Behind the Image: How Sarah Pannell Shot the Cover Image of Her Photobook

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The image of the woman climbing the tree was always going to be the cover of Sarah Pannell’s debut photobook Tabriz to Shiraz, which documents her travels through Iran. Here, Sarah tells the story of how such a poetic image came to be.

Words and Photography by Sarah Pannell

I took this photograph in September 2016 during my first trip to Iran. I had been in the country for about ten days, couch-surfing with a funny and friendly man called Amir and his family in the city of Qazvin.

We decided to head to The Alamut Valley, famous not only for its beautiful sweeping mountainous landscapes, but for the ‘Castle of Assassins’ (Alamut Castle); a 12th century fortress located in a remote and rugged valley, about 4 hours north of Qazvin, just south of the Caspian coastline. 

Ironically, we didn’t make it to the fortress, but instead spent the day at a lake having a picnic followed by walnut and fruit picking, and a hike along a river where we came across a beautiful canyon. I also had the chance to take a few frames of the surrounding mountainside and some men on motorcycles passing us as the final golden light hit the valley in the distance.

This photograph was probably the last image I took on this day, on our way back to Qazvin. The sun was setting and dusk was approaching. Amir, who was driving, pulled over the car as soon as he spotted the sea buckthorn tree in the photo, as the berries from them have many health benefits. We emptied out of the car and I asked him about the berries as I had never seen a tree like this. 

“I spontaneously took just one frame of her in the tree.”

Amir’s girlfriend at the time, (not to be named for privacy reasons) climbed the tree and began to pick berries and I spontaneously took just one frame of her in the tree, which became this photograph. With the setting sun in the background, I didn’t want the tree and her figure to be silhouetted and I was really drawn to the vibrancy of the sea buckthorn berries so I used a small speed light as a fill flash. Luckily this was powerful enough to illuminate the foreground. 

“I think for me it’s a successful image because there is a layer of mystery to it.”

I don’t generally take more than one frame of a certain scene if possible, mainly because I shoot medium format and when I’m on the road in a place like Iran, I have a finite volume of film so I need to shoot conservatively. 

This image was shot on my Mamiya 7 with an 80mm lens and contax flash. It ended up being the cover image of my photobook Tabriz to Shiraz published in 2019 by Perimeter Books and Hillvale. It was a fairly unanimous decision as it remained a favourite from when I first scanned the image to when we were finalising the print layout over two years later. 

I think for me it’s a successful image because there is a layer of mystery to it. While it’s not a contrived image, I can see how viewers might view it in this way and I enjoy the awkwardness of an unusual scene like this.

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Sarah Pannell

Sarah Pannell is an Australian visual artist whose work concerns culture, landscape, tradition and community. She lives and works in Melbourne.