Hoda Afshar (with an essay by Michael Taussig)
Melbourne-based Iranian photographer Hoda Afshar spent several years compiling the images that appear in her new photobook Speak The Wind. From 2015 until 2021, Afshar photographed the landscapes, inhabitants, rituals, and myths of three small islands nestled in the Strait of Hormuz, near the southern tip of Iran. There, intertwined histories of trade, slavery, migration, and displacement have resulted in a confluence of cultures, as the Persian Gulf meets the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. The population of southern Iran is estimated to be at least 10 percent Black, largely due to the enslavement of East Africans who were brought to the country over the course of several centuries. The history of slavery in the Arab world and Iran is deemed a taboo subject, although the conditions that migrant workers face in the Middle East today point to a long record of abuse and exploitation normalized with class hierarchies and racism. In Speak The Wind, Afshar does not address this history as a traditional documentarian, but rather summons its ghosts by alluding to the psychic energy that lies beneath the sediments of the arid islands. Interspersed between color photographs of rock formations that have taken on the shape of ferocious creatures over time, the abandoned ruins of a 15th-century Portuguese fort, and a seascape in which the ocher earth has turned the water blood red, are Afshar’s perceptive portraits of men and women who appear undeterred by the harshness of the environment and its various elements, outwardly confident in a centuries-old ability to weather such forces.
The title of the book refers to the belief among locals that winds blowing through the strait bring illness and misfortune, and that the only cures for the inflicted are the ritual songs and poetry of a shaman. In the introductory essay of the book, which is also translated into Farsi, Australian anthropologist Michael Taussig notes that these healing words are offered in Swahili, Arabic, or Farsi depending on the origin of the wind, indicating the multiplicity of local practices. Afshar’s portraits reflect this, illustrating residents in long airy thobes, or traditional robes, much like their Omani and Emirati neighbors to the south, colorful shawls made from fabrics resembling African wax prints, and battoulahs, the metallic-looking facial accessories worn by women throughout the Persian Gulf region.
The idea that one can be possessed by spirits carried in with the wind apparently originated in Africa, a powerful indication, much like Santería in the Caribbean, that traditions and culture are safeguarded and expanded upon as a means of survival in the darkest of times. Survival is the central theme of Speak The Wind, which could have easily turned into a photographic travelogue given the dramatic otherworldly landscapes of its setting. Afshar manages to avoid this pitfall of documentary photography, however, with a sensitive eye and a talent for storytelling, which are complemented by the book’s experimental design that mixes color and black-and-white images with hidden folds.
The book alternates between vivid color photographs of locals and landscapes—such as a man performing the Muslim call to prayer over a canyon or a cityscape with a neighborhood mosque in the distance—and slimmer sections with grayscale images that depart to bleaker environmental scenes—such as narrow gorges that lead to pitch-black caverns, showing the deserted island teeming with energy. The somber visual effect of this type of black-and-white photography allows Afshar to intermittently change the mood of the book, using the three grayscale sections as cutaways that illuminate the shadowy corners of island life. Moreover, the book’s layout has a cinematic quality, as the photographs are without captions and thus experienced as a continuous sequential work.
In the color photographs, Afshar’s subjects appear comfortable with her gaze, as though photographed during the pauses that punctuate a conversation. In one image, a man covers his face with his right hand as he blocks the sun from his eyes in order to look directly into the camera, his left hand relaxedly resting on his stomach. Another portrait shows a man sitting in a tree, his body positioned on an amputated branch, as he crosses one dangling foot over the other and uses his hands to maintain his balance. Hanging from a nearby branch is a rusty bucket, presumably for forging medicinal ingredients. In this image, and others, Afshar builds her narrative through glimpses of the islanders’ connections to the land in life, illness, and death. Photographs of the islands’ distinct terrains describe a place marked by volcanic rock and ash, salt stalagmite cliffs, and ocher soil, with ancient surfaces revealed over millennia. But they are also shown to be desolate and with sparse vegetation, unforgiving and conducive to the aims of menacing wind-driven spirits.
These spirits are described by locals in excerpts from recorded conversations and disturbing drawings that appear on the back of some of the grayscale images. These pages have been incorporated into the book using French fold binding, which results in a series of hidden pictures of monstrous creatures overpowering distraught islanders that, when first encountered, are assumed to be foldout pages. But instead, there is only a partial view when carefully pried open, creating the feeling of peering into a secret world. Discovering these stories of hauntings and paralysis between the pages as one flips through Speak The Wind is unsettling but fitting for a project that taps into the psychological underpinnings of a people and a place that carries the weight of a painful history.