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Coronavirus claims Soho’s ‘Shah’

Pals pay tribute to talented photojournalist who fled Iran, becoming a popular face around the West End

01 May, 2020 — By Tom Foot

Shahin Shahablou ‘explored London with his camera’

A PHOTO­JOURNALIST who fled an oppressive regime in Iran to build a new life in Soho has died from coronavirus.

Highly respected Shahin Shahablou, a popular face around the West End for many years, succumbed to Covid-19 in St George’s Hospital on April 15 aged 56.

A university lecturer and former director of the Iranian Photojournalists Association, his portraits of Soho characters have featured in exhibitions, the Soho Clarion and this newspaper.

He loved Soho for its bars where he could socialise with like-minded gay people and mingle with the “marginalised” that he loved to photograph throughout his life. But friends said his artistic eye had been largely “wasted” because of the Home Office’s “hostile environment” that stifled his talents.

He had for many years found himself struggling for confidence in “soul- destroying” jobs including the ­Winter Wonderland tourist attraction in Hyde Park.

David Gleeson, a close friend who has been speaking with his family back in Tehran, said: “Two Christmases ago he was working in the Ice Palace, taking pictures of people for them to be sold. That place really is the rag and bone shop of the soul.

“He would get some commissions, taking portraits of rich Iranian women in Regent’s Park mansions. But he hated doing things like that. He explored London, explored it with his camera.

“He was a photographer with kudos back home. His is a story of a refugee being wasted when they come here.”

Mr Gleeson said “Shah” had left Iran at a time of intense persecution of gay men and free speech.

Mr Shahablou with friend David Gleeson

The newspaper he worked for had been shut down and he decided to “swap Tehran life for the refugee uncertainty here” on a special visa that was within a month of arriving “abolished”.

In Iran he had 25 years’ experience as a photographer, his work has been exhibited in solo exhibitions in India, Iran and London but it would not pay his way. He also won last year’s St Anne’s Church calendar photography competition.

Mr Gleeson said: “He became part of the St Anne’s wider community. He was always photographing the Soho Fete and the Waiters’ Race.

“He was always around in the bars here – the King’s Arms in Poland Street – where a lot of ‘bears’ socialise in Soho. It was an important thing for him Soho, he could get away from things that depressed him in Iran. But also here he could live as a gay man. He was interested in people who were marginalised, he would take portraits of bears and the trans-activists.”

He added: “When you met him, he was very ­quiet. In a room full of people, he would make sure everyone else was comfy before himself.
“He couldn’t use his phone in the ICU ward. There was no viewing the body. He was buried in a sealed coffin. When I walk around Soho I see him everywhere. It upsets me.”

The rector of St Anne’s Church, Reverend Simon Buckley, described his death as a “real tragedy”, adding: “Shahin submitted several entries for the 2019 Soho Village Life calendar, winning the prize for the best picture.

“That the winning photo was of crowds enjoying themselves at the Village Fete in St Anne’s Gardens only reflected his love of people and of Soho.

“This was the place where he felt at home and where his big, genuine, smile fitted beautifully.”

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