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In the years between the American and British coup in Iran and the Islamic Revolution of , when the reactionary Ayatollah Khomeini came to power, Iran underwent a rapid process of modernisation.
Home to some 1, women, the inner confines of Shahr-e No have passed through history largely undocumented after the area was purposefully set alight during the Revolution. The fire was not extinguished and there are no records of how many women died in the blaze. Even those who survived, such as the three sex workers Sakineh Qasemi, Saheb Afsari, and Zahra Mafiha were promptly arrested and executed — the first official executions of women by the new Islamic Republic.
The photographer Kaveh Golestan, however, spent two years in Shahr-e No before its collapse, gaining the trust of its residents in order to faithfully document the lives and humanity of the workers there. A selection of his black and white prints from is currently on display at The Tate Modern, comprising the first room of works to be held in the permanent collection by an Iranian artist.
For Golestan, these images had a political as well as aesthetic charge. You can look away, turn off, hide your identity […] but you cannot stop the truth, no one can. Beginning with images of street life in Shahr-e No, we see vernacular impressions of the day-to-day in this ghetto; merchants selling their wares and walking the streets. Yet, the sexual commerce is a consistent presence, with Johns soliciting for sex or the street-stains of bodily waste eerily present in the background.
The camera merely documents that which is already public. Golestan first exhibited these images in Tehran in , alongside two other series of children and construction workers, but the show was promptly shut down by the authorities. His truth-telling was too candid for an authoritarian government on the brink of collapse.