Writing about Sanaz Sohrabi’s work is extremely difficult. Not just because of the contextual and theoretical layers, but because anything I could say, she has said much more eloquently and poetically elsewhere. When I met Sohrabi over Zoom, she was in the UK, deep in research at the British Petroleum archives. She was working on the second of three essay films proposed as part of her doctoral work that focuses on the strategic use of visual technologies in mobilizing oil for social and political ends during a very dense historical moment in Iran between 1950 and 1980. During this period, the linked histories of oil, nationalism, labour struggles, revolution, and a fraught attempt at decolonization over raw material sovereignty were at their peak.[1] There is an urgency to her voice and pacing when she speaks, and it takes a particular kind of focus to hold all the information.

The history of oil in Iran is one of exploitation and economic colonialism enacted primarily by the British-controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which became British Petroleum (BP) in 1954 and operated as a consortium until 1979, when all private corporations were expelled and the oil industry became fully nationalized.[2] Oil, as a contested commodity that necessitated complex land arrangements on the indigenous Bakhtiari territories and political negotiations with the Iranian government for its extraction, relied on the power of images to manufacture consent for its operations. The intense visualization of BP’s activities through photography and film resulted in a large and troubling archive that proffers a sanitized and carefully crafted vision of its activities. Sohrabi describes her experience of working with these documents as “horrifying … thinking about the documentation of a destruction and how meticulously you can see the process.”[3]

(Photo) Philippa Langley

Approaching the archive, Sohrabi brings a scholarly rigour, but ultimately an artistic approach. She is interested in seeing around and through the precise narrative presented by BP and is also hyper-aware of her position in the continuum of gazes that the archive represents—the double bind of working with problematic images. If photography is an extension and memorialization of a personal, national, corporate, or colonial vision, what does it mean to look at those documents? Underpinning her work is the conceit that the BP archives, although owned and directed by a private corporation, practically performs a colonial vision and history of economic occupation in Iran (what German historian Jürgen Osterhammel calls an “exploitation colony”). In One Image, Two Acts (2020),Sohrabi’s debut essay film working with these archives, she parses out quite precisely the ways that Iran, though not officially colonized by Britain, was tethered to it through petro-capitalism, and heavily interfered with, using the full spectrum of tools, including occupation for the safeguarding of resources during the Second World War; a coup d’état, coordinated with the United States, in 1953; and a devastating oil embargo from 1951 to 1953 (the last two actions can be seen as punishment for Iran’s move to nationalize its oil industry). While the specific context of Iran is heavily foregrounded in her recent work, Sohrabi is also speaking to broader concerns of contemporary art around histories of photography and archives—how images move between creating realities and responding to them, shaped by who is looking and how; which narratives are presented and which are absent; and other seemingly benign markers, such as organizational decisions and categorization.

Exhibition view of Hiding in Plain Sight: Archives of Oil by Sanaz Sohrabi (2021). Centre Clark. Photo: Mico Mazza and Sanaz Sohrabi. Courtesy of the artist.

If thinking about oil and its visualization is relatively new for Sohrabi, her approach to it is not. Looking back through her archive of video works, something she said in our conversation starts to make sense. For Sohrabi, what is missing in the spectrum of research addressing this period of Iranian history is the sensitivity of an artist—one who “looks forensically” at images, who sees what is not there, and who reflects on the process of seeing, itself. Appropriately enough, as I find myself searching her oeuvre for clues about how she has arrived at this particular moment in her practice, I become part of the exchange of gazes that Sohrabi is so preoccupied with. Watching Auxiliary Mirrors from 2016, I recalled her mentioning how her foray into thinking about oil began with a fixation on the Iran-Iraq tanker wars from 1984 to 1988, and how she looked “obsessively” for any and all coverage of the subject. In One Image, Two Acts, the process of this “obsessive” looking is not explicit; in Auxiliary Mirrors, however,I began to understand her methods better. Sohrabi begins the film with an image of an infamous headbutt: French soccer player Zinedine Zidane knocks over Italian defender Marco Materazzi in a career-ending move. She describes looking for footage of the event from as many angles as possible, tracking in each image the placement of the audience, other cameras, and so forth, searching each shot for clues as to the possibility of the existence of another one. In true Sohrabi fashion, the film is not about Zidane, but about the process of looking and negotiating the afterlife of images.

Just as Zidane is ultimately not the true focus of Auxiliary Mirror, oil is not truly the subject of One Image, Two Acts; rather, Sohrabi points to the essentially benign nature of the material itself, emphasizing instead its position as a socio-political substance, reliant on the role and uses of vision for perpetuating its value. In her words: “The image of oil became as instrumental as the material itself.”[4] The singular image referenced by the title—oil—shifts in “two acts.” In “act one,” oil is constructed visually as a stand-in for progress, modernity, and all things joyful and beautiful. Leisure in all its forms becomes synonymous with the advancements of oil; the good life was only made possible by its extraction and movement. Swimming pools were constructed and their use heavily photographed and filmed. Cinemas were erected en masse, and played their celebratory vision of petro-modernity[5] back to the workers, who, as Sohrabi poetically intimates were rendered “audiences of their own activities.”[6] In “act two,” images are more heavily used by the state, reflecting the sentiments of a broad spectrum of Iranians impacted by the lived realities of petroleum’s devastating effect on their lands, waters, political autonomy, and social fabric. Here, petroleum, which shifts from a colonial-controlled commodity to a state-controlled one, is not disavowed. Rather, the message relayed to ensure its continued exploitation is that this “unruly material” is here to stay and requires continued labour to tame it. Living with oil meant that “unruly fires and the violence of drilling [had become] woven into the land.”[7] 

For Sohrabi, the links between the camera, the archive and oil are multiple. The camera’s extractive lens is materialized in the photograph or film, and the archive represents the kind of excess promoted by petro-capitalism, in which “space and image became the two tools of control.”[8] Unravelling from this premise, One Image, Two Acts, and her research more broadly, offers both a manageable look into the complex factors that comprise Iran’s reckoning with the colonial exploitation of its resources—a process that we see close-up in Canada, where the colonizer is a settler who never leaves—and also a poetic grappling with the archive and all its implications. Beyond informative, Sohrabi is extremely precise in her selection and use of images and text, constructing a mature cinematic language that interlaces the personal, political, poetic, and theoretical as inseparable.

The French translation of this article is also published in the 268 issue of Vie des arts – Autumn 2022 and can be consulted here.

[1] The use of this term in Sohrabi’s practice comes from historian Christopher R. W. Dietrich – specifically, his essay “‘Arab Oil Belongs to the Arabs’: Raw Material Sovereignty, Cold War Boundaries, and the Nationalisation of the Iraq Petroleum Company, 1967–1973,” in Diplomacy and Statecraft, vol. 22, no. 3 (2011).

[2] It is useful to note the significance of the nationalization of oil in Iran, both for Iran and for those who relied on extracting its resources, but also for the idea of decolonization as it relates to resources.

[3] I want to thank Sanaz Sohrabi for sharing with me her perspective on her work. All the quotations in this article are from a discussion we had in August 2022.

[4] Sanaz Sohrabi, One Image, Two Acts, Essay Film, 2020.

[5] Mona Damluj, one of Sohrabi’s references for this project, summarizes the link between image making and the construction of petromodernity in these helpful terms: “Films and photographs staged at the behest of petroleum company public relations offices over the past century have worked through routine channels of advertising, cinemas, schools, industrial expos, and social media to seamlessly equate the story of oil with the experience of modernity.” See Mona Damluji, “Chapter 8. The Image World of Middle Eastern Oil,” in Hannah Appel, Arthur Mason and Michael Watts (eds.), Subterranean Estates: Life Worlds of Oil and Gas (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015), p. 147-164.

[6] Sohrabi, One Image, op cit.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.