Unearthing the Substrata of Images – Interview with Sanaz Sohrabi
Interview by Nurçin Ileri
Envisioning Work aims for an interpretation of the visual not as simply an illustration, a “reflection” of a context, or a passive tool of documentation. Rather, the series strives to emphasize the critical dimensions of visual culture and how the structural analyses of it – across media, formats, and practices – can play an important role in interrogating, conceptualizing, communicating, and/or understanding labor-related issues, contexts, and practices. In this piece, we interviewed Sanaz Sohrabi, a doctoral candidate at the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Society and Culture, Montréal. Her doctoral project looks at how visual representations of oil have changed postcolonial sovereignty and resource nationalism in Iran over time. She is also an artist and filmmaker. In relation to her project, she prepares a trilogy of essay films, the first episode of which, One Image, Two Acts, has been internationally screened and exhibited since November 2020 and has been widely acclaimed. The second film in this trilogy, Scenes of Extraction, was commissioned by Montréal’s VOX Centre de l’image contemporaine and premiered at the Berlinale Forum Expanded 2023. Sanaz Sohrabi was a participant of the Transregional Academy Fragment – Power – Public: Narrative, Authority, and Circulation, held in Beirut in 2019 in the framework of Europe in the Middle East – the Middle East in Europe (EUME).
Nurçin Ileri: The 19th and the early 20th centuries’ socio-economic developments not only saw the global rise of infrastructural projects, mass production, communication, industrialization, and the increased mobility of people, goods, and knowledge; they also generated new forms of spatial and temporal experiences that transformed epistemological engagements with labor and visuality. While many foreign and multinational corporations were making investments in remote locations to extract raw material and sell it to the rest of the world, they also recorded the evolution of the technical work. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) – currently British Petroleum (BP) is one of them. Sanaz, you have done extensive archival research at the British Petroleum archives to engage with the history of photography and film practices of the British controlled oil operations in Iran. What circumstances prompted you, as a researcher and artist, to conduct a visual ethnography of resource extraction in relation to British Petroleum’s media infrastructures?
Sanaz Sohrabi: My initial point of departure for this long-term project that I started in 2017 was my studio practice’s prior engagement with the arrival of photography in Iran during the late 19th century. The encounter with European modernity in Iran’s late Qajar period and the monarch’s fascination with the nascent technology of photography had always been an interest of mine, intriguing me to read Iran’s modernization and nation-building project through the prism of image making and technologies of vision. In this vein, history of cinema and still images produced by the British controlled oil companies in Iran also became a marker of yet another encounter, one that was deeply tied to bifurcation of foreign oil companies in the MENA region whose economic modes of exploitation were the new industrial chapters in the region following centuries of European colonial economic exploitation in the Americas, Central and Western Africa, and the Carribeans. As historian of visual culture Nickolas Mirzoeff points out, “visuality’s first domain were slave plantations”1 and visuality’s authority was based upon spatial segregation and division of labor, categorizing distinctly visible labor regimes. Mirzoeff’s genealogies of visuality, or complexes of visuality as he emphasizes, are namely Plantation Complex, Imperial Complex, and Military-Industrial Complex. These three historical complexes have always cultivated the power to interpret images through capital accumulation, hierarchy and power, and cultural hegemony. Mirzoeff’s genealogy of visuality is particularly useful to understand the primary context of this research project that laid the foundation to connect visuality to extraction of oil and its historical unraveling. Extraction of oil on a planetary scale becomes the connecting tissue between the Imperial Complex and the Military-Industrial Complex, coinciding with the invention of photography and later on cinema. This historical overlap between extraction of crude oil and technologies of vision has had material, conceptual, and political affinities which I seek to explore in my film and installation works.
Nurçin: In your first film essay, One Image, Two Acts, (2020) you explore the connection between petro-modernity and the technologies of coloniality, specifically photography and film, to dissect the spatial and cultural manifestations of the emerging image economy. You contend that during the British colonial project in Iran, space and image became instruments of control; “one disciplined the body, and the other disciplined the vision.” How did that function?
Sanaz: As an artist-filmmaker, I am drawn to the image of oil on screen as both an aesthetic tool and as a topic of investigation in its own right. The cinematic, spatial, and geological are all intertwined in the image, offering a unique archive of its own transformation, circulation, and displacement. The imagined community of oil saw itself through the image; images that traveled elsewhere transplanting their political ideology through the optics of the state or the oil companies. It is also interesting how the state, the multinational oil corporations, and different political actors see through the image optics of oil.
In One Image, Two Acts and Scenes of Extraction, I question the ontopolitical role of images, incorporating digital, physical, and spatial collage and montage to activate and re-scale the archive, to outline a proximate and conversational relationship toward these moving and still images and the archive as their conceptual and material infrastructure. This research project is foregrounded with a series of audiovisual archival assemblies, done with the two essay films mentioned above and a series of multimedia installations, through which I trace and map the evolving images that have mobilized and contested the social promise of oil in Iran. My aim is to unsettle the remaining photographic archives of British Petroleum which on the one hand carry the inherited ruins of the petro-utopias in Iran and on the other hand serve as a form of archaeological ruin themselves. For Walter Benjamin, images contained movement of history, moving backward into the future. Similarly, the mining in the archives for me is a search for the “future’s pasts” of the image-worlds of oil in Iran.
Nurçin: One Image, Two Acts is also in conversation with the Iranian New Wave cinema. You analyze two films of the period, namely A Fire by Ebrahim Golestan (1961) and The Runner by Amir Naderi (1984). As a medium of different perspectives and temporalities, how did these films contribute your work?
Sanaz: During the oppressive and politically homogeneous period after the nationalization of oil in Iran, the filmic culture continued to challenge and grapple with the ideas and ideals of petromodernity. The cinematic countervisualities of what is now known as the Iranian New Wave cinema (1960-1980), in particular, extended both the realm of the real and the imaginary through the cinematic apparatus. Characterized by Hamid Naficy as the “cinema of dissent”2 or the cinema of “counter-modernity”3 by Ali Mirsepassi and Mehdi Faraji, the films produced in these two decades (1960-1980) were highly self-reflective of the national experience of modernity and the unequal social footprints of oil extraction. The films during this period functioned as “imaginative surrogates” (Mirsepassi & Faraji) for a society grappling with its troubled history of oil industry. This is is why I chose to use these two films as a form of counter-image to the image regimes of BP.
“A Fire” was directed by Ebhrahim Golestan and is the second film from a trilogy which he made as commissions for the oil consortium in Iran, the films of the trilogy were titled in chronological order :“From a Drop to the Sea”; “Wave, Coral, Rock” and “A Fire.” A Fire” is a unique document and monument to its time and speaks to the violence of extraction inflicted on local citizens near the oil wells in Ahwaz, who had to endure the unbearable ecological weight of excruciatingly long and dangerous oil well fire that lasted for almost 70 days, some of which Ebrahim Golestan is able to document and capture on screen in “A Fire.” We see the proximity between the domestic, the social, and the industrial all woven in an intimate frame and it becomes one of the most innovative depictions of the oil industry made by an Iranian filmmaker after the nationalization of oil in 1951. It is also noteworthy to mention that Forough Farrokhzad edited the film which was her first ever editing experience, which served as a prelude to her breakthrough film titled “The House is Black” made in 1963. However, what is also important to mention is that Golestan also received criticism for his positionality and for the film commissions he made for the oil industry all along. Some of his fellow filmmakers such as Bahram Beyzai criticized him for the large budget of the film “Wave, Coral, Rock” and questioned whether such commissions were the right political decision to make by a filmmaker when the oil industry has brought such a violent and unequal social footprint whose rippling effects were felt across the Iranian society. The question here is whether even Golestan was able to “allow the subaltern to speak”4 and in most sections of the film we see that the local labour force and the female caregivers and workers can not escape this external gaze toward their upended reality, even though they are inside the frame. Just the fact that an Iranian filmmaker is behind the camera does not necessarily guarantee a radical breakthrough from the conventional frame of the oil documentaries. “The Runner” is one of Amir Naderi’s most celebrated films which is an homage to his hometown of Abadan where he grew up going to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company cinemas, eventually turning him into a cinephile. Naderi’s reflections on why he made the film, and what it meant for him to return to Abadan while it was under heavy bombardment from Saddam Hussein, resonated deeply with me and how as I mention above, the cinema became site of grappling and reckoning with the wake of extraction for both of these filmmakers.
Nurçin: The second episode of your trilogy, Scenes of Extraction (2023) investigates geological and ethnographic surveys and discloses the relationship between the political economy of the archives and the history of resource extraction in Iran. Unlike your previous film essay, this one makes extensive use of CGI maps and spatial renderings by incorporating early geological aerial survey photographs and panorama films shot across the Iranian oil concession into an AI program. How do recent digital technologies impact our understanding of infrastructure, nature, and labor?
Sanaz: The CGI components in Scenes of Extraction done by the brilliant Siavash Naghshbandi, are all sourced and created from archival films and still photographs which were either from the British Petroleum Archives or from the personal archives of a Scottish geologist, named J.V Harrison, who drew the first complete topographical map of what later became known as “Iran’s oil belt.” Harrison took many amateur film and photographs during his long geological surveys and many of them were these shaky panorama footage of the mountains taken in South-east and South-west of Iran. These early panorama photographs or the different aerial photo surveys that I had found at the BP Archives were tasked to make a seemingly complete and totalized map to assess the economic prospect of these potential oil reserves. These moving and still images all have very interesting relationship to the current advanced technologies that are used for photogrammetry for instance. The CGIs and spatial renderings in “Scenes of Extraction” were created by inputting these early geological aerial survey photographs and panorama films of Harrison in various CGI software. The results were these fascinating fragmented images, incomplete mountains, and broken landscapes. By blending the archival and speculative modes of representing the geological past, I was hoping to reveal the gaps and discrepancies between the archival and lived histories of extraction and the ecological ruination of its aftermath. My goal was to imply that there is always loss in seeing the space through an imperial optic, even if the optic is destined to provide a seemingly complete image of the landscape and its spatial coordinates.
Nurçin: What struck us most about both of your film essays was how you reframed oil as an archive in and of itself, rather than just a commodity that can be bought and sold. The assemblage of visual materials you use, opens up conversations about petro-modernism, technologies of coloniality, labor and the environment. But what about the silences or absences in the archives, like workers, animals, or machines which have mostly remained as anonymous numbers in company or state documents? What about the hierarchies in everyday life such as inequality among the workers or destruction of indigenous living quarters? In other words, what was included and what was omitted from the archive, and how did you work on or narrate on these exclusions?
Sanaz: Your reflections are very apt to what I was thinking about with both films. At the core of my aesthetic intervention is reading the visual representations of oil against its archival grain, to intervene in that asynchronous visuality and mediality of oil wherein the historical lacunae resides and dwells. This artistic reconstruction is not only an undoing of the archival regimes of extraction, but in doing so, it attempts to work with multilayered and multimedia aesthetic responses which aim to undo the geopolitics of oil through what Kathryn Yussof advocates as “geopoetics.”5 For Yussof, “geopoetics is another writing of the earth;” of rewriting how extraction of crude oil divided spaces, experiences, and fabrics of everyday life into incommensurate divided material and psychic spheres. One of the primary questions of this project is asking how geopoetics can rewrite the politics of archives as co-constitutive with the larger hegemonic narrative of British Petroleum during its operations in Iran? What can the overlapping pathways between infrastructures of oil and infrastructures of image, of which archive is an integral part, tell us about the logic of extraction and alienation towards forgotten pasts and erased ecologies? In my reading, the biopolitics and geopolitics of crude oil are knotted together in the archives, Scenes of Extraction attempts to visualize this statement.
Nurçin: You do not simply use existing photographs or films in your works; rather, you create the story you wish to tell using the fragments or maps extracted from these images. What lies behind this creative destruction?
Sanaz: My artist methodology of working with images is deeply indebted to Harun Farocki’s “visual-dialogic”6 forensics, always “exploring the image through the density of accumulated discourse and in the history of images.” “The to and from between images and languages”7 as an embodied mode of artistic research in Farocki’s oeuvre, effectively lends itself to how technologies of vision, cinema, and photography had an explicit role in shaping the discourse of extraction, privileging the energy paradigms from the perspective of the Global North.8 Over the course of this project, and by means of essay film and expanded installation, I have interrogated the to and fro between still and moving images, situating their interstices in a continuum of historical relations and archival temporalities. The studio component of this project, takes a deep dive into the history of archival essay films and different artistic methodologies of working with colonial archives politically and how to think historically in the present with their troubled images. This process raises many questions: Can we liberate these colonial archival material from their hegemonic narrative structures and weight of history? How can we mobilize image making practices to retrieve the lived histories that have escaped the frame and the social loss caused by the longue-durée of oil extraction? This project reads through the spectral, the ghostly, and the shadow economies of extraction accumulated in the excess of the colonial frame, it is a constant relay between the past and the present. As an artist, I do this with digital and physical collage, montage, and installation because my interest in these archives of still and moving images is to read them otherwise, to visualize the visuals, and to re-materialize the image, and to conduct an experimental ethnography with and through their visual iconography of labor, leisure, race, and ethnicity. My goal is to tell a different story of oil’s forgotten pasts by conversing with the images materially, speculatively, and experimentally. Or as Tina Campt puts it, by “listening to images.”9
Nurçin: Possibly you have been asked this question numerous times, but we would like to ask anyway. You are the narrator in both of the film essays, and you prefer to tell the story in Persian, your native language. What is the rationale for this decision?
Sanaz: The petrofilms produced in Iran up until 1951 were produced by European directors and intended for a European audience with English voice overs and texts, activating a very segregated audience populating across the oil consuming countries. It was only in 1954 that an Iranian director, Ebrahim Golestan, was commissioned to produce an oil documentary, titled From a Drop to The Sea. One of the main questions for me during this process is how can we liberate these colonial archival material from their hegemonic narrative structures and weight of history? Language was a significant ideological tool in this regard and a marker of class and social hierarchy. I started watching BP films that had the classic British voice over, carrying such strong authorial voice, on mute and as silent films. It was a completely different encounter, I could look at the faces of workers and see them differently, ask them how their day was, what were they doing and where were they heading to, almost released from that ideological frame and burden of the voice over. The voice over of the films was in Farsi because my authenticating audience are my family members who have worked in the oil industry. I was also intending to use the film as a means of refusal; of refusing the hegemony of both image and sound, as the two main tools that had been utilized to narrate the history of petroleum in Iran, and to let the images breathe differently outside the forced sonic domain of BP.
Nurçin: If we may, we would like to ask what the final installment of the trilogy will be about and what kind of content awaits us?
Sanaz: The final episode of this trilogy is another essay film that takes a deep archival dive into the visual registers of resource nationalism from different OPEC member states and asks how each of their media-oriented processes responded to the task of nation-building and the formation of political dissent differently. The forthcoming film will draw on archival sources such as an anticolonial oil magazine published Beirut called “Naft Al-Arab” which has a very fascinating and forgotten history, OPEC newsreels, state-produced stamps, cultural productions of the Arab Petroleum Congresses during 1950-1980, along with audiovisual commemorative projects and films produced and programmed by different OPEC members. The final episode will examine the geopolitics of oil through a critical South-South optics and focuses on the new modalities of exploitation and aggression that were enacted and internalized within the newly independent countries of the Global South and how they imagined and mobilized fantasies and desires around “raw material sovereignty”10 through visual culture.
Sanaz Sohrabi (b.1988, Tehran) is a researcher of visual culture and filmmaker. Sohrabi works with essay film and installation as her means of research to explore the shifting and migratory paths between still and moving images, situating a singular image in a continuum of historical relations and archival temporalities. Since 2017, Sohrabi has done extensive archival research at the British Petroleum archives to engage with the history of photography and film practices of the British controlled oil operations in Iran, conducting a visual ethnography of resource extraction in relation to the media infrastructures of BP.
Sohrabi’s works have been shown widely in solo and group exhibitions and festivals including: Berlinale Forum Expanded, International Film Festival Rotterdam, Iran Cinéma Vérité Festival (Winner of International Mid-length), IndieLisboa (Silvestre Section Best Short Film), Valdivia International Film Festival Chile (Special Jury Mention), Mimesis Documentary Film Festival (Best Documentary Short), Ann Arbor Film Festival (Jury Award), Montréal International Documentary Film Festival (RIDM), Sheffield Doc/Fest, Kasseler Dokfest, Videonale, VideoEX Zurich, FIDBA Argentina, among others. Sohrabi’s recent solo and group exhibitions and commissions include Ljubljana Biennale (2023), SAVVY Contemporary, Berlin, VOX Centre de l’image contemporaine, Montréal, Centre Clark, and Carpintarias de São Lázaro, Lisbon.
Nurçin İleri received her PhD from the Department of History at Binghamton University in 2015. Her dissertation, A Nocturnal History of fin de siècle Istanbul, casts light on the social and material geographies of night that went beyond the dichotomies of the ‘city of glittering leisure and consumption,’ or the ‘city of indigence and vice.’ Her dissertation research has led to several publications in peer-reviewed journals including Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Journal of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association, Etudes balkaniques, and New Perspectives on Turkey. She taught courses on the history of the late Ottoman Empire and contemporary Turkey at Boğaziçi and Işık Universities (2012-2018). She worked as the assistant coordinator of the Boğaziçi University Archives and Documentation Center, where she conducted a project entitled “Histories of Science, Culture and Education in Istanbul Through Personal Archives” and was involved in curating and writing material for on-site and online exhibitions (2015-2018). She spent one year as a post-doctoral scholar in the Department of History at the Université Grenoble Alpes (2018-2019) and six months as a visiting researcher at the Center of Metropolitan Studies of Technische Universität Berlin (2019-2020). During the academic years 2020-2022, she is a EUME Fellow associated with the IGK Work and Human Life Cycle in Global History (re:work) of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.
Other recent articles in the TRAFO series Envisioning Work: The Visual Cultures of Labour
Shamoon Zamir, Egypt Every Day: The Photography of Yasser Alwan, 28 February 2023
Ezgi Sarıtaş, Envisioning a Homoeroticized Cityscape Through Work, 26 January 2023
Nancy Micklewright, Messy Surroundings: Calligrapher at Work, 15 December, 2022
Unearthing the Substrata of Images – Interview with Sanaz Sohrabi, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 09.05.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/47130
- Mirzoeff, Nicholas. The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality. Duke University Press, Durham, NC, USA, 2011.
- Naficy, Hamid. A Social History of Iranian Cinema, Volume 4: The Globalizing Era, 1984-2010. Vol. 4. University Press, 2012.
- Mirsepassi, Ali, and Mehdi Faraji. “Iranian Cinema’s ‘Quiet Revolution,’ 1960-1978.” Middle East Critique 26, no 4. (2017): 397-415.
- This quotation is from Fine Freiberg to whom I am indebted for accurately bringing this point up and for her brilliant and apt analysis of the film “A Fire.”
- Last, Angela. “We are the world? Anthropocene cultural productions between geopoetics and geopolitics.” Theory, Culture & Society, 34, no. 2-3 (2017): 147-168.
- Sánchez, David Montero. “Commenting on Images With Images: Dialogic-Visual Critique in the Films of Harun Farocki.” L’atalante 21 (2016): 191-201.
- Thériault, Michèle, ed. Harun Farocki: One Image Doesn’t Take Place of the Previous One. Galerie Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, 2008.
- Vali, Murtaza. Crude. Jameel Art Centre, 2018.
- Campt, Tina M. Listening to Images. Duke University Press, 2017.
- Dietrich, Christopher R.W. “Arab oil belongs to the Arabs”: Raw material sovereignty, Cold War boundaries, and the nationalisation of the Iraq Petroleum Company, 1967-1973.” Diplomacy & Statecraft 22, no. 3 (2011): 450-479.