Today we have the pleasure of publishing an interview with a true Renaissance man, a creative mind who accepts no boundaries when it comes to manipulating the very cogs and screws of photographic science and mechanics. Iranian innovator Alireza Rostami is father to such unprecedented apparatuses such as the design-savvy wrist watch camera, the "Golden Calf" smart camera and the Frankenstein camera, made out of broken computer parts. Science, art and, most importantly, upcycling collide in his unique inventions, offering groundbreaking applications to the advancement of photo technology and sustainable thinking.
How did you start experimenting with photography?
Alireza Rostami: If you want to understand people, it’s always a good idea to ask them about their childhood because that is when they were born and started taking their first steps as individuals. To better understand my artwork, you need to know a little about how and where I grew up so… let me tell you a little about my past life: my youth is packed with amazing memories, filled with the wonderful beliefs and customs of my religious family. I was born in the ancient city of Hamedan and raised in the old village of Mazdgineh (مزداگینه ), where strange rituals were held all throughout the year, some rooted in ancient religions, somein the customs and culture of the ancient Iranians and some belonged to my family and my family alone.
For example, baby boys were dressed in girl clothes and did not cut their hair until the age of three because it was believed that a female jinn named Lilith, also known as the Night Queen, was particularly fond of baby boys and would try to kidnap them otherwise. Three words, “Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangelof”, were pronounced to safeguard both mother and child. Boys also wore red, feminine shoes to fend off the evil genie… I experienced this kind of ceremony firsthand - I still have the photos!
So what drives you when it comes to challenging the boundaries of photographic mechanics?
AR: I was born with a researcher's mind - I wanted to know how a camera works, what happens behind the lens. I wanted to put myself into the mind of the very first camera inventor… but I wanted to apply my knowledge to correct the flaws of his invention. I also was fueled by the desire of creating a camera that could qualify as Made in Iran. My country does not have the technology it takes to manufacture camera bodies and lenses, so that's what brought me to take on an approach that was mostly based on reverse engineering. I wanted my home country to acquire relevance in the field… but over time I realized that the world is my home and that my findings have to belong to everyone. It is exactly this vision based on togetherness that inspired me to build the Unity camera, a symbolic camera containing 195 film cartridges, the same number of the countries present on the planet.
AP: How much perseverance does it take until you are fully satisfied with the results?
AR: I would like to answer this question with a sentence from a book, namely Ernest Hemingway's "Old man and the Sea": A man can be destroyed but not defeated.
AP: You use scrap components quite often - How important is the concept of sustainability and recycling in photography today?
AR: I always try to use recycled parts. This is very important to me. I am in favour of influential people who are trying to help our mother planet, such as Leonardo Di Caprio, Meryl Streep, Timothée Chalamet, Greta Thunberg and Sir David Frederick Attenborough, just to name a few. So when it comes to sustainability, it's not just photography that has to keep things in check: we all need to help take care of this planet. So recycling is definitely a common feature in all of my artworks… the Frankenstein camera, for example, was made with old computer parts, while I turned an old computer screen into the ground glass of a large format view camera.
AP: Tell us a bit more about your watch–cameras!
AR: Over the years, I have created several wristwatch cameras…the first one was the most exciting to make. It is an incredibly beautiful camera. Sometimes I wrap this camera around my wrist and walk down the street, which is very exciting because I'm the only person in the world who has it. I tried very hard to contact some of the big Swiss watch companies to help them produce this beautiful watch camera… But unfortunately, rich people and rich companies no longer care about handcrafted objects. Most of the rich people in the world are just looking for ways to increase their wealth and do not think about the consequences of their actions. As the digital camera is devouring analog photography. Handcrafted cameras and images are gradually being forgotten. The virtual world will soon envelop everyone in a haze, a sort of ever-lasting sleep mode. I envision a world where we all fall deep into a state of artificial slumber and are forced to live in a dream, like the Matrix.. or the Metaverse.
Anyway, after the first one came the second, and this time it was created to shoot 3D stereoscopic photography… while the third had more of a symbolic value, since its design was inspired by the tefillin, used during prayer according to Orthodox Jewish traditions. All of these cameras were also made with broken or recycled parts.
4. A little bird told us that you have also been working on a talking camera…
AR: This is another unfinished project of mine. Most of my projects are actually unfinished because I do not have enough facilities, equipment and money for further research. I publish them halfway like an open-ended story. As far as the talking camera is concerned, I got the idea to make this camera from the story of the Golden Calf, from the Torah… in this story, someone makes a magical calf that can talk. So this was the initial spark that ignited my interest but as the research progressed, I thought about the needs of a photographer. A lot of questions started taking shape in my mind, such as "We have a lot of smartphones. Why not have a camera that can call like a mobile phone or make video calls? Why can't my camera play music? Why doesn't the camera have artificial intelligence to help amateur photographers when shooting, for example when the light is low, to warn them and suggest that it is better to open the aperture or increase the ISO..".
Most photographers go for photography alone. Maybe because they do not want a shared photo frame. Well, isn't it interesting to have a sort of trusty companion, someone who can always keep your images in check? It could also record your voice and become a sort of notebook where you can keep track of your images.
Unfortunately, as I said, I can only go so far with it for now… This simple electronic circuitry does not yet have high intelligence and can't understand and distinguish words. It can however make an electronic connection by hearing a sound. If I put the camera in front of me and say out loud that I want it to take a picture, the camera will take a picture of me. This is just a small step, I have to work harder to achieve the big leap… I really wish they would consider me for a scholarship.
Just think of who could benefit from this invention… The speaker camera would allow even the blind to take pictures.
AP: There is such a strange perception gap (sometimes even bias!) between analog and digital it seems that your work is trying to work between traditional and contemporary components to prove that the most important thing is to be creative and find new and interesting solutions..
AR: I have always tried to be inspired by the religious teachings of my childhood and to mix them with contemporary technology. For example, I had an old webcam that worked with USB. It was enough to connect it to my computer. Then I opened the webcam and there was a very small electrical circuit inside… so I tried to make a magic ring that could take photos and videos. You may be wondering why I chose to make a ring… but it all goes back to King Solomon and his magical presence. Honestly, I do not believe in miracles, I believe in science… and that miracles are yet another factor of this world that has to be discovered. Unlike some intelligent people who used their skills to succeed on an individual level while deceiving others, I believe that it is our duty as researchers to reveal the truth.
Prejudice is a sign of ignorance. I love analog photography because it is more exciting and engages the photographer's mind and body more… But in today's world, digital photography cannot be removed. Digital photography must also be present. Many times I have tried to change this view with my artwork. And to do so, I make creative connections between the two approaches. If we can persuade people to think of change in terms of art, I think we have done the right thing.
AP: You once said that smart cameras would become reality in the near future. Could you expand on that?
AR: There is no doubt in my mind that the smart camera will soon come into being. Even wearable cameras will be made, such as a ring or watch or even a third eye. We humans have two eyes. Think about what would happen if we could connect two more cameras around our heads and increase our viewing angle?
AP: What are your next plans, when it comes to camera-building and personal art projects?
AR: I have many plans at present. But I have been silent for some time… because there is no support for me. I have devoted my life to art but none of the galleries or even universities in the world have ever offered me an opportunity to break through. I have the potential to use my creativity to help people come up with new, riveting ideas but without support I am getting discouraged and if I get used to this state of disappointment, this will be the end of me as an artist.
I do however want to offer you a sneak peek onto one of my latest ventures... Although it is still in the making, I am in the process of building the fastest negative scanner in the world. I've also turned a broken cell phone into an analog camera, but it's not yet a good time to release it… over the years I have dove headfirst into many projects. Some have failed, others have succeeded… I tried to connect an FM player to my camera to listen to the radio while shooting. And I even tried to connect a mobile SIM card to the camera so I could make phone calls to my camera (I did not succeed). I tried to hack my camera firmware to change the beep sound while shooting and turn it into a cow's moo (I did not succeed). I have been designing a cane that can be used as a monopod, but this monopod is magical and flies… I have dreamt of a robot that looks like a chicken and takes pictures, and at the end the negative is released like an egg… so, yeah… my experimenting days are far from over.
Author: Michelle Davis Photos courtesy of the artist