3. Notes on Photography & Language


The face of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani is the only piece of immaculate truth we got about her. Her case turned out to be more complicated after the international media pressure, which has not achieved more than the slight possibility of shutting down the scandalous death by stoning, even though the announced capital punishment seems to be inevitable. And this precisely is the worst part of it: what has been obtained is not really that little since there’s a big difference, both in terms of physical pain and public humiliation, between the gallows and the stoning. So big has been Iran’s obstinacy and madness in this case. If the public statements on television from western journalists, lawyers and politicians, plus the unanimous voice of our common citizens, have not saved Ashtiani’s life—but exactly the opposite: right after the western criticism, the case has been reinforced with new accusations of collusion and homicide added to the ridiculous ones of simple adultery—, at least they might help to understand the world we live in. From that portrait we can extract at least three certainties: Ashtiani is a woman. She covers her head. Though her beauty cannot be contained. Sontag said: “Nobody ever discovered ugliness through photographs. But many, through photographs, have discovered beauty” (On Photography, 1977); this sentence, staggering at the beginning, gets stronger with Sontag’s ending: “[in this or that photography] I find that ugly thing… beautiful”. In this case Sontag’s rhetoric jump is not needed: Ashtiani, as a beautiful woman, is indisputable. And here is already a problem. Maybe I can even say: Here is her major problem. At least that is how she understands it while pointing out one single reason as the cause of her circumstance: “Because I am a woman”, she says.

John Berger, in Ways of Seeing (1972): “According to usage and conventions which are at last being questioned but have by no means been overcome, the social presence of a woman is different in kind from that of a man”; and, since the same conventions establish that the best way of being woman is being beautiful, Ashtiani’s social presence seems a straight offence to the misogynist social order in her country. If in the Western World the possibility of punishing adultery with death seems madness, in countries like Mexico legal amendments exist to defend alleged murderers if the crime is proved to be “of honor”. And even if other western countries do not tolerate those extenuating laws, domestic violence does not stop. The very base of that violence is, of course, cultural, which means: conventional. Hypothetically, a more outspoken society would contribute to decline the scandal that comes right after a case of adultery: “When nobody cares, then shame ceases to exist and we can all return to the Garden of Eden without any God prowling around like a house dick with a tape recorder”, says Burroughs (The Job, 1969). Despite Burroughs’ words, it must be remembered the he took advantage of the Mexican justice’s inefficiency to escape the punishment after blowing his wife’s head with a shotgun—although nothing indicates that the event was anything else but an accident. With the background of Middle Eastern women and the naivety that defines femininity in America, I cannot avoid a wink to these two graphic ideas of women in the Western World: Fever Ray and Lady Gaga. Let us look at and think about these faces.


August 2010

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