SOAS University of London

Brunei Gallery, SOAS University of London

An Orientalist Point Of View?

by Nicholas Tromans, curator of the Tate Lure of the East exhibition, with Caroline Mawer

The photo of Karzem in his crib (image 1) and the image from Isabella Bird (image 2) show the distinctive wooden cribs of the Bakhtiari. Although from over hundred years apart, they are startlingly similar. This might be seen as supporting evidence for the ‘timelessness’ of the Orient.

Alternatively, the apparent ‘inertia’ might reflect appropriate technology. Unlike in the West, tribal Bakhtiari babies are breastfed in their cribs – and the design expedites this. The cribs have to be light and sturdy, to allow nomad women to carry them on their backs during migration.

Another image (image 3) suggests a different interpretation altogether. This was taken in 1923, and shows Gholam-Reza Bakhtiar, a Haji Ilkhani Khan, with his firstborn son. The crib is the height of contemporary fashion and the proud father is tender and loving. It is true that, within his family, Gholam Reza was considered an unusually ‘soft man’. Rather than the Bakhtiari ideal of daring courageousness, he was a man of letters, even translating one of Dumas’ books into Persian. This image shows an individual human being, rather than an externally-constructed and -viewed stereotype.

Do the Westerners’ images therefore actually reflect their unchanging interests and static ‘point of view’

Both of the Westerners used photography – if in different ways – as a ‘way in’ to their subjects. In her Journeys in Persia, Isabella Bird published drawings made from photos to underline her exotic tales of derring-do. In contrast, Caroline Mawer utilised the immediate results of digital technology to quickly build a trusting and positive relationship with ‘her’ Bakhtiari family. The Faridgis enjoyed vetting LCD-monitor previews of ‘their’ pictures. Their preconceptions of formal portraiture changed when they saw more casual shots. They even went on to act as ‘ambassadors’ with other families: “Get her to take your picture. NO! Don’t pose! Just let her take photos! DON’T POSE!”