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There are two stories in these photos. One is the peculiar story of prostitution in Iran. The images here, by the late Iranian photojournalist Kaveh Golestan , were taken between and in the red-light district of Tehran known as the Citadel. Women sold their bodies with the frankness, bleakness and the directness at the center of each frame. Against it, the human form stand out all the more. Two years after these photos were made, the district was burned to the ground; reports said not all the women escaped alive.
The fire was set by religious militants seeking to purify the city before the return of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to Iran. Prostitution, however, remained — both off the books and on. The latter are common even in the backstreets of Qom, the holy city crowded with seminaries and lonely seminarians. By the government's own account, transactional sex is common across the country. The category takes in a wide range in Iran, where according to a government survey, more sex workers are married than single.
It is above all a way of bringing in money, in a country where the economy was dysfunctional before it faced sanctions, and the extraordinarily high rate of opium addiction has long been understood as an expression of despair. In the cult film , A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night , the heroine is an Iranian prostitute being stalked by a vampire, addiction for blood an arch stand-in for opium, heroin or crystal meth. The government surveys also indicate prostitutes who before the revolution were in their 30s, today may be half as young.
Golestan, the photographer, is the other story at hand. Golestan was a premier photojournalist in a country whose government deplored candor. The Citadel images were resurfaced by Vali Mahlouji, as part of the London-based curator's Archeology of the Final Decade project , which aims for to put the present into context via counterpoint with images from the past, especially a past made to vanish as abruptly and violently as Tehran's red-light district.
I knew Golestan only in passing, though the man made an impression — shaggy mustache worn longer than his beard, a genial host greeting a visitor in the cheerful, bustling house that the BBC used as its Tehran bureau, and where he worked as cameraman.