By Sasha von Oldershausen and Solmaz Daryani
“At one level there are no photographs which can be denied. All photographs have the status of fact. What has to be examined is in what way photography can and cannot give meaning to facts.” – John Berger, Understanding a Photograph
On the banks of the Karun River, the photographer gazes through her viewfinder and shoots, capturing two Mandaean men dressed in their ritual white. One crouches, while the other one stands, reading from the Ginza Rba, the Mandaean holy book. His face is obscured by a white scarf, wrapped around his mouth and head. Both men face the river.
Behind them, overgrown cane stands taller than the men themselves blurring the background. A single errant plastic water bottle sneaks into the frame. But what is not pictured here are the frayed plastic bags, the foil wrappers that get caught in the foliage, or the small community of drug addicts who reside in tents within the tangle. Sometimes they come to the clearing to watch the Mandaeans pray. Sometimes they throw garbage at them.
“Don’t take photos of the places that are dirty,” says Ms. Khafaji, administrator of the mandi in Ahvaz, where Iran’s Mandaeans go to worship. “Take photos here; of the parts that are clean.” The photographer lowers her camera for a moment to consider the landscape. At the banks of the Karun River, it is difficult not to capture the sullied parts; the pollution is pervasive.
Ms. Khafaji takes pains to appear well appointed. She wears a pale pink manto – the compulsory coat-like garment worn in public by women in Iran – and a headscarf made of an even paler shade, inscribed with blue line designs. A gold bangle hangs on her wrist, its dangling charm casting a shadow by her side.
She stands partially obscured by a doorway of the mandi, where she reprimands a young woman for wearing red on Ashura, a major religious holiday of mourning for Shia Muslims, who typically wear black in honor of the day. The young woman looks up at Ms. Khafaji with a blank, almost defiant, expression and rubs her nose with a gloved hand—her gloves, a sign that she is menstruating.
Though they do not observe the holiday, the Mandaeans display respect for the customs performed by the Shia Muslim majority; they appear cautious not to draw more attention to their tenuous place within the margins. Two women, returning home from a Mandaean ceremony during Ashura, wear black mantos thrown over their white prayer outfits, their white pants still visible beneath the black hems. They rush to enter an alleyway, where the building walls obscure them. Here, they are safe from view.
The Mandaeans, a minority religious community that for centuries was concentrated on the border between Iran and Iraq, in recent decades has been forced to diffuse due to social pressures and political discord. In Iran, their numbers are estimated to be somewhere between 4,000 and 10,000, though no census count exists. Not officially recognized by Iran’s constitution, they lack opportunities that the Shia Muslim majority is afforded. But beyond the institutional biases they face are the more pervasive social ones, which they feel from the broader regional community. Among these is the stigma of being najis, the Muslim concept of ritual uncleanliness.
The Karun River is their sacred site; the place where, for centuries, they have performed baptisms following rites of passage—birth; marriage; illness; travel; sin. According to their doctrine, living water is their closest connection to the world of light. But the water that runs through the Karun is also heavily polluted.
Industry and overexploitation of the Karun have spoiled the vitality of the critical water source and turned its blue waters green. The acrid smell of sewage is inescapable—a consequence of the volumes of wastewater that gush directly into the river, untreated.
Here, at the confluence of the Karun, the Mandaeans are forced to confront an irony implicit to the environment they inhabit: Debased by stigmas of uncleanliness, they are simultaneously left with no other choice but to jeopardize their health and wellbeing by engaging intimately with the polluted water that runs through the Karun.
Hyper-aware of being considered unclean, the Mandaeans are trying to dispel the myth, not perpetuate it. This poses a challenge for the photographer who attempts to document the community for whom the sullied waters are so important.
On the one hand, the photographer feels a responsibility to document what is “factually accurate” (though, within the realm of photography, fact is a relative term). On the other, she must negotiate the needs of the community that she, Iranian, but an outsider, has been given access to. It is a great responsibility, indeed, as John Berger writes in his book, Understanding a Photograph:
Every photograph is in fact a means of testing, confirming and constructing a total view of reality. Hence the crucial role of photography in ideological struggle. Hence the necessity of our understanding a weapon which we can use and which can be used against us.
For Berger, this weapon can be “used to deceive and misinform,” he writes, and contribute to a global system of misinformation. He uses the example of the system of publicity, in which photographs are used to propagate consumerist lies. So, too, can the photograph be used to proliferate political propaganda. And when people are themselves the subject of the photos, they are rendered object; a single representation that can be used to exploit an entire people, or else robbing them of their asserted identities.
This form of visual violence is echoed by Susan Sontag, who writes in her book, On Photography, that ‘to photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder.”
The Iranian photographer contends with an even greater challenge when her audience is Western: With so few alternatives available to the mainstream narrative about Iran, she must contend with the possibility of her own perspective being misappropriated and used to describe the condition of the whole, rather than just a single representation that lends nuance to existing narratives. The photographer wants to remain an observer – on the outside – not rendered a “native informer” whose perspective is limited to the interior experience of a particular time and place.
A middle-aged Mandaean woman, wearing a floral cotton dress and pink sandals, sits on the bottom step of a stairway that leads into the courtyard of her home. Five cats surround her and coyly coerce the food from her hands. The woman is a friend to cats—she has many—but when Muslim visitors come to her home, she stows them away in a room behind a closed door, so they do not think of her as dirty.
The photographer treads lightly; she enters through the frameworks her subjects present her. When they open their doors to her, she steps cautiously within.
Literal and figurative edifices help circumscribe the representation we want to convey, and omit or obscure the details that undermine that depiction. We build walls; we live behind closed doors. The photographer captures just a fragment of the spectacle in her frame.
Though these structures present an ideological quandary for the photographer (“How do we best represent these people within the Western cultural construct? Within the frame itself?”) for the subjects themselves, they offer a degree of agency—both within their sociopolitical confines, and as a symbol/representation that exists within the photo itself.
But the flux of the Karun cannot be contained by walls, doors or the edges of an image, nor can the pollutants that spoil its waters. Every living organism has a limit to how much pollution it can absorb before that waste becomes poisonous—a limit the Karun long ago exceeded.
At the banks of the Karun, a tarmida – the second rank of Mandaean priesthood – stands ankle-deep in the water and uses an aluminum pail to bail the water directly from the river. He will return home and boil the water, not as a means of purifying it, but rather, to separate the sediment. He drinks the water daily. “The water you see here is apparently polluted,” he says. “But the water is innately, physically, scientifically and ritually clean.”
According to Mandaeism, any living water—that is, water that is in flux—serves as a connection between the elevated world of light and the earthly world we inhabit. Strict adherents of the faith believe that running, living water is impervious to contamination.
Others in the religious community, especially its younger adherents, are not so convinced. Some avoid the weekly baptisms and reserve close interaction with the water for the more significant occasions, like baptism rites after marriage. Siamak, a young Mandaean man, said he had become ill after drinking the water from the river during a religious ceremony. “The water needs to be clean and purified kilometers before the spot we take water from so that we can say that it is clean water,” he says. “It needs to pass rocks and soil to be purified.”
“The place we take water from is polluted all the way. Although we boil the water and keep it in earthenware crocks, I think it is not drinkable. It is still polluted.” He adds, “In Ahvaz, our whole life is polluted. After a while your body gets used to it.”
A cluster of Mandaeans convene at the open shores of the Karun River on a bright Sunday for the baptism ceremony of a recently married couple. During the ceremony, the mother-of-the-bride has an asthma attack and removes herself from the proceedings, so as not to make a scene. The city of Ahvaz carries the title of world’s most air-polluted, and many suffer from respiratory illness because of it.
“The photographer chooses the event he photographs,” Berger writes. “This choice can be thought of as a cultural construction. The space for this construction is, as it were, cleared by his rejection of what he did not choose to photograph.”
The photographer hands the mother-of-the-bride a tissue, and standing above her, captures her blowing her nose. Her hands are spotted with age. Further downshore, where the river eddies, bags and bottles caked in silt amass in a pile. A bloated, dead cow bobs like a buoy at the river’s edge. They exist, only outside the frame.
A Sacred, Sullied Space was written by Sasha von Oldershausen as part of a collaboration with photographer Solmaz Daryani with support from the Magnum Foundation‘s “On Religion” project.
Sasha von Oldershausen is an Iranian-American freelance journalist, based out of Far West Texas. She has reported for The New York Times, Texas Monthly, NBC News and the Guardian, among others.
Solmaz Daryani (born 1985in Tabriz, Iran) is a self-taught photographer. She developed a passion for this visual language to understand the people and life around in 2012. She has received the IdeasTap and Magnum Photos Grant in 2015 while working on the long-term project The Eyes of Earth, an investigation into the environmental and human impact of the drying of Lake Urmia in Iran. Her work has been published in Foreign Policy magazine, Emerge magazine and Kel Magazine.