes images from her Iranian cultural heritage where they become a meditation on the past and her life in relation to it,  a reflection on diasporic lives and a coming to terms with exile and displacement. In the course of an approaching pandemic, Amak and I had the following exchange:

Sunil Shah: Central to Zanjir is its relationship to an archive, an imagined dialogue with a princess and your own relationship to a ‘homeland’ and your family and friends. What was your approach to resolving these threads of work, on the one hand historical, archival, archaeological and contrasting that, something deeply personal and familial?

Amak Mahmoodian: Archival materials, imagined dialogue … they are within Zanjir to apprise us of what had happened in the past and what exists in the present. In the place and time when past and present meet to create a new narrative, the narrative of life, identity and resistance. Memories of Taj and the archival photographs became the path through which i was retracing the history, I look into the past to find who I am now.

I decided to tell my story through that of others, those who lived in the past and yet their stories still exist in the present. In Zanjir I was wandering among my photographs and Taj’s memories with hope of finding my family and my memories. I was visiting familiar faces yet feeling completely distanced from them. Taj’s memories and archival materials connected me to my memories, my family, my land, death and rebirth…



“The desire to be home and the sorrow of separation creates a new narrative within my images, which is now the narrative of my life, or in light of what is happening globally, narrative of our lives.”



SS: It is interesting to think of how we can find ourselves in the past, using materials, archives, photographs. Even in the most remote recesses of the past, we can find traces of who we are. As someone who works with old family images and found photographs, I can certainly relate to that. I don’t believe its useful to discuss this work only in terms of identity politics, because it is often a way of labelling a certain kind of work that originates from people who have migrated and are no longer living in a ‘homeland’. Yet artistic works are personal and relate to the experience of living. It is testament to how detached we can become to the idea of ‘home’ or feeling complete, and how we can feel displaced from any notion of that. Bearing in mind your remoteness to Iran, how important is this for you personally? What are the gaps you are seeking to fill and is there are ultimate desire to feel complete?



I Think about things

That I forgot to remember

I remind myself

to remember

If I’m afraid of the life I have created in the photographs

it’s because of my dreams

I dream

I remember



I was editing Zanjir in Bristol after 10 years of distance and separation from home. I witnessed how present can turn to the past. The desire to be home and the sorrow of separation creates a new narrative within my images, which is now the narrative of my life, or in light of what is happening globally, narrative of our lives. The hope of return transformed my pictures into people whom I love, I miss and I have lost.

I go through my photos with hope of finding my family and my memories.



SS: This tone of sadness reminds me of how Edward Said spoke of exile and its relationship to loss. However, there are many feelings associated with the recovery of family and memories, more than sadness and loss. Are there aspects of this work that are joyful to you?

AM: In Zanjir Taj’s memories connected me to my family and my memories, sometimes through the journey I didn’t recall them, I created memories, the ones I haven’t had …

I was lost in the myth of memory among my demigods and Zanjir helped me to hope and to find.

I was and still am following Roland Barthes assertion that “photography is more akin to magic then art”.  But isn’t Okri’s  assertion  closer to our todays’s experience ? I have been influenced by him very much  through this project, it could be :

I was and still am following Ben Okri’s assertion  that “Photography touches us so mysteriously because we have an intuition that all things are remembered in some invisible place beyond dreams, where everything that was exists in a sort of universal, divine amber”

The magic of creating the existence, the magic of making the absence present, the magic of framing the life within a frame of the past, the magic of growing as you grow, transformation and transition, and these are joyful.

I always see you

in my dreams

Mother and Father

I dream of home

Where we could see each other

I would hide my face

in you

And nobody

would ever know

me anymore



“I was surrounded by 3000 negatives, and thousands of memories within them and that is how it starts.”



SS: I believe in that magic too. It is definitely something that comes from working with memory and the feelings attached as well as those feelings that are absent. In putting this work together then, was there a methodology to compiling and sequencing the content on the pages or was much of this done through intuition? Can you tell me more about the practical aspects of putting this book together? Your collaborations and conversations?

AM: In 2004, I visited the Golestan museum in central Tehran to begin work on academic archival research. The museum was once home to Qajars, and to the King’s wives and relatives. The photographs in the museum’s archives, amongst others, include those taken between 1860 and 1896 by Nasr al din Shah, the King during the Qajar Era, when photography first arrived in Iran. These archival photographs became a cornerstone of the project due to the multiple potential interpretations and readings of the imagery. I decided to tell my story through that of others – those who lived in the past and yet their stories still exist in the present.

In 2004, I began taking photographs of those around me concealed behind historical masks – cut outs of the faces from the archival photographs. In some of these photographs there were so many masks that she would forget the real face.

After one year, in 2005, I stepped out with my camera to take photographs in public places in hope of conversations with subjects through the photographs.

I continued working on this project for 5 years, in public and in private domains. I called it “Neghab”.

And that is what Neghab was about, about our identity, the image that is constructed, about us, about others and their perceptions.

At the beginning, in 2017, I thought the edit of this project was simple and predictable because the journey through this project ended in 2009.  But, sometimes, the journey ends but it continues within us.

I was surrounded by 3000 negatives, and thousands of memories within them and that is how it starts.




I think about things

That I forgot to remember

I remind myself to remember …



Taj’s book inspired me, her words created my path, words became visions in imagining, feeling, dreaming and seeing.

I had the great pleasure of working with Alejendro Acín, designer and editor of Zanjir and Shenasnameh. Working with him helped me to analyse and identify the narrative structure and sequence.

At the beginning my approach to this story was deeply emotional and intuitive. This collaboration and our conversations helped us to identify that the best strategy for this book was to create ‘an imaginary conversation’ between me and Taj. Zanjir is structured as a circular narrative referencing the idea of time (the eternal return) positioning both Taj and I at each side of the book to collide in the middle where the myth (Shahnameh) and death (King’s and my father’s) are represented with my father’s tattoos. This is also where past and present meet to create a new narrative which is the narrative of our lives. The historical images and my images are never on the same spread, almost as they were running after each other. Taj’s excerpts always appear in the recto pages in italics and my text in the verso pages with a standard font visualising this back and forth dialogue.

In the sequence and edit of Zanjir we used archetypal symbols such as: heaven (associated with power and the father image), earth (associated with mother, fertility, or the nurse of all living things), blood (related to life, dignity of inheritance, death), and light (symbolising mental and spiritual qualities). As well as metaphors created with the combination of images and text. The design used a variety of sizes and positions for the photographs creating a certain flow and hierarchy helping us to translate the idea of ‘distance’ to the reading experience. For example, using full bleed images for a more immersive experience to smaller ones placed in the corner of the page to objectify others. The book tries to blend the different timelines into one (historical and contemporary), blurring the lines of what conforms the past and the present but acknowledging their provenance.



SS: And of course, Zanjir is currently presented in exhibition form at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol (continues until 22nd March, 2020). With the symbolic depth the book, was this a challenge to translate onto the wall? For those who are/were unable to visit, could give a brief insight into the exhibition?



AM: The exhibition is a wonderful transition from pages to the walls, curated by Alejandro Acin and Kieran Swan. The show creates an in-between space that transports visitors into a room of memories and dreams where the historical and the personal blends to witness the dialogues between the Taj, who lived 136 years before me and myself. The space is designed as a transition between life and death (of photographs) and uses the corners and edges in walls and columns to display these dialogues presented as Persian calligraphy written by Eli Mahmoodian.

Zanjir is a passage of light into the memory.


Amak Mahmoodian


RRB Books

(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Sunil Shah & Amak Mahmoodian. Images @ Amak Mahmoodian & IC-Visual Lab.)

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