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July 2, 2024

The Selfie King: 10 of the Best Self-Portraits Taken by Nassereddin Shah From the 19th Century

In Iran, selfie photos date back to the Qajar era, when the famed Qajar king Nasseredin Shah (1821–1896), with the best cameras of the time brought from Europe, took photos from almost anything and anyone. The king had a knack for taking photographs, and he enjoyed photographing himself the most. As part of his obsession with picturing himself, something these days called a “selfie,” he took many pictures of himself, noting where and how he took each photo with pithy comments and in cursive handwriting, under each of them.

Nassereddin Shah (or Nasser al-Din Shah), the fourth king of the Qajar dynasty, ruled Iran for almost all of the second half of the 19th century (1848-1896). Both his life, and his death as the result of an assassination, were dramatic episodes in Iranian history. Nasser al-Din Shah had sovereign power for close to 51 years.

He was the first modern Persian monarch who formally visited Europe and wrote of his travels in his memoirs. A modernist, he allowed the establishment of newspapers in the country and made use of modern forms of technology such as telegraphs, photography and also planned concessions for railways and irrigation works. Despite his modernizing reforms on education, his tax reforms were abused by people in power, and the government was viewed as corrupt and unable to protect commoners from abuse by the upper class which led to increasing antigovernmental sentiments. He ended up being assassinated when visiting a shrine.

An important aspect of the Shah’s personal contributions to this visual culture was his personal love of the arts, particularly photography. Born in a world were people were still painted, Nassereddin Shah was himself in love with visuals.

In fact, his obsession with picturing himself, something that one can call “selfie” these days. Much has already been written on his discovery of the daguerreotype and later, photo cameras. The king was a good photographer, and in each of his European visits, he bought the latest cameras, and appointed at least two official court photographers. This was a very new and exciting art. He photographed everything and anyone, including the servants, and carefully recorded information about each photo on the prints.

But his favorite subject seems to have been himself. He took many “selfies,” writing down information about where it was taken and how, with pithy comments and in a very cursive hand, under each print. These are very slow selfies, with the king setting up the frame and deciding on a particular pose, then moving in front of the camera and waiting for it to go off. These were not quick “look at me” snapshots. These show planning and a certain fascination with the medium.

“Month of dhil-hajja, (12)83, Tushqan Eil, I took it myself” (April-May 1867; Tushqan Eil is the Sino-Turkic name of the year)

“In Niyavaran (palace), I took it myself”

“I took this myself in the Andarun (the Harem)” The calligraphy on the top is from a the person organizing the album, saying “(this is) the lord, the sacred Shahnshah, may our souls be sacrificed to him” (Persian taarof, nobody means it!)

“The first ten days of Ramadan of 84, Tushghan Eil, in Tehran, I took it myself” (December 1867/January 1868)

“They took it when I was sick and weak from flu [illegible] not good”

“Jumadi ath-Thani 1286” (Sept-Oct. 1869) Then 90 degrees counter clockwise: “It is taken in Ahar, on the way from Shahrestanak, during the trip to Nour and Kojour…. this is when I was 39 years old”

On the top “Also in the month of Ramadan(?)” then on the side: “It was taken in the Andarun, Malijak is in my arms. He has not slept in two nights, and again has the flu. It was taken by Hassanali the Photographer”

Selfie with two women of the Andarun (Harem).


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