He was clearly a peasant, and appeared to have travelled a long way to get to the photography museum. But unlike other visitors to the museum, he didn’t make his way to the exhibits or marvel at the splendour of the site. It was an officer he wanted, and finding his way through the labyrinthine corridors, he entered the office of the curator and took out his tattered prints.
Tea was brought in for the visitor along with the sugar cubes Iranians plop into their mouth, as they sip the liquid. The curator went through all the prints. Treating each with the gentle care only a lover of photography has for original prints. With a broad gentle smile, he beckoned the man to a more quiet room. They began to talk. They were now old friends.
It is this love for photography, this passion for the medium and the generosity of the man that has characterised Bahman Jalali. The show he had organized for me at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Arts, was done at a time when I was relatively unknown. I was surprised that a curator in Iran had searched out a photographer in Bangladesh, to judge their international contest, and to show work at one of their most prestigious venues. The friendship and hospitality of Bahman and his photographer wife Rana, was the foundation for the love for Iran and its arts that has stayed with me.
After the tragic death of Kaveh Golestan, Bahman had been instrumental in the setting up of the Kaveh Golestan Awards. I was humbled at being asked to give away the prizes at the first award ceremony. Again, it was Bahman, who had insisted that a photographer from Bangladesh, rather than a big western name be asked to be the chief guest at this important ceremony. Rahnuma had joined me on this trip. She rarely accompanies me on my trips abroad, but for Iran I didn’t have to do too much convincing. Once in Tehran, she soon found her own circle of friends. Bahman and Rana we shared. Later, when Shadi and Omid, came over to participate in Chobi Mela, Shadi became Ma’s adopted daughter.
My later trips involved meeting many other Iranians I was proud to consider my friends. The unpublished manuscripts Abbas Kiarostami showed me in his house, Ruchira and Sunil taking me to the gallery para of Tehran, the long chat and the exclusive view of ‘sensitive work’ by the ever provocative Parvaneh Etemadi at her studio, bumping into Isabelle Esraghi in a back street in Isfahan, meeting my old friend Satish Sharma at my talk in Tehran, were all moments to savour, but it was the long conversations with Bahman and Rana, where we shared dreams about photography and fiercely argued the merits of our favourite images, that has made Iran so special for me.
I had often wondered why Iran had given birth to so many great photographers. It was while Abbas was chairing Magnum, that I had taken two young photographers, Shehzad Noorani and Mahmud to visit the Magnum office in Paris. I remember the star struck youngsters soaking everything in, as Abbas walked them through the corridors that have heard the footsteps of so many of the greats of photography. Reza Deghati, had made three visits to Pathshala. We had featured his work in Chobi Mela, and felt proud at having featured him in one of Drik’s calendars. His brother Manoocher had also spoken to Pathshala students. A DrikNews photographer had the privilege of assisting him as a fixer. Being close to a great Ustad is still one of the finest ways to learn. My attempts to get Kiorastomi to Bangladesh had met snags with scheduling, but it was my failure to get Bahman to Chobi Mela that had vexed me the most. Before Dr. Hashemi of the Iranian Cultural Centre in Dhaka left, he had promised to arrange it via SABA, the Iranian Art Academy. It was to be a highlight of Chobi Mela VI.
Chris Rainier had just written about the new National Geographic Awards. I was to help him identify the “Peter Magubanis of photography”, the few individuals who had been the mentors, the inspiration and the driving force in shaping the photography of today. National Geographic will miss this giant amongst giants. Chobi Mela will miss the celebrated artist. I have lost a dear friend. The man who brought in the prints to Bahman’s museum so many years ago, will miss an unusual man who made sharing a cup of tea with a peasant, in a big government office, seem as natural as light passing through a photographer’s lens.
Taipei. 23rd January 2010
By Syma Sayyah, Tehran
Ustad Bahman Jalali was an internationally acclaimed photographer and renowned artist. He had a gentle manner that touched all of those that came to know him, he was good hearted, observant, a private and simple man, but an expert in his field.
He was liked and respected as a teacher and photographer by his colleagues, contemporaries and by his many students and without a doubt has influenced many young photographers deeply. He was known as a war photographer and covered the Iranian Revolution, and published two books Khorramshahr and Days of Blood, Days of Fire. He was also involved in making documentaries but he is mostly known for the time and devotion that he bestowed on his students and as a real good ustad (teacher) to photographers, photojournalists and his students at the universities that he has taught for many years. He was easily the most popular professor as many students desperately wished to have him as their tutor.
He had collected a large collection of glass negatives from Golestan Palace, and published these in a very interesting book of his, ‘Visible Treasure’. He was curator of Iran’s first photography museum and he exhibited internationally – currently he was participating in an exhibition in Milwaukee. In 2007 he was honoured by the Fundacio AntoniTapies in Barcelona by a retrospective exhibition.
I worked with Bahman Jalali during the three years of the Kaveh Golestan Photojournalism Awards for which he was head of the jury as well as a member of the steering committee. I came to know his gentle yet interesting sense of humour during our many committee meetings and later during less formal dinners and time we all spent together along with our mutual good friend Mrs Golestan. I always found him calm and serene – he spoke his mind, never insisted but let the logic of his point reveal itself.
Bahman Jalali and Rana Javadi
With his wife, my good friend the photographer Rana Javadi, he lived in a beautiful house in the centre of Tehran where we all went to pay our respects this afternoon. From what I saw today, the pain and sorrow of his students was overwhelming, one of them said to Rana, “I do not know if we are to express our condolences to you or you to us” – this made everybody there watery eyed as this young man let out his emotion and cried his heart out along with all of us present.
Bahman had arrived back in Iran from Germany late last night, saying that he wanted to be under his own lahaf (blanket). On Friday morning he did not feel well and so they went to the Tehran Clinic, where everything seemed under control until suddenly at about 3 in the afternoon, he kissed his wife’s hand and smiled and thanked her and a few minutes later left this world for the next, as calmly and quietly as he was famous for.
He will never be forgotten by all those who loved and respected him and I am sure that he will be looking after loved ones and his students from high above.
His funeral will take place on Sunday morning, 17th January, commencing at Artists Forum and he will be buried in the Artists plot at Beheshte Zahra.
Please join me sending his soul a prayer and we hope that his loved ones and Iranian photography will be able to bear this loss. We are all surrounded by our memories of him.
May he rest in peace.
Bahman Jalali and Rana Javadi