For those priced out of Iran’s capital Tehran, the Mehr Housing Project’s satellite cities were meant to provide an affordable place to live. Hashem Shakeri’s series Cast Out of Heaven delves into the country’s barren outposts, exploring the toll on everyday Iranians who find themselves squeezed from their homes for a displaced existence.
In 2007, the Iranian government embarked on the largest state-funded housing project in the country’s history. The plan behind the Mehr Housing Project was to construct 17 new cities and an estimated 1.5 million dwellings, supporting low and middle-income Iranians. However, the pressure of international sanctions has left the project in limbo, with numerous half-finished cities failing to provide adequate living conditions despite their growing populations. The project was initially hailed as one of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s major triumphs, but the incoming Rouhani government labelled it as the chief issue behind Iran’s crippling inflation rate and rapidly deteriorating quality of life.
For residents of these satellite cities, the arduous daily journey to and from Tehran has gradually worn them down, while high unemployment rates make job prospects closer to home unlikely. Meanwhile, a general lack of education, social and healthcare services has also contributed to growing concerns about drug abuse and suicide.
Iranian artist and photographer Hashem Shakeri first learned of the Mehr initiative before the project broke ground. His father had considered buying into the project, while his sister later studied architecture in Parand – a city that was supposedly going to be transformed by thousands of new apartments making life easier for the country’s less fortunate. Although it wasn’t until several years later that Shakeri decided to begin capturing these otherworldly cities, something about them stayed in the back of his mind.
“I can only describe it as a sense of confusion, isolation and estrangement.”
“Since 2016, when I started this project, I have constantly thought about [the Mehr Housing Project] and nurtured it in my visual consciousness and subconscious,” explains Shakeri. “Each phase of the Pardis Apartments was painted a different colour – pink, yellow, green, blue. Whenever I passed those apartments on my way towards the north of Iran, I was strangely attracted to them.”
When Shakeri first began capturing these cities, Iran’s cost of living was already climbing steadily. But with recent sanctions seeing the value of Iranian rial plummet, thousands of Tehran’s residents can no longer afford rents that are now comparable to some of the world’s most expensive cities. The Mehr Housing Project was supposed to give disadvantaged people a chance at a new beginning, but the subsequent developments lack reliable electricity, heating and sewage systems, as well as green space and critical public transport infrastructure. Meanwhile, many of the high-rise structures were damaged by the 2017 Kermanshah Earthquake, revealing an array of dangerous structural issues. Having seen people forced to leave behind Tehran for the substandard and desolate existence offered by Mehr’s satellite cities, Shakeri wanted to produce a project that captured this palpable sense of loss and abandonment.
“The most obvious feeling transferred to me was rejection among all those shapeless buildings that are without identity,” says Shakeri. “I can only describe it as a sense of confusion, isolation and estrangement experienced by contemporary humans.”
Shakeri used his medium-format Mamiya 7 during harsh daylight hours to capture the bleak towers of Parand, Pardis and Hashtgerd, deliberately overexposing his film by three to four stops. This distinctive aesthetic makes clear that the project is a follow-up to his 2018 series, An Elegy for the Death of Hamun, which explores the impact of climate change in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan Province.
“Cast Out of Heaven is the second part of my trilogy, which deals with issues of exile and alienation as experienced by the contemporary man, regardless of specific geography,” says Shakeri.
“Can we reach the deep down layer of a social problem without living and feeling it in society? It’s impossible.”
Photography isn’t Shakeri’s only creative outlet. He frequently works across theatre and film, while he describes his artistic output as ‘unconsciously inspired’ by his previous study of architecture. His mother introduced him to photography as a child, but it wasn’t until he attended a university lecture by a photographer who had documented the Iran-Iraq war that he decided the medium could be used as a powerful tool to express himself.
“I was so overwhelmed, I was moved to tears,” describes Shakeri. “Art was a safe haven for me to run away from my restlessness. It gave me the opportunity to explore and experience; to experience the opportunity of creating, destructing, and reconstructing.”
Despite Shakeri’s commitment to his art, social documentary photographers in Iran face the same challenges as photographers across the globe. However, there are additional concerns for Iranian artists, with censorship, deep-rooted traditions and difficulty building trust with women just some of the problems Shakeri regularly encounters. The country’s relative isolation from the rest of the art world also makes it tough for local artists to grow interest in their work and earn a living.
“We have many talented and motivated photographers in Iran whose works don’t reach the audience because of the closed space and geographical constraints,” explains Shakeri. “But I’m hopeful for the future of photography in Iran, as Iranian photographers have been very influential in the past in the fields of documentary photography, artistic photography and so on.”
“Art was a safe haven for me to run away from my restlessness.”
With An Elegy for the Death of Hamun providing a glimpse into Iran’s overlooked drought-stricken communities, Cast Out of Heaven similarly considers those exiled from Tehran due to the country’s bursting economic pressures. Now, as Shakeri turns his attention to the final series in the trilogy, as well as a theatre production and preliminary plans for a feature-length film, he reflects on how he approaches his creative practice with a sincere and unflinching commitment drawn from his own lived experiences.
“As long as your work is not honest, it cannot be effective. Can we reach the deep down layer of a social problem without living and feeling it in society? It’s impossible,” argues Shakeri. “Even if you only focus on your artwork and don’t interact with social activities, your work will be affected by your surroundings. We need to be fed by those inspiring raw materials to explore our various dimensions and horizons.”