When Sarah Pannell first travelled to Iran, she had an idea for a quiet, intimate photobook about the importance of hospitality in Iranian culture. But when she returned from her travels and saw the vibrancy of her photos, the direction of her narrative changed, and her debut photobook Tabriz to Shiraz emerged. Here she shares with us her advice on creating a photobook, through every step of the process.
Words and Photography by Sarah Pannell
Tabriz to Shiraz (2019) is the result of a lengthy research, shooting and selection process between my publishers (Perimeter Editions and Hillvale) and I. The photobook is compiled of images from two months of shooting and travelling throughout Iran in 2016 and 2017. In this article I’ll share what the process of creating the photobook was like, and what I learnt along the way.
“It’s crucial to establish a narrative of sorts, or at least a clear concept that will only be strengthened through the printed matter.”
Certainly before deciding to create a photobook, it’s important to establish the purpose behind making a hard-copy object, and how the format of a book will lend itself to that purpose. This is subjective of course, but it’s crucial to establish a narrative of sorts, or at least a clear concept that will only be strengthened through the printed matter.
My aim in producing Tabriz to Shiraz was to present a refreshing perspective on the contemporary Iranian landscape and culture while avoiding western cliches and misrepresentation of a tragically misunderstood country, while remaining apolitical in nature.
“Strict schedules get in the way of finding the right stories and connecting with people.”
My shooting methods for photobooks are fairly straightforward. I generally work alone and I have a relatively simple equipment setup. For me, the images I take for a photobook need to cover a variety of categories and approaches, ranging from landscape; both urban and natural, still life, portraiture, food, architecture and in general, a celebration of the everyday.
Each trip I have made to Iran has differed in how I have approached it from a shooting point of view. The first month in 2016, was structured around couchsurfing with different hosts in a range of cities and regions. Following on from that, my shooting method relaxed due to my familiarity with the people I had become friends with and was revisiting. During the second month of my trip, I had a better idea of what I needed to shoot as I filled in the gaps and developed the storyline.
Arranging where I am going to be each night, is really the extent of my planning for shooting, as I find strict schedules get in the way of finding the right stories and connecting with people. The images you see in Tabriz to Shiraz are true to my style and visual approach, and are a good precursor to my future work about Iran which I hope will follow a more intimate narrative.
“Stay open to changes throughout the planning process.”
A few months after I returned from my second trip to Iran, I arranged time with Perimeter and Hillvale (my co-publishers) to begin working on a book layout with my original concept in mind – to focus on Iranian hospitality and its importance in the country’s culture. However, as we began to divide the images into a number of categories and develop a sequence, we found that we had a lot of outliers that didn’t quite fit in with the broader project. But it seemed these images had potential.
This lead to us deciding to divide the work into two separate photobooks, and releasing the first chapter as Tabriz to Shiraz –the book you see now. In the meantime, I’m continuing to shoot and research the next chapter, which I am allowing to develop in an organic way. Each time I return to Iran, I learn more and forge new friendships which deepens my understanding and interest in Iran and its people, traditions and society as a whole. I’m hoping this evolution will be demonstrated in a nuanced way, through the differences between the first photobook and the second.
While it’s important to approach the creation of a photobook with a clear concept in mind, it’s also important to be flexible about changing your original concept based on what the final photos look like. From experience, a lot of my projects end up looking quite different to how I envisioned it in the initial planning stage. Either way, stay open to changes throughout the planning process.
“See how the images look in varying sequences.”
The most important and possibly the most challenging part of designing and planning a photo-book is the initial editing process. With a rather large short list of images, we decided to print out 5×7 copies of all my shortlisted images as I find this is an easier way to move images around and look at them side by side. This is important, as rather than evaluating images by themselves, I feel it is much more beneficial for the purpose of creating a photobook to see how the images look in varying sequences to get a better idea of how they fit in together and tell a story. In my case, this was the most time-consuming aspect of creating a photobook and this editing process took place over a number of months.
The difficulty of selecting the right images for this book is certainly the biggest challenge in my aim to present a refreshing perspective on the contemporary Iranian landscape. I think my biggest tip in this department is to enlist the help of trusted people around you. I had friends whom I trust when it comes to photography critique to look over my edits and assist with certain decisions I was struggling with.
“Finding dedicated time to work on your selections is just as important as shooting the photos.”
The next stage was producing the best quality high resolution scans, which involved me scanning each shortlisted image on an Imacon Flextight scanner and then editing each file for print. I was lucky to be offered a week-long residency at the Jacky Winter Gardens in the Dandenongs in Melbourne’s East and I was able to have a dedicated week in which I worked around the clock on editing all my digital scans and preparing them for print as well as working on my photo sequence and eventually narrowing the selection down to 40 images.
While a residency is by no means a necessary component of the book-making process, finding dedicated time to work on and reflect on your selections is just as important as shooting the photos. I gave the book space from time to time, as I always find coming back to a project with fresh eyes is beneficial in the long run.
“Because production costs of photobooks can be high, we ran a month long pre-order campaign.”
Printing & Production
There are so many moving parts in book production so it’s always good to be prepared for unlikely delays. For Tabriz To Shiraz, working with experts in book publishing at Hillvale and Perimeter was an important partnership that brought all aspects of the book project together. We also had Daly & Lyon, a studio in London who have designed a number of books for Perimeter Editions, come on board as the book designer, and Unicum, a printer based in The Netherlands agreed to do the unique Swiss binding and printing job. I also consulted with a range of friends in Iran and an Iranian friend in Melbourne who could help me reach decisions around the typography for the back cover, as well as the decision to include Farsi translations and other stylistic concerns.
I was fortunate to have experienced professionals help me through the production processes, but this isn’t always possible, particularly from a budgetary point of view. Because production costs of photobooks can be high, we ran a month long pre-order campaign at the beginning of the year to assist. This involved offering 50 limited edition 8×10” prints to go alongside the book upon release. The campaign was successful in raising necessary funds to cover design and printing costs prior to launch, alongside generous support from Hillvale who have been on board this project from the very beginning.
This whole process has been a huge learning curve for me and a wonderful exercise in critically assessing my work, and at the same time, using the advice and experience of people around me.