To Capture a Cherished Past

Pilgrimage Photography at Imam Riza’s Shrine, Iran

in Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication
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This essay focuses on the genre of pilgrimage photography as it developed over the course of the twentieth century in the holy city of Mashhad, Iran. Photographs made during pilgrimages to the shrine of Imam Riza count among the most popular vernacular genres of Iranian photography. Pilgrimage photographs should be understood as sacred photo-objects, at once signifiers and carriers of piety. Once framed and taken home by pilgrims, they not only capture and memorialize the sacred encounter, but also carry the aura of the divine into the mundane space and time of the everyday. I focus on the particular visual language of these sacred photographic objects; a visual language achieved through costumes, gestures and body language, through painted backgrounds with symbolic themes. Second, I consider the kind of cultural work and pious affect they elicit as image-objects when placed in pilgrim’s homes. I end by briefly considering the recent changes and continuities brought about by digital imaging technologies.

To Capture a Cherished Past

Pilgrimage Photography at Imam Riza’s Shrine, Iran

in Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication

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References

  • 1

    For details about the city see Zabeth (1999) Streck and Hourcade (2007).

  • 3

    See Farhat (2014) for details of these practices and Algar (1974) for the role of religion in the Safavid era including discussions on the pilgrimage to Imam Riza’s shrine.

  • 8

    Between 1888 and 1905Nuri took many photographs of shrines in Iran and Iraq including the shrines of Shii Imams and their descendants (Aghda 1391/2012).

  • 15

    See Harris (2004) and Haganu (2006) for similar examples of the combination of photography and painting (or other forms of art and decoration) and the particular pious work that such combination achieves in the case of Tibetan photographs and Romanian Orthodox photo-icons respectively.

Figures

  • View in gallery
    Figure 1

    Pilgrim family in a studio. Mashhad, circa 1960s. Collection of Kiarang Alaei. Used with permission.

  • View in gallery
    Figure 2

    Pilgrims on the roof (or veranda) of a building inside the shrine’s enclosure. The central dome of Imam Riza’s shrine on the background. Photographer unknown, circa 1940s (or earlier). Collection of Kiarang Alaei. Used with permission.

  • View in gallery
    Figure 3

    Portrait of a pilgrim and Imam Riza’s shrine, photomontage. Omid Studio Mashhad, circa 1950s. Collection of Kiarang Alaei. Used with permission.

  • View in gallery
    Figs 4, 5

    Pilgrims portraits pasted over another photograph of a curtain, then rephotographed. Note on both photographs the background curtain is the same. Photographer unknown, Mashhad, circa 1960s (or earlier). Collection of Kiarang Alaei. Used with permission.

  • View in gallery
    Figure 6

    Large pilgrim family in front of a curtain backdrop. Photographer unknown, Mashhad, circa 1960s. Collection of Kiarang Alaei. Used with permission.

  • View in gallery
    Figure 7

    A pilgrim family. Studio Mahtab, Mashhad, 1970 Collection of Kiarang Alaei. Used with permission.

  • View in gallery
    Figure 8

    A pilgrim family. Photographer unknown, Mashhad, circa 1960s. Collection of Kiarang Alaei. Used with permission.

  • View in gallery
    Figure 9

    Pilgrim in front of curtain backdrop. Photographer unknown, Mashhad, late 1970s. Collection of Kiarang Alaei. Used with permission.

  • View in gallery
    Figure 10

    Members of an Iranian family place their hands on a backdrop depicting the steel lattice work surrounding the tomb of Imam Riza. Circa 1960s. Collection of Kiarang Alaei. Used with permission.

  • View in gallery
    Figure 11

    The pilgrim on the left wears an “Arab” costume with a keffiyya and shemagh. The pilgrim on the right wears a ‘dervish’ costume, with its turban and props, including the tabarzin (axe) and kashkul (alms-bowl). Circa 1960s. Collection of Kiarang Alaei. Used with permission.

  • View in gallery
    Figure 12

    Four contemporary pilgrimage photographs created with Adobe Photoshop Photo: Asghar Khamseh, Mehr News Agency

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