To Withdraw From Orientalist Photography: Leonardo Magrelli’s Pairidaeza and the Iranian Terrain

In the wake of a terminated nuclear deal and a nation left demonized once more—we find an appropriate home for Leonardo Magrelli’s endeavor to photograph Iran “under a different, detached and less propagandistic light.” Traditional photographic projects undertaken by the West are often concerned with the extravagant architecture of mosques and palaces—sites ripe for the Western eye mystified by an Eastern world. Magrelli carries us into a pure abstraction of the land through the eyes of a layperson—we bare witness to scenes stripped from traditional notions of photographic value.


The “Orient,” in other words, the Middle East, has been somewhat of “a European invention, and been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.”[i] Of course Orientalism is first and foremost a Western academic tradition that seeks to represent and exercise dominion over the East—nonetheless, Orientalism also carries aesthetic implications, which pervade themes of modern photography. Orientalism in photography has been the stylistic Western approach to othering the East through distinct imagery shaped around “dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.”[ii] Western photographic endeavors carry a distinct power dynamic—not only by means of conducting “salvage ethnography”, but also through exercising dominion over its objects (in this case, the Iranian terrain). Photographic endeavors have seldom been “natural depictions,” but “representations” of the Orient—an artificial spectacle manipulated and manufactured by the distinct voice of an outsider.[iii] Thus, to apply Edward Said to the realm of photography, the Orientalist photographer “[locates] himself vis-a-vis the Orient” through a means of “speaking in its behalf.”[iv] Magrelli, as we will see, allows the land to speak for itself—we are stripped from the ever-present mystification of a land oft misunderstood. 



Observing Magrelli’s shots above, we find a clear contrast between his work and the traditional Orientalist approach. Imagery in Orientalist photography reveals its setting to us instantaneously—its thematic structure is so predictable that once we see images of turquoise tiles, gargantuan domes, or even simply long terrains of desert land, we instantly know we are looking at the Orient sans description. This is essential to the notion of Orientalism, as representations create a “highly artificial enactment of what a non-Oriental has made into a symbol for the whole Orient”—when we know the tradition of imagery, the setting of every image is self-evident. [i] This is why Magrelli’s shots are so unequivocally apolitical—we have no idea where his images are taken. It is wholly removed from traditional representations of an Eastern land to a degree at which it cannot be politicized upon first sight.


The notion of removing self-evident setting from his photographs obliges us to humanize the locale before realizing its political context. By straying from the predictable fixations of the Western eye, Magrelli rejects the typical fruits “worth” plucking of the Iranian terrain. Though this is not to say that Iranian architecture and mastery is not worth photographing—it is to say that he exposes images isolated from “dramatic immediacy of representation”—the land is not a spectacle for a Western audience, but the mundane abstract angle of a layperson. The images above are melancholic tones of blue and green wholly isolated from a political setting–their location is ambiguous but the emotions evoked are instantly clear. It follows that we are obliged to form an emotional understanding before knowing its political context, consequently humanizing the terrain oft dehumanized.

I have witnessed the phenomena of Orientalist photography countless times in my visits to Iran. Particularly in Isfahan, I have seen European tourists fixated on capturing the mastery of Safavid Architecture not to a degree of establishing an understanding of the terrain but to have something that solidifies predisposed notions of what the land looks like. It is as though the Western eye seeks the aesthetics already informed in their imaginations, imposing their own cultural consciousness onto the subjects, rather than letting the subjects simply be.  Said correctly highlights the frequent motifs of Orientalist imagery–namely: the Orient as a place of pilgrimage, the Orient as a spectacle, or the Orient as a tableau vivante. Therefore, the Western lens does not show us the terrain in actuality, but rather, a “romantic restructuring.”[i]

As a demonstration of the kind of imagery that instantly informs of its setting through the confirmation of predisposed ideas of the land, the images above are photographs I have taken in visits to Isfahan. It is important to note these images are not meant to act as art work, but as sample images used for demonstration in papers pertaining to academic endeavors.  Evidently, with the thematic notion of curvature, arches, domes, arrays of blues, and the repetition of crescents, the setting is immediately evident: the Middle East. This is what most commonly defines photographic projects of Iranian mastery: it stays within the domain of what is already known about the terrain–whereas Magrelli takes us beyond preconceived ideas.

Magrelli’s shot below, in comparison, was similarly taken in Isfahan but is explicitly different from the samples shown above. The rich turquoise blues and exaggerated arches often emphasized as a dramatic spectacle are here muted and detached from detail. Of all the scenes in Isfahan demonstrating Safavid mastery–such as the Ali Qapu, the Naqshe-Jahan Square, the Sheikh Lotfollah mosque, which are almost always the subjects of Western fascination, we here see a location detached from extravagant Safavid architecture. The shot acts not only as a radical rejection of Orientalist aesthetics, but a rejection of the photographer who imposes dominion on his othered subjects. His focus instead draws our attention to “ambiguous objects, unfinished buildings, indefinite traces of mankind (…) lying isolated and scattered on the ground.” In the image below, has let the subject just be, there is no explicit fascination or exoticization, but what Said would call a “natural depiction” as opposed to a “representation.”


Beyond traditional shots of Iranian cultural mastery in Orientalist photography, the theme of a “desert wasteland” is also rampant. Such a photographic angle is no longer fixated on architecture or “civilization”—it is rather fixated on a lack of civilization.

This type of photography begins most infamously with the publications of the Neurdein Brothers who were funded by the French Government to publish postcards of the Algerian desert to promote colonial travel.  Picture3 Within this domain we see the repetition of grey and tan hues, a never-ending infinity of sand and perhaps the occasional camel–the “desert wasteland” is represented as a land of non-existence and the eradication of “civilized” life. The repetitive representation of the desert wasteland riddled with camels is not an image of the past–current photography is similarly rampant with such motifs.



Magrelli, however, moves in polar direction of desert photographic tradition–he brings an idiosyncratic motif of life and vibrancy into the traditional “desert wasteland” shot. In the images above we see structure within what is traditionally shown to be an infinite nonexistence–we are not relegated to the curvature of dunes, but a composition of angular line intersections of buildings as representations of human life. We are not relegated to an infinite array of grey and tan hues, but notions of society through vibrant color: the greenery of a palm tree, a lively sky–hues of blue and green bring an earthly presence to a terrain traditionally removed from what we recognize as the living. We are not relegated to the camels of the terrain, but actual symbols of modern transportation–through the focal point of the car within the linear architecture, we are told a story of civilization as opposed to a wasteland.


As opposed to the grey stillness of Orientalist desert photography, Magrelli instead finds movement, colors of life, and images of modernity. In the shot above, taken on the road from Pasargadae to Yazd, we see a typically dry terrain transformed into rich blues akin to the tones and movement of deep waters. Location is once again ambiguous in this image, and we are left to admire the mastery of Magrelli’s work before considering political implications. Rather than a nonexistence in the desert, we find life. Once again, Magrelli presents us a humanized terrain.


Leonardo Magrelli’s images of Iran act as an unequivocal rejection of traditional Orientalist photography. While Western photography carries dramatized manipulations of the terrain that conform to preexisting understandings of the land, Magrelli takes us into a world of abstraction in which location is ambiguous, sites are humanized, and the notion of the “other” is nearly eradicated. While the Orientalist approach relies “upon the sheer egoistic powers of the European consciousness at [its] center,” Magrelli’s work allows the land to simply exist without the intervention of a politicized consciousness.[1]

To see more of Magrelli’s work, you can visit his website and his Instagram.



[1] Edward Said, Orientalism, (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 1.

[2] Said, Orientalism, 3.

[3] Said, Orientalism, 21.

[4] Said, Orientalism, 20-21.

[5] Said, Orientalism, 21.

[6] Said, Orientalism, 158.

[7] Said, Orientalism, 158.


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