The eponymous subject in Morteza Niknahad’s photography series Big Fish is the embodiment of a life-changing and reoccurring nightmare the Iranian photographer’s mother had in the mid-1990s when he was a child.
In the disturbing dream, a dreadful and swiftly growing creature would chase her, trying to kill her. The experience would not have been so potent had it did not repeated itself almost every night. Niknahad’s mother would wake up in fear and panic yet remained tight-lipped about what she was seeing. Around the same time, doctors diagnosed her with an unidentified illness they pegged as spiritual in origin.
It wasn’t until a decade later that Niknahad’s mother felt like she could tell him the details of her bad dream. By then, Niknahad had already become used to seeing its shadow.
In one photograph, the large and glistening fish — out of water but still seemingly alive — is slumped beside a bride who looks distressed, her attention somewhere far off.
Another photograph shows the fish across a table, its blood seeping down the white, freshly ironed tablecloth. There’s food set on the table. Niknahad’s mother stares back at the viewer with a look similar to the bride’s.
In yet another image, the family poses for a classic, if somewhat downcast, portrait, the fish laying on its side at their feet.
Niknahad’s Big Fish series was named as one of four runners-up in this year’s Vantage Point Sharjah photography competition and is on view until December 11 as part of an exhibition being held by the Sharjah Art Foundation. Niknahad said the series attempts to visually portray the extent to which his mother’s dream weighed on her and the family. What living with a “now subdued, damaged creature” was like.
“About 24 years ago, when I was about 13 years old, my mother had a dream. It changed our lives,” Niknahad said during the opening ceremony of the exhibition.
“A monster kept following and attempting to kill her. She would wake up every night to get away from it. She said if she was caught then she’d die and would lose us for ever. We’ve been living with it since. It changed our views about everything.”
At first, Niknahad said he was reluctant about sharing his mother’s dream through Big Fish. The family wasn’t sure how people in their community would react. His mother, Niknahad said, had endured enough.
“She lost three sisters in childhood as well as her brother afterwards,” he said. “Throughout her life she’s been losing the people around her one after the other.
“My parents also wanted to get a divorce when I was young, but my mother decided to keep the marriage for the sake of her children. I was the only one who saw the pain she was going through. It was always a question for me whether I could be a part of that and help her.”
What convinced Niknahad to tell his mother’s story was his own experiences with depression. While in therapy, the photographer had seen how being vocal could help someone get better.
“I wanted to see if it would work with my mother as well,” he said. “If it would help her overcome this monster that’s been following her all these years.”
It took a few years, but Niknahad’s mother finally decided to share her story through Big Fish, and the dream began casting a less horrific shadow across her life.
“It’s true our story may be a little dark but I’m sure there are a lot of people who can relate,” he said.
Big Fish was selected as a runner-up from works by 66 artists. The photographer who won the first-place prize was Md Fazla Rabbi Fatiq, while the three other runners-up were Hady Barry, Kirti Kumari and Neec Nonso.
Vantage Point Sharjah is now celebrating its 10th year. The annual event is running until December 11 at the Sharjah Art Foundation’s Al Hamriyah Studios.
The open call invited works that showcase visual storytelling and the art form’s ability to capture social realities from many perspectives. The foundation said it received more than 450 applications.