'Pairidaeza' | Exploring the Iranian Central Desert

Words and images ©  LEONARDO MAGRELLI

Words and images © LEONARDO MAGRELLI

Italian photographer Leonardo Magrelli set out to explore the contradictions of the Iranian territory, where modern structures can be found amidst the deserts of the Iranian plateau.

Paradise - from ancient Persian Pairidaeza (pairi - around, daeza - wall) a place surrounded by walls.

Iran has recently been included in Trump’s Muslim Ban list. This already mostly unknown land will now be even less accessible. This reason alone would suffice to motivate the choice of photographing the country under a different, detached and less propagandistic light. Other issues though emerge in the encounter with this region of the world.

To a foreign eye, Iran seems to have a peculiar relationship with images. Despite being an Islamic Republic, where the state religion professes iconoclasm, not only portraits of the two Ayatollah Khomeini and Khamenei are hanging in almost every street, but also those of every young man who died in the war against Iraq: the cities are overflowing with pictures.

One could think that this attention to the portraiture, and more in general to the human face and figure, is also reflected by the astonishing number of selfies that are constantly taken by Iranians (who seems to crave somehow the American lifestyle), or by the incredible amount of people who undergo rhinoplasty.

On the other hand instead, there’s a complete opposite approach to the representation of the landscape: it never ceases to surprise me how may places are forbidden to be photographed.

No picture can be taken of several military and state buildings within the cities; even entire huge areas of territory are precluded. People can travel and see the deserts and the mountain ranges where nuclear and military sites are hidden, but, again, it’s highly forbidden, and quite dangerous, to take pictures. Few countries show such a deep understanding of the power and the dangerousness of photography.

This series of photographs was taken while roaming the Iranian central desert and the cities within. So many different populations, religions and empires have followed one other for millennia, inhabiting these lands, reaching peaks of astonishing balance with their surroundings. Mithraic temples, Zoroastrian villages, Persian cities, they all were built with local materials and designed to adapt to the shape of the territory, in a perfect symbiosis.

And yet today there seems to be a kind of ambiguous struggle to fit in these territories. A latent friction emerge between the human presence and the environment. The result is the feeling of things to be misplaced, out of place. Ambiguous objects, unfinished buildings, indefinite traces of the mankind are left behind, lying isolated and scattered on the ground. It’s “the mutual interference between the landscape and those who live it” as Baltz wrote in his review of the “The New West”

It may seem outdated nowadays to still talk about the issues raised by the new topographers more than forty years ago. But it must be kept in mind that Iran hasn’t yet started to develop a proper sensibility to the ecological and aesthetical problems of the territory. This is why it could be worth applying the discourse around the ordinary landscape to this country, to see how people changed their way of living the landscape and of living inside the landscape: a relationship that no longer relies on the fusion with the surroundings, but rather on the separation from it.

Too often the landscape is literally kept out. There seems to be an urge to build walls that inhibit the vision, a need to place huge constructions in the middle of nowhere and then circle them with walls that keep out the rest of the world. One could wonder if this derives from the ancient Persian gardens, however, the paradise is not anymore within these walls, but outside them, hidden from the view.


“Few countries show such a deep understanding of the power and the dangerousness of photography.”