Sanaz Sohrabi – Interview

Sanaz Sohrabi: “Seeing the archive as a form of visual optic and conceptual prism”

Sanaz Sohrabi (Photo: Philippa Langley for Vie des arts, iss. 268, 2022)


Sanaz Sohrabi will continue her research on British-controlled oil operations in Iran as Akademie der Künste der Welt ADKDW artist-in-residence since November. The film screening Visualizing Extraction on 12th of December at Filmhaus Cologne as part of her residency will showcase her research on how the political life of oil has contributed to global media culture, focusing on the relationship between petromodernity and technologies of vision utilized by British Petroleum in Iran and broader Asia.


Hello Sanaz, welcome to Cologne. May I ask what your expectations for your stay in the city and the interaction with the local people are?

Sanaz Sohrabi: My main goal is to get to know the team at ADKDW and be able to build friendships and also get to know the local film community more. I am very much focused on reading and writing for my next film during my time in Cologne and I hope to build a substantial part of my next film while here.


Installation detail, “Archives of Oil: Future Relics,” (2021- ongoing). Multimedia installation. Image courtesy of artist, Centre Clark Montréal. Photo credit: Paul Litherland (Michel Brunelle for VOX)

Can you tell why you chose essay films and installation as your artistic mediums of expression?

I was trained as a photographer and visual cultural studies has been my main entry point into questioning the material-discursive formations within media. Essay film lends itself really well to do investigative work and it is also very much about creating a visual and dialogic narrative with and about images. I am also very much dedicated to work between film, installation, and publication and often disseminate the same research material differently through these 3 mediums and methods.

Installation view, “Back of my hand,” Carpintarias de São Lázaro, Curated by Sara Castelo Branco, Lisbon, Portugal, May-June 2022 (Michel Brunelle for VOX)

Your work reflects amongs many other things about the relationship between moving pictures and still images. Of course one immediatelly starts to connect this asthetic style with a deeper socio-politcal perspective of the world around you. How do you yourself as the artist experience this relationship?

I take inspiration from the writings of Tina Campt, who is a contemporary Black theorist of visual culture. She also explores the space between moving and still images through the lens of affect theory and questions how images can move you, and how we can explore the historical, archival, and symbolic movements in still images. Another inspiration for me is Walter Benjamin, for whom images contained the movement of history. So, still images also contain historical and affective movements, and my work has always been about harnessing these elements. Another reference is Harun Farocki who insisted on investigating photography’s separation of reference and discourse and practiced a relational reading between still and moving images; for him an image was always in need of another image. I take inspiration from all these incredible thinkers of images and create aesthetic, formal, and conceptual experiments that examine photography’s history in relation to extractivism, labour, and petrocapitalism.

You reseachred intense in the archived of British Petroleum. First thing commiung to my mind: how easy is such a research practise?

I have been working with an institutional archive (British Petroleum Archives) whose establishment, formation, and many afterlives is in and of itself indicative of the colonial relations that continue to orinet how one can access these materials. I am also very aware of these questions and conditions and politics and ethics of access to colonial archives always finds its way in my work and film scripts. This project has turned into my life project, it is a form of building relationships and companionship with and through the archives and that takes time. It is more about creating a relationship and seeing the archive as a form of visual optic and conceptual prism rather than seeing it only as a guarded space that is hard to access. My practice is about reading the colonial archive against its own grain.

Filmmaker and VOX, Center for Contemporary Images, Montréal. Images reproduced with the permission of BP p.l.c.

What was your main scientific questions on that path?
And what was the main conclusion?

My most recent work has had a very wide reception within the scholars in energy humanities and I can see why. I did not intend it to invoke a scientific interest but that has been a happy accident. I think ecofeminist science and technology studies’ approach to the legacies of extraction is much needed and can offer a very critical take on extractivism that is intuitive, critical, and collaborative. To give you a better sense of my doctoral research I can provide you with a short description. My broader research behind my two recent films examines the history of photography and film practices of the British controlled oil operations in Iran between 1908-1951. I examine how photography and film became the two primary cultural tools of the oil company, shaping a totalizing logic of representation around resource extraction and constructing an image regime of oil that worked in tandem with the uneven techno-racial organization of labor production in Iran. In my doctoral research I investigated the media practices of the oil company and their consolidation and centralization into British Petroleum’s (BP) official archives in the present moment as a form of epistemic violence. In my films and visual research, I look at the visual technologies of photography, film, and archives utilized by the BP as embodied technologies of eradication and dispossession that have long narrativized and represented the history of British extractive history and its colonial oil operations in Iran and more broadly in Asia. My doctoral thesis argues that the link between extractivism and technologies of vision is historical, material, and ideological. Once we look at the historical continuum and lounge durée of extractivism from a representational standpoint, visuality, authority, and the archive become inseparable from the political economy of oil. That is perhaps one of the core conclusions of my project so far.

Filmmaker and VOX, Center for Contemporary Images, Montréal. Images reproduced with the permission of BP p.l.c.

Let´s talk about your film screening and talk on the 12th of December at the Filmhaus in Cologne. You gonna show the first two works from your movie trilogy, “One Image, Two Acts“, “Senses of Extraction“, as far as I understand, the fundament for your current work (during the residency in Cologne) on the third and final chapter, right?
Whats the status of the third film?

During my time at ADKDW, I have been writing for the final film episode of my trilogy that was conceived during my doctoral program. The film is tentatively titled Specters of the Subterranean (Part II): History Without Documents and it examines how the visual cultures of oil after the departure of Western oil companies were tasked to navigate the politics of nation-building on the one hand and to build transnational solidarity on the other. More specifically, this feature-length documentary film is centered around the postcolonial image politics of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and its establishment in Baghdad in 1960. Since 2019, I have been putting together an expansive visual repertoire that consists of state-sponsored films, oil magazines, OPEC newsreels, and commemorative stamps issued by different OPEC member countries during this political period, when oil became an ideological anchor for many postcolonial societies grappling with the inheritance of extractivism. My ongoing engagement with this archival inventory has resulted in an installation project titled Specters of the Subterranean (Part I): Rhymes and Songs for the Oil Minister. I have reconfigured this mixed-media installation into four different exhibitions so far, and in each iteration, new stories, historical vignettes, and archival encounters emerge or disappear. The installation’s evolving nature has also allowed me to wrestle with this growing and fragmented repertoire of archives as I transform the installation into the final film episode of my trilogy, Specters of the Subterranean (Part II): History Without Documents, and later on into an artist book representing a visual record of the installation processes. During my residency I have been using this installation as my visual guideline as I build the narrative map of my film. The archival research is mostly done now but I started it during my doctoral project and the scope of the material was so expansive that I have not had the dedicated time to transform it into the film. Right now, I am working on securing funding sources, writing, and planning the production stages. Hopefully in 2025 the film will be out.

As the year comes to an end, I am curious to hear about your favorite movie of 2023? And why so?

My favorite film in 2023 has been “The Human Surge 3” by the Argentinian director Eduardo Williams which is a genre bending film on climate change anxiety, queer ecologies, and extractivism, with all modes of inhabiting the word whether it be the virtual, the real, and the imaginary, all collapse onto one another. I have been thinking about it non-stop since I watched it, which is always a great thing.

Kaput - Magazin für Insolvenz & Pop | Aquinostrasse 1 | Zweites Hinterhaus, 50670 Köln | Germany
Herausgeber & Chefredaktion:
Thomas Venker & Linus Volkmann
Autoren, Fotografen, Kontakt
Kaput - Magazin für Insolvenz & Pop
Impressum – Legal Disclosure
Urheberrecht /
Inhaltliche Verantwortung / Rechtswirksamkeit
Kaput Supporter
Kaput – Magazin für Insolvenz & Pop dankt seinen Supporter_innen!