She is one of Iran's best-known actresses. Over the last two decades, Niki Karimi has starred in over 25 films and won several national and international awards for her powerful performances. She is also a talented writer and director. Her directorial debut, One Night, was nominated at the Cannes Film Festival.
Karimi has been a jury member at prestigious film festivals such as Cannes and Berlin. She is also a well-respected translator and has translated four books to Persian, including Marlon Brando's biography, Songs My Mother Taught Me. And now the actor is presenting another facet of her creativity with an exhibition of her photographs, titled Vast Vistas.
Over the last 15 years, Karimi has travelled to various parts of Iran, including several remote areas, for the shooting of her films or to hunt for locations. And everywhere she went, she took her camera along.
"I got interested in photography early in my career, when I worked as an assistant to renowned filmmaker and photographer Abbas Kiarostami," she says.
Karimi's photographs are far removed from the hustle and bustle of a film shoot. Rather than the famous people she works with, the pictures capture the varied landscape of her country from Tafresh to Kurdistan and from Zanjan to Bushehr. What comes through strongly in these photographs is the actor's love for nature. Trees, mountains, streams, deserts, marshes, village homes — these are the stars of her pictures.
Her compositions are like classical landscape paintings, presenting enchanting vistas that exude a feeling of tranquillity and solitude. "Nothing is stronger and more powerful and yet as peaceful as nature. For me, being in the midst of nature is like meditation," says Karimi.
The filmmaker's eye for drama is evident in her compositions and every mood of nature is portrayed in her pictures. The random lines of narrow pathways zig-zagging through rolling hills literally draw viewers into the scene and beyond.
In many of the photographs, a solitary tree takes centre stage like a charismatic performer — silent, yet captivating. And fog shrouding a road in the snow-covered mountains conveys a feeling of romance. Karimi finds beauty in the most ordinary sights.
The eye of her camera catches the clouds seen through the windows of an abandoned village home destroyed in an earthquake and the mystique of a gate standing in the middle of a stark, snow covered field.
"Some of these images are inspired by scenes in my films. But I do not plan too much or take too many pictures of the same scene to get the right frame. For me photography is about capturing a moment — a moment when the light and other elements come together to transform an ordinary scene into something dramatic," says Karimi.
The actress uses a traditional camera and she prefers to take black-and-white images. She has even converted some colour photographs into black-and-white because she wants to highlight the composition rather than the subject matter. "I feel that in photography, the light and the perspective are more important than the subject," she says. The absence of colour focuses attention on the beautiful play of light and shade in her pictures. It draws the eye to elements such as the shadows of the clouds on the gentle mountain slopes that add depth to an image, the halo of light in the sky as the sun sets behind a tree, the rustic charm of a simple wooden window, framed in darkness, the mirage-like effect of light in the desert and the feeling of movement as her camera captures the light reflected on ripples in the water.
"Unlike filmmaking, photography is an individual pursuit. When I am with nature, I like to be alone and enjoy the tranquillity and solitude. Being surrounded by the beauty of nature always lifts my mood, so each one of these pictures is connected with a happy memory. I took these pictures for myself with no intention of displaying them publicly.
"But now I feel that I should share them with others because it is another way of communicating with people. I have not given any titles to the images because I want viewers to experience and interpret them in their own individual context," says Karimi. "This is my first exhibition outside Iran and I hope viewers in Dubai will appreciate my photographs and the beauty of my country," she says.
Vast Vistas is on at Total Arts at Courtyard, Dubai, until May 30.
Jyoti Kalsi is a UAE-based art enthusiast.