"Mehrali documents the wild landscapes of the Hyrcanian Forest, a conflicted area between Iran and Azerbaijan which holds great personal and political significance for the artist."
A OR I
On the shores of the Caspian Sea, the Hyrcanian Forests are among the most important ecoregions in the world, spanning territory in both Iran and Azerbaijan. With origins dating back to the Jurassic era, much of its area has now been converted into urban or agricultural land. In 2006, The Republic of Azerbaijan attempted to register the forests as a UNESCO World Heritage site. After examining the petition, UNESCO announced that the site would have to be co-registered under the names of both nations. When documents were drafted however, Iran refused for its name to be listed alphabetically below that of Azerbaijan’s – as is convention for dual-country registrations. Iran reasoned that its 2,000,000-hectare share of the forest was far larger than that of its neighbour. Twelve years on, the dispute leaves no protection in place, allowing poaching, farming and unsustainable deforestation to continue.
A PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP
I’ve been going to the Hyrcanian Forests for most of my life; initially for leisure as a child, and later to photograph. It’s become part of me, and I feel I’m now part of its existence. Some of the images show places where I’ve slept, bathed and reflected for hours. Here, my inner and outer selves reach a state of equilibrium. My work tries to express both this personal relationship as well the broader political issue at hand. Whilst my photographs capture the stark and regal beauty of the forest, each frame reminds us of man’s increasingly destructive existence.
For my earlier Soul of Tehran project, I photographed patches of untouched nature within a city that has now become a sprawling megalopolis of high-rise buildings, pollution and congested traffic. For me, portraying Tehran through its vegetation is a more effective tool with which to encourage reflection on how the city has changed. At a time when the media constantly shows images of death and destruction, to photograph the ravages of the Hyrcanian Forests would attract little attention in comparison. I choose to deliver my message with a more poetic approach, which I hope can attract more concern for these forests.
As well as looking to traditional Iranian art and painting, I draw on ideas that have inspired all Iranian art forms. The renowned Iranian poet and artist Sohrab Sepehri believed that a work of art is created when an artist can no longer deal with an issue directly, which is an idea that resonates strongly with me. In terms of photographic influences, I also greatly appreciate the work of Ansel Adams, who said that ‘solitude, so vital to the individual man, is almost nowhere’. I keep returning to the Hyrcanian Forest, and it’s the only place I don’t feel alone. When I’m there, I realise how much there is to lose.