Visual Detective: 'Iranian Living Room'

The face we present in public is not the same as the one that softens when we nuzzle with our dogs or that slackens as we slouch into the couch for a night of TV. Nor is the face we present for photographs the same as the one we wear otherwise: For most, there's an awareness, a self-consciousness that makes even a bright smile look flat. We admire photographers who find a way around the barriers we throw up to the public, who find a way to capture something that feels genuine. "Iranian Living Room," a book featuring the work of 15 young Iranian photographers, collects many examples that manage to do just that. What makes their work all the more compelling is the stark contrast between public and private life in Iran — and how little access Westerners have to either realm.

This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.

"Iranian Living Room," published by Fabrica, the communications arm of the Benetton Group, made news earlier this year when PayPal briefly blacklisted the book as part of a misguided effort to obey federal regulations restricting trade with Iran. The book is now for sale via Fabrica's website. In the introduction, Enrico Bossan, the book's creative director, writes that he wanted to get inside Iranian homes in 1989 to "make sense of the exterior world" that had been so radically altered in the decade since the Islamic Revolution. He wasn't able to do so, though, so he tried again 20-some years later — this time by recruiting young photographers "whose points of view were credible and discreet and who were perfectly able to capture a world that those living on the outside can only imagine."

The resulting book, because of the age of those capturing the images, is stamped with a young point of view. We see elderly people in the context of grandparenthood; their advanced age is foreign, something to be studied. Much as we, as Westerners, will study this book for clues. There's something unseemly about looking inside homes; US Weekly's tagline comes to mind: Iranians are just like us! And yet it's irresistible.

This is an extended family album all photographed within the confines of various living rooms scattered throughout Iran. A cat curls up with its sleeping owner here; a family gathers for a feast there. Portraits of women are presented side by side: dressed for home without makeup, hair loose; and dressed to go out with hijab on, faces made "as beautiful as possible," we are told, since so little of their bodies are permitted to be seen in public. Susan Sontag wrote that "the camera cannot help but reveal faces as social masks"; here, the masks come in layers.

Jennifer Day is editor of Printers Row Journal.

"Iranian Living Room"

Introduction by Enrico Bossan, Fabrica, 316 pages, about $45.

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