Babak Salari is a Montreal-based photographer and educator who chronicles lives at the margins of society.
His documentary projects include: Iranian artists in exile; matriarchal, indigenous communities in Mexico; and gays and transvestites in Cuba. Recently, he documented those displaced and brutalized by war in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. His interest in photography began as a teenager in his native Iran where he contributed to various publications. At the age of twenty-one, his political activities resulted in his imprisonment for six months by the Khomeini regime. Upon his temporary release from jail, he fled to Pakistan and, a year later, arrived in Canada where he resumed his study and practice of photography. His new documentary work Traumas and Miracles: Portraits of Northwestern Bulgaria is dealing with the sense of disorientation, loss, pain, and isolation.
Babak’s work has been exhibited internationally including:
National Art Gallery of Sofia, Bulgaria, Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art, Thessaloniki, Greece, and Centro Historico in Merida, Mexico, and published in several magazines. His four main publications Faces, Bodies, Personas: Tracing Cuban Stories, Remembering the People of Afghanistan, My Street Cuban Stories, and Traumas and Miracles: Portraits from Northwestern Bulgaria, were published by Janet 45 in Bulgaria in 2008, 2009 and 2010 respectively. He has received many awards including a Gold Addy from the American Ad Federation in 2004 for his work Locating Afghanistan.
Show your face
Laura Ruiz Montes Photos:
On the bottom left there is a little map of Cuba. It could be covered with the thumb. Floating below it there is an inscription in Bulgarian announcing the Cuban collection. I don’t know a word in Bulgarian. Despite the emotional recollection of scented oils from Bulgarian roses whose aroma baptized nearly everyone in the island more than forty years ago, I was never able to withhold the language at all. The Saint George Cathedral and the beautiful Sophia were stamped in trip journals by Cubans from the old times when they used to travel across former Socialist countries for such a low price that could be afford just with their regular worker’s salaries.
What could be hidden under the thumb is quiet visible in the title: Faces, Bodies, Personas. And even more so in a kind of subtitle: Tracing Cuban Stories. It is a book of photographs by Babak Salari published by Janet 45 Print and Publishing1 with an opening note in two languages (English/Bulgarian) by Thomas Waugh2 and a praiseworthy introductory text by Norge Espinosa.
Babak Salari was born in Shiraz, in 1959, but he studied at the Concordia University and Dawson College. He became a specialist–so to speak– on black and white documentary photography. He has lived in Canada for more than twenty years; from there, he thoroughly studies Diaspora identities and marginalities. His work showing the effects of the occupation of Iraq on women and children, his photographs of Palestine refugees, his documentation of the Afghan reality made him a cultural activist capable of living under any kind of social tension and of turning his images into metaphors, incarnation and supporting ground of the philosophy of that that can’t be further postponed.
Faces, Bodies, Personas… groups two series of pictures. It opens with the Bodies and Personas pages which, at the same time derive from the Queer at the Margins of Society series bringing together snapshots of gay and travesty people in Havana. And then comes Faces, full of portraits of Cuban writers and artists.
Thomas Waug is happily surprised by the mix of this being together, of this vis-à- vis: “And it is amazing how felicitously the two sub-groups come together”. It is this beautiful rareness what moves viewers. It is the beautiful and dangerous rareness. The surprise factor itself gives away a mechanism that is not functioning well. There is something that doesn’t fit, but not in Salari’s collection of photographs, but in the viewers.
It shouldn’t be weird; it shouldn’t be amazing, this new positioning of margins and patterns. But being used as we are to hierarchies and exclusions, certain balance gives way to amazement. Babak Salari brings things to a balance, levels them up, makes justice. He turns what’s left out visible and without exoticism and publicities he photographs the face behind the mask. Or the mask beating almost at the same pace as the face.
The skin clean, recovered from the exhaustion by so much make-up, is what he shows. What is still repeatedly censured and stoned looks at the camera and lets itself be seen. It is the marginality reflected on the lens of the also marginal Iranian.
Sometimes, in one of the pages of the book very appealing young men with delicious firm lips break in and move around to look at the lens with the feminine and sensual beauty exhibited in the Caribbean night. Gays and travesties are photographed in the intimacy of the makeup time, in their pure act of cross- dressing; in the intimacy of suggestive caresses and naked torsos. Such intimacy is not broken at the last step because it can still be made public and shown in the pictures, owed to the documental and urban style of Diane Arbus and, in some way, from the same trend followed by Walker Evans during the Great Depression who took important pictures in Cuba in 1933 related with the revolution against Gerardo Machado.
In the other pan of the scales are writers and artists who came down from the Olympus, part with patterns. All in the same level, placed in their right place: together with other bodies and personas, Salari brings them back as people. He bedims the aura of mystery and attraction shed from their books, their periodical appearances, their important awards, their chairs in academies and also–why not– eases their lives freeing them from so big and sacred responsibilities arising from their public existence.
This group includes artists who we can’t tell if they were selected at random or after a search to reflect the intentionality of the images. We don’t know if there was a previous registration, or if a field work of an anthropological research was made, truth is that many of the photographed faces have years of work with, close to or within marginality hanging over them. And they embody lives that at different times have deeply gazed at bodies, desire and identities.
The portraits I specially recommend pass by my rereading of intertwining coordinates, I can’t do it in a different way. That’s how I look at Margarita Mateo and hear in the silence of her photograph the confession: “I don’t know where this vocation of mine for the marginal, the peripheral comes from. Truth is that I tend to find “centers” boring, the established turns monotonous, and many times I feel more comfortable turning to the dark and hidden paths of Marginalia.”3
Anton Arrufat, elegant, standing, with only one part of the face illuminated by the light coming through a window that seems to assist his own writing “Faith Tournament”, delicate, terribly sad and shaking poem falling within the line of the best Cuban homoerotic poetry.
We were lovers but sometimes we were friends. Or we were such friends that sometimes we used to love one another./ To add a new ring to our wedlock, we decided to duel. We went to pick weapons: two swords of equal length and cast./ We got set since dawn, adjusting helmets and gantlets, riding on horseback as we stood face to face./ We are still so:/ timeless, fierce, inexorable, trying to beat with just one stroke and for the other for forever more.4
Rocio Garcia is sitting on the floor. To her left, there is a closed door on which, with a pencil, thin crayon or pen, “The beast. The animal” has been written. This painter, scathing in her art, brings to light deep conflicts of men’s imaginary. Her men, machos, seamen, tamers (sort of characters that appear in her paintings) jump out from the marginality and the periphery, settling in the realms of the power that for centuries has belonged to the heterosexual posture. Knife sailors, card players gathered at a bar, firearms holders, military chiefs, army squads are her key words. The voyeur, the punisher, the beauty of pain and the pain of beauty; the theories and masturbations; the mirror and the mask; the density of tradition and the detoxification of that same density; violence and repression; intimidation; power, the minute of glory; the change of identities are the marginal topics deployed in the creative work and are, undoubtedly, the background music of her face photographed by Babak Salari.
Norge Espinosa, author of the introductory study, was also photographed. Being both “judge and party” doesn’t cloud reasoning so as to appreciate his most valuable essence–and gifted with impartiality–, these pictures. Espinosa traces an interesting history of the different moments in the treatment of homosexuality in Cuba. He lays a fleeting (because the space doesn’t leave room for more) but enriching background of the incidence/presence of homosexuality in the Cuban culture until the visibility provided by the film Strawberry and Chocolate, and the true meaning of the Mejunje, a multicultural center created and promoted by Ramon Silverio in the city of Santa Clara. Espinosa has also covered with his work a route within marginality. He wrote, while still very young, the anthological poem “Vestido de Novia” (Wedding Dress), being absolutely aware that these verses are part of one of the most visible regions of his work:
With what mirrors/ With what eyes/ This blue-handed boy is looking at himself/
With what umbrella he’ll dare cross/ The downpour and the ship trail into the moon./ How could he/ How could he dressed as a bride/ If his heart is stripped of breasts,/ If his nails aren’t polished/ If he only holds a dragonfly fan.
Following this way, we’ll have to stop in other faces beautifully photographed by Salari, which I insist–once again– shouldn’t be look at as photographs of independent variable but as the link between the portraits and the latitudes of their respective work. Rene Peña, of whom there is a picture full of great expressive strength, is, in turn, an important Cuban photographer. His marginal series: Man Made materials, from 1999 and White Things make up together with his photographed face a circulating whole aiming at the search of the black body, the quest in the sanctuary of the black skin.
Researcher Tomas Fernandez Robaina, also photographed in Faces, Bodies, Personas… wrote El negro en Cuba 1902-1958 (Black people in Cuba 1902-1958); he is an expert on Nicolas Guillen’s work and his main concern is the constant of the black movement and thinking in Cuba. Once again the link is established, the pin fastens the cape.
I prefer not to make the list longer. I just wanted to refer to what I believe are implicit links between the two series of pictures, and which make up a solid poetic of image as generator and articulator of realities. There is something else uniting both series: the look upon the bottom, upon the environment. One example is Havana’s solares which are part of the background of Jorge Angel Perez, a talented writer whose narrative exercise goes deep in the different sides of the body and marginality. The social milieu, the environment and the daily life of the epic Cuban bring the parts of the documentary collection of photographs closer together.
But there is also something that brings the two series apart. In most of the photos of gays and travesties, they protect each other or act as their own bodyguard before a mirror of two sides that shows a split image or one accompanied by itself in the combination of both faces. However, writers, artists appear always and invariably by themselves, turned into lonely marginal people dedicated to the amazing art of the long-distance runner and to the perennial banishing isolation.
In any case, faces either alone or accompanied are photographs of bodies that live, die and renew themselves, shed their skin in the race to regenerate themselves later in today’s Cuba. They are fragments of a nation that Babak Salari put together to show the diversity and mixt–ure, the variables and permanence. They are the bodies of resistance, the survivors of many crises. They are what Norge Espinosa so rightly defined as: “the only real possession, that, without shame, lets itself be seen, looks at the camera and offers itself”.