14 Lessons Abbas Kiarostami Has Taught Me About Cinema, Art, and Life

“Photography is the mother of cinema.” – Abbas Kiarostami

When I did my previous article on Abbas (Magnum photographer), I randomly came across another great photographer/visual storyteller/film maker: Abbas Kiarostami (also from Iran).

Anyways, I saw some of Kiarostami’s photos, and I was blown away. The elegant photographs are pure poetry. I haven’t seen any of his films yet but I plan on watching for inspiration.

Apparently Kiarostami started with photography, because he couldn’t afford to make films (yet). And apparently he was an aspiring painter too; thus you can look at his compositions look like paintings.

Interesting philosophical ideas from Kiarostami:


1. Photography comes before cinema

“Photography is the mother of cinema.”

Photography and cinema are intertwined. Apparently Oscar Barnack (inventor of the Leica camera, and inventor of 35mm film in cameras) did the following:

He created camera film from cinema film, by stretching out the film to his arm length (thus there are around 36 frames in a single roll of film).

Anyways, the practical takeaway is this: to find inspiration in photography or cinema, study both!

Great cinematography can inspire your photography and vice versa!

Wim Wenders is a great photographer and director, and poet!

2. We pay attention to things which we frame

“I’ve often noticed that we are not able to look at what we have in front of us, unless it’s inside a frame.”

As a photographer, we frame our reality. By deciding what to frame (and what to leave out), we create significance.

What I mean is this: whatever you include in your frame, you’re saying: “This is beautiful and important.”

Also realize that when you frame something, people pay more attention to it!

Life exists outside the frame, but by framing something; we tell others that it is important for others to pay attention to it.

3. Photograph people you find interesting

“I realise that without really wanting to, I’m drawn to unique people. Since we can’t put every single person in front of our camera, we have to look for special people or ordinary people in special circumstances.”

This is why street photography is so great; we have the freedom of photographing interesting people we encounter.

Takeaway point: Photograph whoever you find interesting, or who you’re drawn to!

4. Follow the road you’re drawn to

“I can’t really say when the subject of roads and ways came to me. Perhaps I can say – from the beginnings of my photography – but I can’t say why – why roads?… It’s clear why the road has been a favourite subject for poets and writers. The images clearly appears frequently in classical Persian literature, in contemporary poetry and Japanese haiku. For Sohrab, the modern poet, the road is exile, wind, song, travel and restlessness.”

Follow your own path in life, or whatever interests you.

5. Follow your dreams

“The capability to dream is the most human characteristic, shared not proportionately but enough for each. Though all of us dream, only one of us can talk about our dreams. The imagination is one of the most distinct and extraordinary gifts granted to human beings. We are aware of our other senses, such as sight, taste and hearing, and we are grateful for them. But we don’t seem to know what immense possibilities are open to us through the imagination. What is the function of dreaming? Where did it come from? Why do we have the ability to dream? And why must we dream? If it doesn’t have function in our life, then what is the reason for it? I finally found a reason. When do we resort to dreaming? At times when we are unhappy with our circumstances. And how extraordinary is it that no dictatorship in the world can control it? No system of inquisition can control one’s fantasies. They can throw you in jail, but you still have the ability to live your sentence outside the prison without anyone holding you there. Through the imagination, you can pass over the insurmountable walls without leaving any trace of yourself, and you can always go back.”

You have big dreams in life. Don’t ignore them; follow them!

6. Be local before you go international!

“To be international, you have to first be local. … When you take a tree that is rooted in the ground, and transfer it from one place to another, the tree will no longer bear fruit. And if it does, the fruit will not be as good as it was in its original place. This is a rule of nature. I think if I had left my country, I would be the same as the tree.”

If you seek international success, fame, or opportunities; first seek to become successful locally!


7. Break out of your daily reality with art!

“The calling of art is to extract us from our daily reality, to bring us to a hidden truth that’s difficult to access – to a level that’s not material but spiritual.”

Art is essential to being human. We must use art to stir ourselves. To wake ourselves up, and for us to live epic lives beyond the everyday routines.

8. Show others what you see!

> “From my very first movie, what was my concentration, my inspiration, was I didn’t want to narrate something, I didn’t want to tell a story. I wanted to show something, I wanted for them to make their own story from what they were seeing.

What art or beauty do you see in the world? Share it with others!

9. Creation through omission, not addition

“My films have been progressing towards a certain kind of minimalism, even though it was never intended. Elements which can be eliminated have been eliminated. This was pointed out to me by somebody who referred to the paintings of Rembrandt and his use of light: some elements are highlighted while others are obscured or even pushed back into the dark. And it’s something that we do – we bring out elements that we want to emphasise. I’m not claiming or denying that I have done such a thing but I do believe in [Robert] Bresson’s method of creation through omission, not through addition.”

How can you create by omission, or via subtraction?

I think for photography, keep your photos simple, and minimalist. Don’t seek to add to the frame; seek to subtract from the frame to make better photos!

10. Never stop questioning life!

“Cinema seats make people lazy. They expect to be given all the information. But for me, question marks are the punctuation of life.
Abbas Kiarostami

Don’t be lazy in life; challenge yourself to ask more difficult questions in life!


11. Focus on humanity

IRAN. Tehran. 1997. Film director Abbas KIAROSTAMI looks through a door which opens to nowhere on the hills surrounding the capital. His film “Taste of Cherry” which was co-awarded the Golden Palm in Cannes 1997, was shot on these hills. Photograph by (the other) Abbas

“A movie is about human beings, about humanity.” – Abbas Kiarostami

Remember the ultimate focus of art, cinema, and photography should be about humans and humanity!

12. Connect the world and different cultures with your art!

“Film is very much a universal and common voice, and we can’t limit it to one particular culture.” – Abbas Kiarostami

I have this utopic idea: what if there was world peace, understanding, and tolerance? I am optimistic that art has this epic ability ability to connect all of humanity.


13. Make your art believable

“Good cinema is what we can believe and bad cinema is what we can’t believe. What you see and believe in is very much what I’m interested in.” – Abbas Kiarostami

When you write a novel, film, or photography project: make it believable!


14. Challenge your viewer

“People have curiosity, they have intelligence, they have interest in understanding their peers. But producers and directors of cinema have decided that the seats in the theaters have been made to transform people’s minds to lazy minds.” – Abbas Kiarostami


Photos by Kiarostami

Note how the photos look like landscape paintings and the Zen minimalist vibes.

Also check out more ideas by Kiarostami on Invisible Photographer Asia >

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