In 1842 the 11 year-old heir to the Persian throne received a camera from Queen Victoria of England. The young heir fell in love with the magical contraption. In the following decades he documented his life, revealing to the public eye, what it was never supposed to see.
One of Shah Qajar’s many passions was photography. From his early days he loved to take photos from his childhood, and when he came to power he decided to create the world’s first official photo studio at his court.
In the 1870s, Russian photographer Anton Sevryugin opened a workshop in Tehran. He became official photographer to the Persian court. Sevryugin made a photographic record of Persia, and he was awarded an imperial title for his services.
The Russian photographer could take pictures of the Shah himself, as well as his male relatives, courtesans and servants. Qajar reserved for himself the right to photograph the harem, in which historians believe he had approximately 100 concubines.
It is known that Naser al-Din Shah developed the photos in a darkroom at the court and kept them in large albums in the Golestan palace, which is now a museum.
What makes these photographs extraordinary is that Shiia custom of the time forbade the photography of peoples’ faces, especially those of women. Only the most powerful man in the country could afford to break this custom.
These photographs of women contradict the conventional depiction of the life in a harem.
The Shah’s wives look quite up to date for their time, and they gaze calmly into the lens, without coquettishness or servility.
You could even imagine that maybe the harem wives enjoyed each others’ company; in some photos picnic parties are shown.
From the photographs you can judge the Iranian monarch’s tastes. It’s quite clear that the women didn’t suffer from hunger and were not burdened with physical work. Experts claim that in the Golestan collection there are even nudes, but these have been well hidden.
In many of the photos the concubines are pictured in short, opulently decorated skirts called ‘shaliteh’, similar to ballet tutus. This is no coincidence.
In 1873 Naser al-Din travelled to Saint Petersburg on the invitation of Russian Tsar Alexander II. While there, he visited the ballet. According to rumor, he was so charmed by the Russian dancers, that he had his women dressed in similar skirts. Of course, the concubines could only remove their Muslim dress for the camera. On the other hand, this may be just a rumor.