Understanding Iran: the Photos of Inge Morath

Springtime, Paris, 1956.

A young photographer named Inge Morath had just returned to home, after a five week trip in Iran. She’d traveled for some of that time on her own, something that was neither common, nor a simple matter for a woman at that time.  But as a passionate lover of history and literature, Morath wanted to understand Iran. She later said she was “very interested in the region, in old civilizations which are suddenly overbalanced by modern times.”

That was her personal mission, on the professional side, she went on assignment for a magazine, with instructions to get pictures of carpets and mosques. (She also worked for the Magnum agency, a stock house, and secured a couple of corporate photography gigs to boot.)  She used two cameras: color film for her assignments, for which she exposed 40 rolls, black and white for her own photos, for which she exposed more than 100 rolls. This amounted to more than 5,000 pictures all together.

Unbeknownst to Morath, the camera she’d been using for her black and white film had been damaged – it had a light leak, which created a light stain down the middle of many of her negatives. Her color photography from the trip was published as planned, in the magazine, and in a book, and she’d go on to photograph all over the world and see her work well-published and exhibited. (She’d also go on to marry Arthur Miller, with whom she collaborated until her death in 2002.)  But the majority of the black and white photos that she took in Iran were not published in her lifetime.

BoyCobbler 2 Inge Morath Iran Photos

With the aid of digital clean-up of the light stain, The Inge Morath Foundation recently released a handsome coffee table sized book containing the photographs she made on this trip. Inge Morath: Iran contains photographs that not only reach far beyond the enduring cliché of turbans and rifles and flying carpets, but also provide context to the images that we see from Iran today.

The book includes excerpts of a conversation between Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran and John P. Jacob, director of the Inge Morath foundation. “She’s very subversive,” says Nafisi of Morath and her photos.  “Having been told to take pictures of Persian carpets and the blue mosques, she goes and shows us the little girls working the carpet factories.” She points out that Morath avoids obvious, easy symbols of a country becoming Westernized (nightclubs and unveiled women), and instead finds this theme in unusual places – like, in the interaction of Western and local workers at an oil refinery.   It’s a subversiveness that I certainly appreciate, as a writer who’s traveled on assignments that lay somewhere off the path of my own personal interests.  And I’d daresay it’s a quality that anyone who’s taken a trip on someone else’s agenda  — a business traveler, a participant in a group trip —  can appreciate as well.

Dancer  - from Inge Morath's Iran

What I love the best about this book is the sense that you get of Morath, as a traveler, trying to figure out what Iran is all about.  The book’s editor, John P. Jacob, points out  that Morath’s photos from the beginning of the trip are more conventional – donkeys, women baking bread – but as the trip goes on, are far less so. “The reason is not that Iran became less mysterious to her; but rather that she allowed the mystery to become a part of the story she was telling,” he says.

To which Nafisi says this: “Most people who go to Iran fall in love with it because people seem so welcoming. There is a welcome, but that doesn’t mean that people are opening to you. It means that they are treating you as a dear guest…There is a shroud over many of the photographs, as if to  say that what is there, is not being wholly revealed.”

Personally, I find the questions that hover over the photographs refreshing.  There’s something so presumptive about a person who travels to a place for a brief time making a definitive statement about it  — although as opinionated human beings mentally wired to generalize, travelers are wont to theorize. (And it’s part of the job description for travel photographers and writers, however uneasily it sits.)  But in her photos, Morath is able to capture both what she thinks is happening, and what she’s still not sure about.

Photo of Children Weaving Carpet from Inge Morath's Iran

For instance, look at Morath’s photo of the young girls knotting rugs, above.  This is child labor, and those little girls are most likely not able to get down from that high perch on their own. But then look at the little girl at the bottom. She seems to be smiling, certainly doesn’t seem mistreated. What exactly is happening here? It’s a question that this photo raises, indeed, it’s the question that is almost constantly coursing through my mind whenever I travel.

The solution, suggests Nafisi is this: “If we cannot reveal everything, let’s have the idea that this place is defined as much by what it doesn’t reveal as by what it does.”  Rather than saying, “This is how Iranians are,” in the language of authority, with Morath there is just her own narrative: “I was there.”

Related Perceptive Travel story: Dark Side of the Moon in Iran


  1. Rox April 14, 2010
  2. Rahman Mehraby August 7, 2010
  3. Paula Tripordie February 16, 2011

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