One of the joys of this business, at least in its former incarnation, was that the telephone (no, not a cell phone, an actual telephone with wires and all …) would ring, and on the other end would be someone you knew, perhaps only slightly, often quite well, who would ask you a simple question: "Would you like to go to … ?" More often than not the location in question would be a place you'd never heard of, people you'd never met. Sometimes even the editor making the call would be clueless. That happened to me in November of 1978: I received a call from Arnold Drapkin, then Time's photo editor, who asked me to come see him in his office, that he had something he wanted to discuss. When I arrived later that day, he showed me into his office, closed the door, and said he had an assignment for me. "Baluchistan," he said, one word, though I knew that really meant, "pack your gear, and grab your passport; you're off to a faraway, exotic place." My response was quite simple: "Where is it?" And so was his: "I'm NOT sure!" So, having agreed I was to do the job, we walked out of his office and headed to a wall-sized map, to see just where the hell Baluchistan was. Nestled in western Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan and Iran, it is a mountainous and rocky province whose claim to fame was that neither the Brits nor the Russians had ever really managed to gain control of the place.
Contact Press Images photographer David Burnett at a burned-out phone booth, Tehran, Iran, January 1979.
Next door, Iran was going through some tough times. I had heard of "Black Friday," Sept. 8, 1978, when dozens of protesters were killed by troops after a protest march got out of hand. I really didn't know the depth of the feelings against the Shah of Iran until Christmas Day 1978, when I decided to spend a couple of days in Tehran on my way home from Baluchistan. I wanted to see if there was anything to the radio reports I'd been hearing about increasing unrest in Tehran. I arrived in what would have been the Christmas holidays in the West, but quite to my surprise the more sophisticated security at the airport had totally fallen apart. Leaving the plane from Karachi, I just walked through the passport zone and out into the street where I hailed a cab to the hotel. Within hours, I found myself in the middle of a gunfight between troops loyal to the Shah and protesters who were promoting Ayatollah Khomeini. It took virtually no time for me to be convinced that this story was one which would be well worth my time and energy.
There are times when by an accident of fate you end up at the location where you quickly realize that it's an important event unraveling in front of you. In fact, it's almost as if you become committed to the story; you can't leave now, even if you wanted to. You're locked in, and with your camera you're about to embark on a journey that has no fixed finish line. I may not have been sure that the Shah would actually leave the country after those first few days of protests, but whatever the outcome, it felt like it was a story that would be making headlines for years to come. When you are that close to an event, in some ways you're the last one to be able to put it into context, see the bigger picture. So I settled into my room at the Intercon, and proceeded to try my best to record the unraveling of a regime under massive popular pressure.
The first morning I woke up in Tehran, I went out into the neighborhood near the hotel to find some fresh bread. Those Middle Eastern breads, which are baked in the old-style clay, tubular ovens, are sublime. With fried eggs at breakfast, they become food enough to make your day work. Chatty fellow that I am, I spoke with the locals in the breadline, and when asked where I was from, responded, "New York." There ensued a 10-minute haranguing, asking me why Jimmy Carter and I had personally supported the Shah, bad man that he was. In their desperation to find someone to blame for their anger, they focused on me. It wasn't really personal, but it was as if I'd been sent to this small group of people to personally offer them a whipping boy, someone upon whom to vent their anger and rage. I realized quickly that my attempts to be a photographer would be totally fruitless if I had to engage in these personal discussions every time I said hello. So then and there, I became, depending on my mood, either Canadian or French, either an English speaker from a country of little consequence (in the eyes of the Iranians), or a French speaker from the country currently hosting Ayatollah Khomeini in his exile.
Interestingly, there were only a handful of foreign photographers: one American with UPI, and the rest, mostly French (as was usual in those days). Today, I imagine there would be dozens (visa permitting) – many with small video cameras in addition to their Nikons and Canons. (I covered the Revolution in Kodachrome and Tri-X, on three Canon AE-1 bodies, and for the most part used four prime lenses: 28, 50, 100, 200. The fast zooms so popular today hadn't been invented yet.) We were a small pack, and in many situations you would be working alone, or perhaps in the company of one other photographer. There were no giant legions of us swarming over an event. It was much more intimate. Often, to have just that tiniest modicum of security when working in a crazy street situation – armed confrontation, or million-person protests – I would work with Olivier Rebbot, my counterpart with Newsweek. Long a friend, Olivier and I would watch each other's back in situations where there might be a chance of violence spilling over upon us. Though we traveled together quite a bit, including the 6 a.m. runs to the airport to find passengers willing to carry our films out (there was no shipping – you had to find a pigeon on a westbound plane, the kind of thing they warn you against every 10 minutes in today's modern airports), our pictures were seldom the same. We worked situations in different ways, mindful of that fierce competition that our magazines were engaged in. The one time my editor in New York complained about my sending films out of Iran with Newsweek's, I merely suggested that if she would come to Tehran herself, and be in charge of getting the films out, then I wouldn't feel the need to double up with Olivier. Until then, let the competition continue based on the pictures, and not simply on the packets they were shipped in.
My time in Iran lasted well into February. I attended the final public events of the Shah, covered the almost daily demonstrations against him and his regime, and ultimately, the return from exile of Khomeini from France, to an unimaginable welcome. Whatever was to follow – the installation of Islamic law, and the harsh treatment of those against the new regime, the disastrous war with Iraq which saw tens of thousands of young Iranians die – at that moment there was a very brief, very hopeful sense that at least this change of regime would let the Iranian people start to feel in charge of their own destiny again. That hope was short-lived as the new regime began clamping down on those who were seen as blocking the way. Ayatollah Khalkhali, seen in my photo kneeling in to receive Khomeini's tea cup in that quiet little school room, later became known as the "hanging judge" of Tehran, sentencing thousands to death in his Revolutionary Court.
Trying to write a complete history with a camera can be a challenge. One can only be in a single place at a time. You make choices, and in the end, photograph what is in front of your eyes. You hope the pictures help explain what is sometimes inexplicable. In the course of the 44 days that I followed the Iranian Revolution, it was possible to see history slowly unfolding. In 1979 there were still many magazines in the U.S. and Europe that regarded telling that story as important not only journalistically, but also financially – they had to cover that story to remain competitive. In today's world of vastly diminished resources, photographers must often rely on their own wits, and find support from a number of much smaller, less fulsome clients. The importance of telling these stories remains undiminished, even as the methods for doing so are evolving. Yet I know that in looking back 30 years on this reportage I can feel that I did the best job I could as one photographer, from one ever changing point of view, to try and tell that story. The pictures live on as historical memory. Whatever happens in today's financially challenging times, there will always be that need to report and inform, and I hope that eventually the pendulum will swing back, and create further resources to support the work of photographers whose sole desire is to tell a story.
In the case of these photographs, they have lived happily, cared for in the file cabinets at Contact Press Images in New York for the past three decades. Now and then a picture would be licensed but for the most part, as a body of work it remained relatively untouched. Then, about two years ago, I returned from a trip to find that a small conference room at the agency had been papered with 5"x7" Xerox copies of dozens of photographs from the Revolution. They had been taped up in the timeline sequence they were shot in, and for the first time, I realized that I was looking at the whole story all at once. The progression of the story was laid out, and it made total sense. Jacques Menashe, a reporter with Contact, and Robert Pledge, the director, had, in my absence, put together this visual narrative in a way that really told the story. We worked from this point forward, sharpening details about what happened where, and on which day, cross referencing with both contemporary news accounts and books written about the Revolution. In the end, when we presented the package to the book division at National Geographic a year ago, it was pretty much ready to go. And once they signed on, there were dozens of little detail items that we wanted to make sure were right. Between those accounts, my caption envelopes, and my sometimes fading memory, we managed to structure the book layout in a form which tries to tell the story in the timeline that unfolded. It is a book of history. Yes, photography is memory, and whatever else is written about the Iranian Revolution, and the ways in which it became the precursor for much of what has happened in the Middle East in the last three decades, this book will remain to tell that story.