The last nomads of Iran
The nomads of Iran used to enjoy a hero status. Over a century ago, when nomads constituted half of Iran’s population, their traditions were honoured and their role in standing up to invaders was met with respect. Now with only 1.5 million nomads left in Iran, the government’s approach has shifted drastically; adopting policies which effectively force nomads to lead a sedentary lifestyle. Catalina Martin-Chico’s exhibition ‘The last and the lost – the brave nomads of Iran’ documents what might be the final generation of nomads to live travelling the mountains.
At first, Martin-Chico didn’t even know Iranian nomads still existed. “It was very hard to find documentation about them [nomads] since the '70s. Some people do wars and elections, or demonstrations to be close to history. My way to be close to the history is to document something that is not going to exist in 20 years.”
Access was crucial to Martin-Chico’s coverage of nomads. Photographing is still fairly unfamiliar with the Bakhtiari and Qashqai people, who have just begun using pick-up trucks and smartphones, but Martin-Chico’s images and captions impressively open up traditionally isolated communities. Photographing nomads as they travel the mountains and those who have moved to the city, Martin-Chico worked in a small team of two, mainly with a young student translator - who is also currently at Visa pour l’Image and enjoying her first time outside of Iran.
Two females roaming the mountains in a conservative country begs the question of freedom. “I’ve been working in Muslim countries for many years and I always found that it was an asset actually to be a woman because you can have access to men issues and you can have access to women issues.” She points out an image in her exhibition which shows a newly married girl, covered in a white sheet and about to experience her first night with her husband. “I could have some conversation with her about ‘Is she nervous?’ ‘What happens next?’ ‘How is it going to be the first night?’ So all this was something added to the story which I couldn’t have had if I were man.”
For nomads, “women are like men”
When Martin-Chico arrived she was told that, for nomads, “women are like men”. Martin-Chico’s photographs of women mingling with men in weddings (not allowed in Iran) seem to be testament to uncommon opportunities for women in Iran but she soon explains that equality is mostly for practical purposes. “At the beginning, I was like ‘Wow they are treated like men – equal, equal’. But it’s not really the case. They are like men, because they are strong like men. Because in the history men used to go the war and women were alone so they had to do all the tasks like men – rifles, horses, hunting – so that’s what they meant.”
Still, Martin-Chico tells me that the nomadic people are more free than in major cities in Iran. “There’s no police around to arrest you if you are not behaving properly or if you have your hair uncovered. In that sense, they are really more free; it’s like a bubble in a really conservative country that is more open.”
Martin-Chico’s exhibition offers insights into a world that is quickly diminishing. Her photos uncover a range of reactions to the sedentary life, some (mostly young) nomads are happy to be in the city, while others fall into poverty and opium addiction to deal with the loss. But for all nomads who want to continue life moving on the mountains, the future is grim. Martin-Chico concludes: “I think that, for me even if I saw really different situations, the future of the nomads is quite dark. Even the nomads that have always been nomads - that love that way of life - they say ‘Yeah when we die maybe it’s over’.”