Photographer Mahdi Ehsaei grew up in a bicultural environment. Born and raised in Germany by Iranian parents, his Persian heritage was a strong and ever-present influence forming a foundation for his growing interest in the homeland of his parents and urging him to explore the many facets of Iran. It also meant that growing up he was tasked with answering his classmates’ and teachers’ questions on whether Iran has cars, if it’s safe, if there’s anything more to it than desert. “I think this image of Iran is¬†mostly no longer current,” he says, “There are still a lot of misconceptions¬†of Iran but with the help of social media and Iran getting into¬†the focus more and more, the misconceptions fade away and people are able to get enlightened nowadays.”
Ehsaei is adding to a multicultural image of Iranian society himself with his photo book, Afro-Iran.¬†This series of beautiful portraits documents a largely unknown minority of Iranians of African descent living in¬†Bandar Abbas, a port city on the southern coast. Their African heritage continues through clothing, music, dance, oral traditions and rituals, all noticeably shaping the lifestyle of the region.
The history of Afro¬≠Iranian people stretches back hundreds of years but is difficult to find in any books or public resources. “Before starting my¬†research I spoke to many Iranians and most of them didn‚Äôt even know¬†that African Iranians have lived in our country for centuries,” Ehsaei tells us. “I felt the need to¬†show any knowledge and visual representation of contemporary¬†Iranians with African roots; the unknown¬†faces of Iran. That‚Äôs why I started this project.¬†I deliberately portrayed people who barely get a chance to speak or¬†play a role in the current representation of Iranian history. Afro¬≠Iran deals with the human being, his environment and the¬†landscape in which he lives.”¬†He concludes, “I found it remarkable and amazing how well an intercultural life with¬†people of various ethnic backgrounds can work. The feeling of¬†otherness is no longer in keeping with the times.”
“For me every single picture of the Afro¬≠Iran series is linked to a story¬†and is therefore special. The one which stands out in my memory is the¬†moment of photographing the little boy at the beach. It was made in the¬†first week of my shots in Bandar Abbas. I was in the Khaje¬≠Ata district,¬†an area at the harbour of the Persian Gulf. It was afternoon, the sun was¬†just setting and some children were playing on the beach, which could¬†be heard from the street. I saw some children playing near the sea, one¬†with orange trunks. When I asked him if I could take a picture of him, he¬†stood still with his stick and shaped his body. It was only a brief moment¬†in which he got out from him being a child.¬†When I removed my face from the camera, he began to play again.¬†What I like about the image is the emotion it conveys. What the little¬†boy did not know was that he was playing exactly where his ancestors¬†had arrived a few centuries ago.” – Mahdi Ehsaei