Two things brought Dominic Xavier back to photography.
The first was Mustafah Abdulaziz’s ongoing Water project, for which the American-born, Berlin-based photographer has spent 10 years travelling the world considering what water means for different cultures. Abdulaziz’s unadorned style of documentary, stripped of agenda, reminded Xavier of the storytelling power of a simple image.
The second was managing the bar at the Michelberger in Berlin, a funky, boutique hotel favoured by high-profile artists.
“I’d look after people like Thom Yorke and The National – big artists and heavyweight creatives,” Xavier says. “And just hearing things from them and the crew they rolled with made you want to go out and explore and document.”
Xavier had put down his camera in 2012, not long after finishing a bachelor of photography at Queensland College of Art, turning his back on a promising commercial career.
Hence the bartending. He worked at heaving craft beer joint Archive in Brisbane, before graduating to Cobbler and Finney Isles, two of that city’s best cocktail spots. Now based in Melbourne, drinkers in the know will recognise Xavier as a manager at Bar Liberty in Fitzroy.
“The best thing about getting into the cocktail world was wherever you were travelling, there would be a connection,” Xavier says. “It’s a pretty tight community like that. It just works hand in hand, and so many connections that I’ve made through photography have come from the bar world.”
While in Berlin, Xavier fell in with a bunch of Iranians and began to learn about both the Persian diaspora and life in Iran under the Islamic Republic that’s ruled the country since overthrowing Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979.
“Iran pre-Islamic Revolution was very European in the way that they lived,” Xavier says. “They have a massive connection with poetry and writers and musicians as well, for sure. So they’ve got this really deep-rooted connection with creativity.”
He was soon on a plane to the country with a Mamiya 7 medium-format film camera and a stash of Kodak Portra 400 35-millimetre film stuffed in his case. He’d end up spending a month travelling around Iran photographing the places he visited and people he met, beginning in capital Tehran before commuting to the furthest corners of the country (usually by bus), from the Strait of Hormuz in the south to Kurdistan in the north-west.
His technique for connecting with locals once in these far-flung places makes sense for a barkeep.
“I’d just go into the local chai bar,” he says. “Alcohol is banned there, so that’s where they all hang out. You go into these places and they’ll ask what you’re up to, and you just need to be ready for anything.”
Another time, he found an ad posted by a couple of teenagers on Whatsapp.
“It said, ‘Anyone who wants to come to Mariwan [in Kurdistan], I want to practise my English. I’ll show you round.’ So people wanting to practise their English with you was one of the hooks.”
Xavier came back from Iran having chewed through 50 rolls of film. The photos he wound up developing are full of space and stillness, but also colour and humanity. They feel distant and foreign but entirely familiar at the same time. There are the towering, otherworldly cliffs of Hormuz Island, an empty cobblestoned corner in seaside Bandar Abbas, and a lonely white Paykan sedan parked beneath an olive tree overlooking the Hawraman Valley near the Iraqi border.
Xavier has now compiled a selection of his photos into Iran: I Search for You Still, a self-published monograph produced in collaboration with art director and graphic designer Yarron Frauenfelder. Named after a poem by Iranian-Australian poet Kaveh Akbari that’s printed on the final page, the book is a simple, unadorned visual document of Xavier’s trip, but is also intended to challenge Western perceptions of Iran, a country with a hardline government that has a fractious relationship with the West, but also a well-educated and often relatively progressive middle class.
“In the Western world, we have all of these prejudices that are quite natural to us through colonialism and history towards the Middle East and towards that greater region. But seeing what I captured, you just wouldn’t think [those prejudices] are true,” Xavier says.
“I didn’t want the photos to be too contrived or to impart too much of my opinion, or to make it too political. It was more, ‘This is what I saw. This is what’s there. How can I best represent that, as is?’ Because that’s the whole point of the book – to question our Western prejudices and to show that sense of place that exists there.”
Iran: I Search for You Still is available for purchase here. The official book launch and exhibition will take place at Marfa Gallery in Abbotsford Monday December 13.