Vera Illugadóttir
Last updated: 11 October, 2012

Photo essay: street photography from Iran on the cusp of modernity

In the early years of photography, few photographers captured the landscapes and people of Iran better than Antoin Sevruguin.

During his long career, from the last decades of the 19th century and the Qajar dynasty to the dawn of modern Iran in the early 20th century, he photographed everyone from poor peasants to the Shah himself, all with the same unembellished matter-of-factness. Yet his work would eventually become victim to the political upheaval as Iran embraced modernity.

Antoin Sevruguin was not really Iranian himself. He was born in the late 1830s to Armenian and Georgian parents at the Russian embassy in Tehran where his father worked. After the death of his father, Sevruguin moved to his mother’s hometown of Tblisi in Georgia where he studied painting. But his ties to the country of his childhood remained strong. After seeing a Russian photographer’s photos from Iran, Sevruguin was so inspired that he abandoned his studies and, in the mid-1870s, went on a photographic expedition to Iran.

He ended up staying there for the rest of his life. Initially travelling the country, photographing landscapes, antiquities as well as the people, he eventually settled in the capital Tehran where he established a photography studio. In a few years he had become the preeminent photographer in the country.

Much of the early photography from the Middle East was done by Westerners, or for the benefit of Westerners, and echoes the orientalist attitudes of the day. Sevruguin was not excluded from this trend — among his surviving photos are numerous studio photographs of Iranian women in elaborate, if not completely authentic, costumes, and carefully posed scenes with titles like ‘Harem fantasy’. After all, these kinds of photos were a lucrative industry — Sevruguin’s photographic studio was especially popular with foreign travellers, who snapped up his photographs as souvenirs of their journey to the ‘exotic’ land of Persia.

Sevruguin’s true passion, however, was capturing reality. His most fascinating images are scenes from the daily life of Iranians of his day — people, be it merchants, shepherds or child labourers, going about their business in the burgeoning capital city as well as smaller towns and villages around the country.

The Qajar shah from 1848 to 1896, Nasir al-Din Shah, was himself an enthusiastic amateur photographer. He recognised Sevruguin’s talent and named him his official court photographer. Unfortunately, the Qajars’ successor did not appreciate Sevruguin’s efforts in the same manner. 

After Reza Shah Pahlavi overthrew the last Qajar shah in 1925, he launched an ambitious programme of reform and modernisation. A part of this was to project an image of Iran as modern as possible. Antoin Sevruguin’s photographs of bazaars, caravans and rural villages did not match Reza Shah’s vision of a modern, urban Iran — especially considering Sevruguin’s enduring popularity with foreigners. Shortly after coming to power, the new Shah had thousands of Sevruguin’s photo negatives confiscated and destroyed.

Sevruguin died a few years later, in 1933. Of the countless images he took during his career, only a few hundred survived. The remaining negatives are kept at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. Click here to see the entire collection.