Sia Yazdanfar talks like a person running out of time. But he will tell you he’s making up for lost time. A year ago, the Iran-born photographer, who called Hillsborough his second home, was maintaining a high level of frustration with not being able to return to his homeland.
Yazdanfar was in the U.S. with plans to exhibit his photographs from Iran. But the pandemic caused all of his shows to be cancelled. Covid-19 also made returning to Iran to oversee his art gallery nearly impossible. He was finally able to secure a flight to the Middle East last August.
As bad as things were in the U.S. because of the pandemic, Yazdanfar said it paled in comparison with conditions in Iran.
“It was such a hot spot in the Middle East and Iran, compounded by financial things, such as the sanctions and everything else,” he said. “They weren’t just dealing with one thing, you know, they had health woes and financial woes, and economic woes, and all sorts of other stuff going on.”
With most businesses at a standstill, and no art showings in the near future, Yazdanfar decided the best use of his time would be to begin accumulating images for future shows. And though it may have been counterintuitive to travel during a pandemic in an area where treatment for the virus was nearly nonexistent, he set out to travel and document the people and the experiences of his home country.
Yazdanfar would be the first to admit he is fortunate in his opportunities. But it should not be lost that he works to make those opportunities happen. For instance, he timed his trip to the Caspian Sea to coincide with the fishing season. For days, he visited the fishermen, often bringing them chocolates and snapping photos from the shore. Ultimately, he was invited onto their boats to go out onto the Caspian Sea. He was able to help pull in the nets and sort out the catch. He was privy to a side most people are unable to see, and Yazdanfar was able to document that.
“I knew somebody in Tehran that’s from the area where saffron grows in the northeastern part of Iran, and his family has a hand in growing saffron, albeit a smaller operation,” he said. “Through that I was invited and met all these other people, and I was able to document the saffron harvest, which takes place over the course of a couple of weeks.”
Photos from the fishing boats and the saffron harvest will be part of an upcoming exhibit for Yazdanfar, who is back in Hillsborough. The show, called “Different Heavens,” will be at the Thomas Stevens Gallery. Paintings by Stevens will also be part of the exhibit.
Once restrictions began relaxing in the U.S., Yazdanfar quickly worked to book times and places to exhibit his photos. But with so many galleries filling up with previously cancelled shows, the earliest he could get shows was in 2022. In Hillsborough, Yazdanfar’s good friend, Tom Stevens, opened his new art studio and had an opening for late summer.
“The guiding philosophy, and the impetus for this exhibition is twofold,” Yazdanfar states in a summary of the project. “First, through sharing photographs and stories from a misunderstood side of our planet, I aim to put a human face to the timeless methods and toil which yields us some of our sought-after commodities, such as silk fabric, mosaic tiles, or saffron. Second, I want to draw the viewer into a world poles apart, and allow them to draw comparisons with their own quotidian routines. We all seek familiarity, and I use the medium of photographic storytelling to deliver that.”
Another factor allowing him greater access during his travels in Iran was the pandemic. Locations that regularly are full of tourists were virtually ghost towns, providing clear views and no waiting to see historical ruins and mosques.
“I felt like Howard Hughes. I’ve got photos of restaurants and large hotels where I’m the only one on the floor,” he said.
The results of the intimate access is more than 16,000 photos of people, places, and culture, rendered in color and detail that will recharge your eyeballs. Yazdanfar skillfully captures people in the act of trades and processes that have been carried out for centuries, sometimes with little change in how they’re done.
It’s most evident in the photos of the saffron harvest. Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice, drawn from the dried stigma of the saffron crocus flower, which blooms a vibrant blend of color between magenta and violet. The harvest is a 3,000-year-old tradition, but not one that has been well-documented.
“I knew I wanted to shoot something like the saffron harvest because it hits me on my roots, because it’s part of my DNA and part of the pride of our culture in our society in our country; and because fewer people have access to it. There are not many photos of that, so it’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” Yazdanfar said.
A tour of his portfolio on his website shows the photographer had traditionally focused on buildings and monuments, interiors and exteriors. But in 2020, when he was stuck in Hillsborough during the early days of the pandemic, Yazdanfar threw himself into a project called “Porchography,” where his photos captured images of the town’s residents coping with shelter-in-place orders. On his most recent travels in Iran, the photographer kept his lens on people.
In the town of Kashan, the people are known as Kashis, which means “the tile” or mosaic. Kashan is one of the birthplaces of Islamic architecture, and features some of the most spectacular examples of mosaic work in the world. Kashan is also known for textiles. Centuries-old buildings house equally old, massive looms used for making rugs, scarves and other things.
“I met a gentleman who is literally the last of these guys that’s doing it,” Yazdanfar said. “He’s was 68 years old. He started in this place when he was 10.”
Surrounding the building with the giant looms were dye shops, each dedicated to one color of yarn. Yazdanfar skillfully contrasts the vibrancy of the textiles with the worn-down figure of a master weaver.
Yazdanfar’s pace, he said, is at least partly attributed to the copious amounts of Chai he drinks, particularly when in Iran. He insisted it’s not a bad thing; less about having a lot to get done than having so much to see or experience.
“You know the old Latin adage carpe diem — seize the day? I think I’ll say ‘carpe noctem.’ Seize the night as well,” he said. “There’s not enough time. There’s so much to do. There are so many beautiful things and places, so many experiences to be had. I’m fortunate enough to experience something that other people may not be able to, and the least I can do is to try to share those in the most informative and open and pleasant way possible, with as large of an audience as I can muster.”
“Different Heavens,” a collection of photography and paintings by Sia Yazdanfar and Tom Stevens will be at the Thomas Stevens Gallery from July 29 through Aug. 22. There will be an artist reception on Aug. 5. To learn more about Sia Yazdanfar and his photography, go to: www.siayazdanfar.com.