As the smell of old ink emanates from musty pages, and as yellowing eyes stare back from faded faces, the act of looking through a family album offers a revealing window into the lives of those that came before us. Self-taught photographer Babak Kazemi is an avid collector of such imagery. What started out as a personal collection of his own family archive would slowly absorb the personal albums of distant relatives and friends alike. ‘These photographs were usually kept as tokens of remembrance, and offered a feeling of what life was like in the past. I think they gave me their photographs because they felt that the images and the people in them could have new lives within my collection and my work’.
Having witnessed the atrocities of the First Gulf War as a young child, Kazemi often returns to photograph the city he once called home. Memories of the past, as well as the repetitive cycles of our violent world, are common talking points in his work. ‘I have no desire to have a relationship with Ahvaz; unwillingly, it is a part of me. I look around at what’s going on in Iraq and Syria, and it’s the same story all over again. I feel like all Middle-Eastern cities share the same history, and those who are born here, in turn, share memories and experiences.’
From a young age, the photographer became enamoured with photography, describing the darkroom as a place of magic. For Kazemi, photographs are simultaneously visual studies and physical actions. ‘My images represent the people that inhabit my environment – the techniques I use are like the state officials of this region. As I soak my images in oil or scratch them with my fingernails, these damaging techniques represent the suffering that they brought upon our people’.
The idea for Kazemi’s latest work, Interior, unravelled after the discovery of an old suitcase, filled with images of the private quarters of an Iranian household. ‘Familial privacy does not permit the publication of these images within Iran. I also didn’t think it was ethically sound to publish photographs of people that I didn’t know, so I decided to reproduce them through old photographic techniques. Only now, the images depict myself and other family members in the privacy of our own home’.
Referencing the photographic techniques of times gone by, and borrowing the poses of those depicted in the found images, Kazemi’s work takes on a melancholy nostalgia, probing at our collective memory. In something of a break from his previous work, with its heavy portrayals of war, or of the oil industry’s tight grasp on the region, Interior adopts a softer, simpler tone, paying homage to a hidden history of family photographs.