‘A Clean Path’

Iranian photographer Alireza Abbasy tells Brandon Hoops the story behind one of his favorite pictures.

By / March 2012

Esfahan is a beautiful and old city in Iran. I’ve always been fascinated with the old identity of this city where I grew up. There are shops that haven’t changed for years. During a two-week vacation to visit my family, I spent my mornings in the old neighborhoods, like Atishgah, looking for normal people who had been doing the same jobs for decades.

The man in the picture worked alone in his tiny shop. It was dark inside. I could barely make out his face as he maneuvered a piece of plywood through a table saw. He was very intent, very serious. I went in hoping to take his portrait, but I didn’t have the confidence to ask him straight away. That look on his face intimidated me. So I just walked around and took a few pictures of his old, cluttered shop.

It smelled like wood and there was sawdust on everything. An assortment of tools lined the walls, and scrap lumber littered every available space. I couldn’t resist taking my fingers across one piece, wiping a clean path that felt a lot like leaving my signature.

Abbasy, 30, is now based in Delft, Netherlands, where he’s lived since 2008, finishing a doctorate in management and economics.

For about a minute, we didn’t talk at all. Then I got the courage to ask him if I could take his portrait. He was still very serious, but he immediately said yes. I asked him to step out of the darkness in the back of his shop and closer to the entrance, where a large door let it the morning’s soft light. I only took one shot. The light was perfect. He gave me this subtle, almost cynical smile.

After I took the picture, I asked him, “How long have you been doing this?” He said, “Forty-one years, and this workshop is the only place I’ve ever worked.” I inquired further: “And are you happy with your job?” As sober and serious as ever, he said, “Yes.”

Most of the guys I found in Esfahan will be retired soon and some of their shops will disappear with them. Because Esfahan aspires to be a modern city, in the name of progress, a lot of these old stores will likely one day be replaced with roads or the boring florescent lights of new developments. I have this nostalgic thing. I am a nostalgic person.

Everyone was surprisingly inviting. I didn’t expect that at all. I expected a lot of them to be assholes because the Efahani people are known for their piercing and at times cruel sarcasm. Sure, at first, since I had a camera in hand, many of their reactions were reserved and defensive. I really tried to show, by the way I approached and talked to them, that I was interested to take their picture, not because they looked funny, but because they had an interesting story to tell.

Two years ago, my sister Golnar visited me in Amsterdam and bought me a cheap Minolta film camera from a second-hand market. I had always found the idea of analog photography ridiculous. You can’t see what you’re doing. You can’t take as many pictures as you want. But my sister was adamant.

I took two roles, bought some chemicals and went to YouTube to learn how to develop the film in my bathroom. As soon as I saw the results, I knew I was never going to touch my digital camera again.

I was changing film in Amsterdam recently when an old guy, walking very slowly with the help of a cane, passed me. He stopped and looked down at me with a big, big smile, as if he had just seen an old friend. He said, “You use film! I used to use film, too. Nice, nice!”

I love mystery and there’s a lot when you use film. You can’t see what you’ve done, and so many things can go wrong. But when that picture comes out it’s a special feeling because you did things yourself. The physical image in your hand is something that you worked on and created. You didn’t just push a button.

 

— as told to Brandon Hoops

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