Sébastien Cuvelier did not start with the concept of paradise as a theme. Instead, it evolved organically as he was inspired by his uncle’s travels to Iran in the early 1970s, in search of the archaeological site Persepolis where the remnants of the Achaemenid Empire are preserved. In his journals his uncle wrote about his hippie-like travels with his Volkswagen van. Cuvelier knew about the printed version of the journals and intended to follow his uncle to Iran for years. “The idea had been lingering in my head for many years, but I always postponed it because I thought it wasn’t the right time. My uncle’s journal kick-started my journey and made me want to see Iran with my own eyes. It felt like an opportunity to create something interesting there. At the same time, Iran attracts a large number of people and photographers and I didn’t want to be one of the many photographers to follow the same beaten trails. I asked myself what my justification was: was it relevant to photograph in Iran?”
During his first trip, Cuvelier had no idea that his journey would lead to a concept of paradise, but once he saw the outskirts of Tehran he knew immediately what he was looking for. “At the end of my first trip I stumbled upon a place called Paradise City with high flats in the middle of brown and arid mountains. It was like they were standing on Mars. I wondered why it was called Paradise City and I started looking for clues about the origins of the name. I realised the word ‘Paradise’ comes from old Persian, meaning ‘walled garden’. I noticed people in Iran sometimes used the word paradise, and found out that it was often used as a metaphor for Iranian people even though they didn’t consciously see it that way. The concept is inherently Iranian; many people talked to me about their desire to escape the country and go somewhere else, or to find another way of living in their own country, so as to escape in their minds. Many were looking for something else. Many were looking for an ideal place to live, which can be defined by anybody in their own way. If you look at the religious concepts of paradise in the Bible, the Koran or the Torah, you see that paradise is always a garden. Then I realised that Iran in itself is a walled garden; Iran is a magnificent country with a huge wall surrounding it. My uncle wanted to go to Persepolis, which was a Paradise city during ancient times, but also for himself. So, I came to realise that paradise is a universal story. We all dream of an ideal place and that is the essence of all my work. Many people I met in Iran wanted to go somewhere else. It was a basic and universal feeling of melancholy. And now I could put a name on it.” Cuvelier could link his own journey to his uncle’s travels because he was essentially looking for the same thing.
Many were looking for an ideal place to live, which can be defined by anybody in their own way.
Welcome to Paradise
After Cuvelier took the photographs of Paradise City, he started to look everywhere for this concept of paradise. He saw the word paradise on t-shirts and in shopping malls, and photographed it many times. But not wanting to make a gimmick of it, he decided to only include one of these images in the book. He realised that many young Iranians were looking for a way to escape the country, either physically by emigration, or spiritually by creating new experiences. “I went to a beach in the south of Iran, where artists and hippies go to live freely. When I arrived, there was a guy with a moustache who came to me, hugged me, and said: “My friend, welcome to paradise!” I understood that the concept of paradise is like a mirage; it does not really exist. But you can interpret it any way you want. The word is open to many interpretations.”
You could say that the idea of paradise is more important than ever. Now we are all trying to invent a new world. “If you look at humanity as a whole, historically there have always been events that forced people to see and construct the future in a different way. In Iran, there have been many drastic changes in the past such as the revolution in 1979. Most of the inhabitants of Iran are young and have no memory of the life before the revolution. They were born in a country where they don’t feel free. When I was in Iran, I had the feeling that something might happen any time. It is a country that is in a grey area, in a moment of time and always subject to change. I don’t know what and how things will change but I am sometimes worried when I think of my friends there.”
Within the project is a photo of a young woman, looking sternly and strongly into the lens. She is placed in an undescriptive patio with rubbish on the floor. We don’t know where she is or what she wants to say, but she seems stranded in time. How does Sébastien Cuvelier see his own enigmatic picture? “I try not to interpret my own photographs too much, leaving open different interpretations people may have on my project. I thought this picture was interesting because I wanted to contradict the general idea people have of Iran. This woman does not wear the hijab on her head, which in itself is already a political statement. The veil is not plain black but very colourful with flowers, which for me depicted the cultural and poetic aspects of Iran. The woman took me to an abandoned Zarathustrian house near Isfahan. For me, it was a dive into the past. The light comes from behind her and literally highlights her hair, which is completely contradictory of what Islam wants to achieve with women wearing hijabs. Finally, she is surrounded by walls, making her free in her little paradise. I kind of like the mystery of it.”
Cuvelier did not want to only use his vision when creating the book and therefore invited the publishing house to come up with their own ideas too. “I wanted a trusted third party to cooperate with me and select images and sequences based on their perception, in a way to take me somewhere I would not have gone to on my own.”
The Pink Picture
Another enigmatic picture of the project, and maybe the most iconic of Paradise City, is the photo with a pink-magenta coloured walled courtyard with a palm tree and an iron bench. At first sight the spectator might think this is a photoshopped image, to create a hallucinating effect, but this is by no means true, as Cuvelier explains. “I did not edit anything about that image in Photoshop, or any other picture for that matter. The street behind the wall has a huge billboard which uses a big red neon light. It was inundating its light onto the scene. When I was walking in the street, I saw the top of the palm tree over the wall and noticed it appeared to be pink. The courtyard was the epitome of what I was looking for. There in front of me was a walled garden, the definition of paradise; it was perfect! It was dry and concrete, but a garden nonetheless. The pink hue made it surreal and very dreamlike. I waited an hour for the sun to set behind the wall, in order to capture a better balance with the dusk.”
On one page in the book, we see a photocopy of a newspaper article about the Kurds’ situation. We can read the title of the article that says: More than 12 million Kurds on a terrain of 500,000 km2 divided between 5 countries (Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria and the USSR). Projected on the text is a black and white photo of an unknown Iranian woman without a hijab.
Cuvelier explains: “The text behind is an article my uncle found during his research on his trip in 1971. He photocopied this from a newspaper and included it in his travel journal. The text talks about the fate of the Kurdish people, an issue which is unfortunately still valid today. The portrait of the women on top of the text works as a metaphor for the censorship of Iran. The text from my uncle would not be publishable in the Iran of today; it would be strictly forbidden, because the Islamic government does not want to acknowledge the situation of the Kurds. I wanted to use the same technique as the government would do, to cover unwanted texts. The picture of the woman comes from a photo album from an Iranian family that I met and is randomly superimposed over the text. The portrait was taken in the 1970s, around the same time as my uncle’s trip. A lot of young Iranians cherish pictures of the time before the revolution when Iran seemed to be much more liberal."
Cuvelier arrived at Persepolis, the site that triggered his endeavour, on his first trip - he went to Iran three times in total, and felt the spirit of his uncle. “That was potentially the most emotional moment for me, even though I never intended to replicate the exact same trip as my uncle. I was no longer thinking about his journal when I was travelling there, but when I arrived at Persepolis and I saw that majestic place which had barely changed in fifty years, I could totally imagine him being there. That was emotional. When I went inside the ruins, I recognized the images of my uncle. That is why I wanted to include one of his images of Persepolis in the book.”
Is utopia in Iran a thing of the past, only to exist in the times before the revolution? “It could be the past and it could be the future. I like to blur the lines between different areas and time frames, because by definition, dreams and utopias are imaginary. I am now trying to exhibit the project in Iran itself so that the work comes back to where it came from, closing the loop. I am also planning to hold talks and conferences with people and artists, as I am interested to have conversations with them and see if they agree with my point of view or not. I want to know what their opinion on my work is and if they share my vision.”
By definition, dreams and utopias are imaginary.