Book Review Shenasnameh By Amak Mahmoodian Reviewed by Sarah Bay Gachot In Iran, the Shenasnameh is a national identity document the size of a passport that includes personal details like name, place and date of birth, fingerprint, and information on one’s parents. After the age of 15, a photo of the owner is added (to be updated periodically throughout the bearer’s life), as well as additional pages for registering marriage, children, divorce, and death.
Photographs by Amak Mahmoodian.
RRB Books/ICVLStudio, Bristol, England, 2016. In English/Persian. 120 pp., 4x5¼".
In Iran, the Shenasnameh is a national identity document the size of a passport that includes personal details like name, place and date of birth, fingerprint, and information on one’s parents. After the age of 15, a photo of the owner is added (to be updated periodically throughout the bearer’s life), as well as additional pages for registering marriage, children, divorce, and death.
Around 2010, the Iranian photographer, filmmaker, and curator Amak Mahmoodian was waiting with her mother as they were due to update their photographs for their Shenasnamehs. For women, there are expectations for these photos of the Iranian self. One must, of course, wear a headscarf, but it must also be one that covers her hair completely. One must not wear excessive makeup. And one must generally put on a neutral face (although I expect this latter point is so for men as well). If a woman does not follow these instructions, her photo may be rejected for the Shenasnameh.
Sometimes it is the simplest thing that takes us the deepest. Amak was comparing her Shenasnameh photo to that of her mother. They are related, yes, and so have family resemblance I would imagine, but this isn’t what Amak saw. She studied the arrangement of a face within a dark hijab; this pose that every woman identified in Iran affects for a photo after the age of 15. She began to notice the differences between herself and her mother, rather than their resemblances; seeing just a neutral face, but with the curve of a chin, the shape of a lip, the size of a nostril, a spark in the eye, thickness of eyebrow, or the roundness of a cheek — it was impossible not to pick out the small details that could never be reproduced in another face, no matter how closely related. These differences became a universe of personality for Amak. She set out to collect more to see what she could discover from such a uniform tradition.
This collection of Iranian womens’ identity photos and fingerprints became the basis for her book, Shenasnameh, which, like the subjects of its pages, mimics a form — that of the real identity document. The book is bound and shaped like a thick version of a Shenasnameh. Deep red in color, it opens from the left, has rounded corners, and the emblem of Iran impressed on its front. Inside, Amak has arranged things differently. Along with a few pages of text in English and Persian that muse on her experience with the project, she displays the women at the size they would be in an original document, but centered on the white page, across from their corresponding fingerprint. Looking at these images, I’m struck by how the remoteness of one woman’s eyes seem to echo in the faintness of a her fingerprint. An uneven blotchy print seems to mirror the humor of another face. A perfectly oval print matches an especially steady countenance. These “images of self” together have far more depth than any government-issued document could carry on its own because in this togetherness they begin to stand out as individuals.
I consider it violent to think that a document is one’s existence — that a paper booklet or plastic card stands in for one as a human. It’s violent because that kind of existence is bureaucratic and assigned anyway, that a person “belongs” to a certain place, or is “within” a certain family. Ultimately, our identity is another kind of veil that we wear — and it means so much. I have a passport, drivers license, school and work ID, a social security card, and a birth certificate. Does this make me more of a person? What do I lose without these papers: cars, education, career, travel? That any of these identifications could be rejected at any moment is a violent thought.
Displaying the identity photos outside of their official use was an extremely personal endeavor both for the subjects and for Amak. Some did not make it unscathed onto the page. Some of the photos in Shenasnameh are scribbled on, torn, or cut out, representing rejected images or ones that have been censored by the owner. Some of the photos were given to Amak in person, some found, some she studied intently prior to meeting their owners. In just a two-dimensional face, she found a world of information, and this is what surfaces most satisfyingly in her project. Shenasnameh is a book about the small details that make us individuals, as well as the phenomenon of feeling an intense connection through nothing more than an image.
“She still claims individuality and person-hood, by a glint in the eyes, a turn of the mouth or a raise of the brows,” writes Amak about the women of Shenasnameh. “Only a small part of her being can show how different she is from the others.” But this book also reminds me that we are small beings to begin with. That we can imagine ourselves to be otherwise is a beautiful dream. This book is a testament to that beauty.— SARAH BAY GACHOT
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