View Full Version : Iran - again

14-Jun-2006, 08:40
(OK, the last time I tried to post this, it was lost in the electronic ether, so here's my second attempt)

I'm new to LF photography -- I have mostly used a medium format Zeiss Ikon from my grandfather's days -- so this was the first trip I had taken with a Super Speed Graphic and tripod. The destination was Iran. Getting there with the camera gear was no problem -- usual hassle with the swabbing etc at the US airport, and the multiple xrays of carryon luggage at Paris CDG airport. I was starting to get concerned about the number of times the film was zapped.

Anyway, no problems taking photographs in Iran using tripods. The only time I ran into a problem was at a skiing resort just north of Tehran called Tochal. The city is surrounded by massive mountains, and despite the stereotype, it snows quite a bit in Iran. Tehran residents regularly go to the mountains to hike during the summers, or ski during the winters. You can catch a lift from northern Tehran and be skiing in a few minutes, though the slopes aren't as challenging there as the professional-grade slopes at the more distant resort at Dizin or Shemshak (2.5-hour drive).

(See Tehran in wintertime at http://www.summitpost.org/images/original/136589.JPG - not my photo btw)

So, with my tripod and SSG on my shoulder, this out-of-shape office worker was huffing and puffing in the high-altitude air as I hiked from the parking lot to the lift station. Stood in line a bit and caught my breath, bought my tickets, and was just about to get on the lift when the operator took one look at my tripod and said "Nope, you have to get permission for that." He referred me to the local security guy, who said that I should have "coordinated" with him before my arrival. He was under the impression that I was a professional photographer, working for some outfit. I had to explain that I wasnt' a professional, etc etc. Same problems as anywhere else. He still insisted that I had to get approval. I said that I wasn't familiar with the law as I reside abroad, so I didn't know I needed approval to photograph public places. He demurred on the legal issue, and instead accused me of "showing off" about living abroad. At that point I decided to take a more conciliatory tack. I said, Look, people abroad all assume that Iran is one large desert dotted with oil wells and camels, Wouldn't it be nice if they saw some images of snowy mountains? He sighed and said that he would be quite happy to allow me to take photographs of the place, but this was his concern: sometimes, young men and women come to the mountains. Sometimes, together. And sometimes, their parents aren't aware that there at the mountains ...together. And he didn't want to be held responsible if their photos ended up on the internet. It was a matter of privacy - and CYA. So he suggested that I write out a formal note, promising not to take photos of people without their consent, and accepting responsibility if I did. I agreed, and I managed to get on the lift. Made it to the tippy-top of the 12,600ft ski slope (nearest extinct volcano - Mt Demavand - is 18,000ft.). Got out, and noticed that everyone was photographing themselves and each other with wild abandon, using the latest digital cameras and cellphones. So, I scouted a location to set up, and started trudging there in my very less-than-adequate shoes. No sooner had I stepped off the flattened snow track than I sunk to my waist in snow, along with my gear. Although I ski, I'm not really a fan of the snow. A kindly elderly (and surprisingly spry) rock climber, dressed like a Swiss banker vacationing in the Alps, yanked me out and tsk-tsked me for risking falling into a crevice. So, with the weather turning bad and my frozen non-gloved hands unable to fiddle with lenses and lightmeters, I decided to go into the chalet and get some tea instead. And no sooner had people seen my camera gear than they started asking me to take their photos using their own cameras. I was surprised at the variety of cameras that were handed to me (Never used a Zorki before) and then the people started getting creative and asking for special ligthing, poses with their boyfriends and girlfriends and relatives etc. as if I was a wedding photographer. I wondered what the security guy would have thought!
Anyway, I also took a trip to Isfahan - the 17th century capital of the Persia under the Safavid dynasty with its huge central square (former polo grounds) and ancient mosques and bridges - and the island of Kish in the Persian Gulf (looked like a planned community in S. California) and the old and crumbling city of Kashan famous for its rugs and gardens. No problems with photography anywhere there either, with or without a tripod. When asked, people were quite happy to allow me to take their photos. The carpet-sellers in Isfahan immediately spotted me as a "tourist" with my camera, and they have certain way of talking you into their stores, feeding you lots of tea, and making sure that you walk out with a rug under your arms. But the only reaction I had was from the typical on-lookers who wanted to know how many megapixels the camera had etc. I was taking a shot of the portal of the famous King's Mother Mosque (aka Sheikh Lotfullah) when three soldiers who were on leave and just hanging out asked me to take their photos. I told them that I wasn't a professional photographer, and so I wouldn't be able to give them their photos, and they said fine. So I have their portraits here. Haven't had the time to print this or many of the other shots yet. The old Zeiss Ikon seems to have a slow shutter too, so it was a bit over-exposed.

There were plenty of photo processing places and the latest digital tech was for sale all over hte place, but I wasn't able to locate any shops selling 4x5 film though I did meet a fellow with a rather large collection of Zeiss Ikons. One of my experiences in developing countries is that they aren't yet as jaded as some residents of First World nations with technology, so they tend to wonder why anyone would still be using old cameras and they even assume that I must not be able to afford a "good" camera.

So anyway, coming back I carried the film in my pockets to minimize the x-ray zaps at the airports. It didn't help since they pat you down at the airport in Tehran, and so they required me to put the film box through the machine. And the film was zapped again a few more times along the way. Surprisingly, no effect.

Added bonus: A guy in the shoe-makers' section of the Isfahan bazaar repaired (practically re-made) the leather cases for my Rolleflex and Zeiss Ikon for a 5 bucks, and did a fantastic job. Even made a new matching strap. That would have cost a min of $100 in the US. All in all, a decent first trip with a 4x5 - can't wait to go back.

Walter Calahan
14-Jun-2006, 08:54
Wonderful story. Sounds like Iran is THE place to visit. Much more modern than my travels to Pakistan 16 years ago.

It be cool to shoot 8x10 there. The reactions from people would be marvelous.

Ron Marshall
14-Jun-2006, 08:54
Cyrus, I have wanted to visit Iran for many years because it is so photogenic and untouristed. It must have been a wonderful experience, and you must have some great shots.

What were the costs like for food and accomodation? Did you experience any anti-western feelings?

I did a test on a recent trip, I purposely let a 35mm roll of Astia be x-rayed 20 times, with no discernable effect.

14-Jun-2006, 09:39
Cyrus, I enjoyed reading about your travels in Iran. As I have never ventured past Europe, I found your story enlightening. Where can we view more of your work, especially from this trip?

14-Jun-2006, 21:30
Darr- I posted a couple of photos on Photo.net (http://www.photo.net/photos/Csafdari) but I haven't really started printing the rolls. In fact I am planning to create a website about this trip and to display my (not so good) photos on it. I will be taking some friends on my next trip but if anyone else is interested in joining, perhaps we can set up a tour and charter a bus and save some expenses together. We may be able to get an Iranian photographer to act as our guide too. So if you're interested in participating let me know! Apparently, getting visas for tour groups is cheaper and easier too.

Walter: Indeed I am planning my next trip with an 8x10 and that's why I'm trying hard to learn LF. There is so much there to photograph that if I even start to desribe it, I'd be gushing, but certainly I'll need more than 2 weeks for my next trip. People don't realize that Iran is physically quite a vast area (France+Germany+Italy+Spain combined, I think) it has a civilization which is several thousand years old wihch has greatly influenced the West, and within it there are massive mountain ranges, a central desert plateau, lush wooded area up north, two major coastlines, quaint old villages with mud-brick buildings and modern, polluted cities with sky-scrapers and traffic jams, multi-ethnic people with a variety of clothes & customs, ancient ruins of historical empires, ornate mosques and very old churches (see for example http://www.farsinet.com/iranchurches (http://www.farsinet.com/iranchurches/)/(there are synagogues too but I didn't get to photograph them - in fact Queen Esther and the Three Magi who visited Christ are supposedly buried there. I'll have to check for that my next trip.) In short The photograhic opportunities are sort of mind-boggling. Just search Google images for terms like "Abyaneh", "Persepolis", "Isfahan", "Shiraz" or "Yazd" or "Mt. Damavand" for a start.

The architecture alone will fill a lifetime for any hobbyist photographer -- for an idea, see the movie here (http://www.etereaestudios.com/docs_html/isfahan_htm/isfahan_movie_index.htm) which shows some of the details of just mosque architecture. Or how about flocks of flamingos and herds of Ibis? Or nomadic Qashqai tribesmen and women? Or stepped rice paddies and tea-leaf fields? The list of potential subjects goes on and on.

Ron - The costs are relatively cheap in Iran but I must admit that I didnt try to save money so my experiences are not necessarily representative of other travelers. A personal driver for 2 days who drove me from Tehran to Isfahan (on a road that looks like a 5-lane US highway through unbelievable scenery of snowy volcanic formations) cost $150 or so (including the driver's lodging and meals) but you could just as easily take a nice Mercedes Benz or Volvo bus for under $20. I stayed with relatives in Tehran so I didn't have to pay for accomodations. In Isfahan I stayed at the best hotel in town, the Abbasi, which is a converted caravanserai from the 16th century and is interesting. I think the cost is about $200/night for foreigners at the "high" season. You can see their website here: http://www.abbasihotel.com but of course there are much cheaper places available - if you're willing to make compromises (farther out of town, etc) This hotel is within walking distance of the major sights and I didn't want to walk too much with my cameras.

The hotel in Kashan -- like the city -- was old an run-downed. Don't expect a lot. But I love Kashan since it is very "authentic" and there's a lovely traditional mountain village nearby called Abyaneh where the locals still dress in their traditional costumes, and places where they extract rose-water the REALLY old fashioned way to add to food or use as perfume, and the Sialk archeological city which is 3000 years old, an old royal garden (factoid: "Paradise" is a Persian word for garden -- they're big into gardening there) among other things.

In Kish Island, I stayed at a very over-the-top hotel called the Dariush Grand Hotel which is designed to look like a recreated ancient Achaemenid palace (hence, named after King Darius, the second ruler of the Persian Empire) The place was a modern version of Persepolis with carved marble emperors and mythical creatures all over the place, with very dramatic nighttime lighting. This place costs more than $200/night but again there are less expensive places available. Their website is dariushgrandhotel.com (http://www.dariushgrandhotel.com) but quickly skip the intro and turn down your sound volume!

Both hotels served free breakfasts - My usual was clotted cream on Persian barbari bread with French coffee and scambled eggs. You can find "fast food" all over -- pizza (Iranians like to put ketchup on it) and hamburgers and chinese food etc. I am a vegetarian so I stick to fruit. The fruits there are fantastic (peaches, pomogranates, melons are native - kiwi and bananas common - dates huges and sweet.) The "standard" meal is chicken/lamb/beef kebab and rice. All of this is quite inexpensive. But for a "real" Iranian meal, you'll have to be invited to someone's home to try Persian cuisine -- and you will be -- like duck in a sauce of walnuts and pomegranate.

Anti-Western feeling? Quite the opposite! You'll be quite surprised. I met quite a few Brits and French, a couple of Yanks, lots of Chinese and Koreans, and 1 Swiss. Of course, I am an Iranian who has resided abroad for many years so I didn't experience any hostility personally as a "westerner" but you don't have to take my word for it. There are more than a few people who have posted their own travelogues online like at http://www.worldtrek.org/odyssey/mideast/032500/032500kaviborder.html or http://www.flin.demon.co.uk/holiday/holiday.htm or
http://www.geocities.com/Pentagon/Base/1406/articles.html or http://user.it.uu.se/~pierref/travel/iran.trip/

The things on my list of "must photograph the next time in Iran" :

"Wind-catching" towers at desert city of Yazd (Badgirs in Farsi) which act as air conditioning, and are home to migrating flocks of white storks.

The tomb of the poet Omar Khayam

Sunflower fields in bloom

Turkoman horses on the Iranian steppes (see http://www.inthesaddle.co.uk/web/page/Iran+-+Turkoman+Steppes/nav/242/)

Boatyards where they still build Old wooden dhows of the Persian Gulf by hand (Qeshm Island)

Flocks of herons and egrets at Lake Urmieh

The "Black Church" Monastery of St. Thaddaeus near Maku

Mt Damavand, my best friend (you can never get lost in Tehran -- just look for this peak and youll know where you are)

14-Jun-2006, 22:56
Another photo taken in 1999 in Isfahan of the Royal Mosque


Ron Marshall
15-Jun-2006, 05:09
Thanks for the info Cyrus. I think Iran may be my next trip; it has so much that I would like to photograph.

Would travel pose many difficulties for a non-Farsi speaker?

Are internal flights very expensive?

My main concern, probably unfounded, has been that as a westerner I would have fewer options for accomodation and would be steered towards more expensive options.

The main difficulty in planning a trip to Iran would be deciding what to leave out, there is definately too much for one trip and the distances are vast.

15-Jun-2006, 06:06

Funny story: so I walked into a rug seller's store in Isfahan, and saw that the store owner was chatting in French with a customer. A few minutes passed as I sipped my fift cup of obligatory tea, and a tour of Chinese tourists arrived at the store (no doubt the tour leader got a cut of any sales) and the same rug seller turned around and spoke rapid fluent Chinese to the them too. When there's money to be made, its amazing how many languages people can speak.

Anyway I have been amazed at how well English is spoken there more and more -the kids are either on the internet or watching cable tv - but it still isn't nearly as common as in Europe. English is supposedly taught as a second language in high school, and some people actually remember enough to be able to say hello and how are you, and often people will try out their English skills on tourists. You can get a driver or a guide to speaks English prety easily (and I REALLY recommend getting a driver -- driving is a bit, ummm, "insanely chaotic" in tehran due to the mass sales of Iran-made Peugots and cheap gas.) There are the usual hotels too - the former Hilton in Tehran for example is now the "Hotel Azadi" etc.

Internal flights are inexpensive but you may be riding on Russian aircraft on some occasions (the EU and US won't sell civil airplanes to Iran, so Iran is making due with old Boeings and Airbus and more Russian planes.) Trains and tour buses are far less expensive, comfortable, and a great way to interact & see things along the way.
I think you can travel there on Lufthansa, Swiss Air, and Air France.

Anyway, check out the Lonely Planet site. They publish a handbook guide to Iran too, which was pretty thorough and accurate the last time I checked.

As I mentioned, I am seriously thinking of putting together a tour group specifically for photographers to go to Iran. One of these days.

Ron Marshall
15-Jun-2006, 06:10
Cyrus, thanks again for the info. PM me if you ever put that trip together.

15-Jun-2006, 09:06
Ron - FYI there's an article written by a traveller from New Zeland here (http://www.stuff.co.nz/stuff/0,2106,3701511a34,00.html).

I think my next trip will be in spring-time, so I'll let you know by then. I've had enough of the snow!

15-Jun-2006, 09:06
Ron - FYI there's travelogue written by someone from New Zealand about her travels to Iran here (http://www.stuff.co.nz/stuff/0,2106,3701511a34,00.html).

I think my next trip will be in spring-time, so I'll let you know by then. I've had enough of the snow!

Ron Marshall
15-Jun-2006, 10:34
Interesting article, thanks Cyrus. It confirms my experiences with expatriate Iranians, whom I have found to be polite, considerate, and well spoken.

17-Jun-2006, 16:42
The northern forests are awesome. They look like what I imagine the forests of England looked like 500 years ago. The neighbouring agricultural areas are also beautiful, but are unfortunately encroaching on the forests. The people are nice and friendly. There are a few customs one should learn before going, but the locals will politely tell you them if you don't know.