Monday, 8 February 2016

‘To each his own weapon, I have my camera’: Iran's 1979 revolution – in pictures

It took Maryam Zandi more than three decades to get her photos of the revolution published

An Iranian revolutionary with a flower in his rifle. Photograph: Courtesy of Maryam Zandi and the Guardian.
by Tehran Bureau correspondent, The Guardian

I met Maryam Zandi last spring in the cherry-coloured hallways of downtown Tehran’s House of Artists, a prestigious gallery, auditorium and theatre inaugurated under the administration of the reformist president Mohammad Khatami. Zandi was ‘in conversation with’ photographer Nader Davoodi, but I was looking forward to interview her about her book, Enqelab-e 57, published more than three decades after the 1979 revolution.

Zandi fought long and hard to have the book, which spans the turbulent winter of 1978-9 when people gathered to topple the Shah, published in the form she wanted, with nearly 200 photos. Under the administrations of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the authorities said it could be allowed only with some parts removed - something she refused.

“This is a record of the rising of a people, it should be seen in its entirety,” she told me. After the victory of Hassan Rouhani in the 2013 presidential election, the culture minister agreed the book could be published whole.

The photographs run from the citywide demonstrations of November 1978 to 1 April 1979, the day of the national referendum with the simple question: ‘The Islamic Republic, Yes or No?’. They capture such momentous events as the mass march to Mohammad Mossadegh’s home in Ahmadabad, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s first media interview upon his return to Iran, at Alavi School. It was published in October 2014.

In the introduction, Zandi describes asking - almost negotiating - with a man at the door to let her into the school where only men were allowed that day. Aptly, the book begins with her plea: “To each his (or her) own weapon, I have my camera, and I have my cry.”

She recalled the frenzy of the revolutionary protests as a time of “inclusion, when divisions were momentarily set aside”. On one occasion, having found no one to take care of her baby daughter, she carried the infant in her arms and asked people to hold her as she took photos.

Zandi wants to remind viewers that these were days, just before and just after the Shah left Iran on 16 January, when revolutionary fervour carried excitement, hope and possibility. It is rare to see recent history isolated from what came after, but that is where the photograph can escape the tunnel of what was to be.

A thread binding Zandi’s work across the decades is her exposure of the forgotten. Her first book of photographs, Torkaman Sahra, published in 1983, portrayed semi-nomadic ethnic Turkmen of north-eastern Iran, particularly women, in a fading world untouched by urbanisation. Her photos display green plains near the Caspian Sea where electricity and plumbing have yet to arrive, where people live on and from the land.

Maryam Zandi was herself born in 1946 near Torkaman Sahra, in the city of Gorgan, amid one of the country’s most scenic landscapes. After studying political science at the University of Tehran, she became a photographer for national television.

She also starred in Atash-o Dood (Fire and Smoke), a television adaptation of a well-known novel. But during the protests of 1978-9, her photography work for television was in limbo, so she began walking the streets, documenting what she saw.

Zandi was dismissed from TV in 1983 – she did not want to publicly elaborate on the reasons for this - and her photos from 1978-9 would not be revealed until 2008 when she first tried to publish them. “Shortly after taking them I put them away,” she said. “I wanted them to be looked at after the historical occurrences had come and gone, so they could be seen with distance, and outside a news cycle.” Perhaps one downside of this, she admits, is a lack of sufficient information for each photo, as she did not take full notes at the time.

Zandi is the sister of acclaimed Iranian writer, director and translator Nader Ebrahimi, known especially for his lyrical love stories set in the mountainous forests of northern Iran.

Zandi’s carries within her photos the same sensitivities, while adding another dimension, that of the rebel. “I have had to fight for every inch of space in which I have stood,” she said. Her subjects also assert themselves in the photo: they have a reason to be, their photo is witness and proof of their determination.

The Revolution of 79 includes intimate portraits of revolutionary leaders such as Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti and Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani. But Zandi is also a chronicler of the street: a handsome young man in a denim jacket and turtleneck smiles faintly at the viewer, while flowers adorn the rifle in his hand. Another young man sleeps, exhausted, in the cold beneath a wall covered in revolutionary slogans.

Women may wear long black veils or toss back loose wavy hair as they walk, observe, hold rifles, or shout in the air. “I didn’t know what would happen but I felt the significance of what I was seeing,” Zandi told me. “It had to be documented, stored somewhere, for my children, and their children, to see.”

From the 1990s onwards, Maryam Zandi was known as a portrait photographer. She has published four collections of figures in literature, painting and film, and is now planning a fifth, on musicians.

She has captured poets Fereydoun Moshiri and Parviz Natel Khanlari, well-respected scholars such as Iraj Afshar, Jaleleddin Homayi and Mohit Tabatabie. “When I started no one cared about photographing literary figures, it was new and daunting,” she said. “It took me a while to realise that I didn’t really know these people, despite having read some of their work.”

Perhaps no photograph has more poignantly captured the spirit of poet Houshang Ebtehaj like Zandi’s, showing him in a room of days past, with wooden windows and white cotton shades, in a light that is both comfortable and fading. Her collection of Iranian painters includes vastly different artists like Abbas Bolookifar of the coffee house tradition and the painter-calligrapher Nasrollah Efjeie. The curation of such names in one book itself is a feat, as these are faces of people we rarely see.

Zandi chooses various backgrounds. The writers she captures within their own space of preference - old libraries, studies or gardens. The painters pose in their workshops, among easels and brushes and paints, or next to one of their own works.

Film artists she asks to her studio, and photographs them all with similar lighting and angles. But they bring their individuality. The actor Ali Nassirian gives us his naive but sparkling grin, while director Dariush Mehrjui, once the quirky intellectual of Iranian cinema, looks through a peephole made with hands.

But Zandi’s portraits go beyond simply documenting the subject to suggest why they should be remembered. Film director Nasser Taghvaie aptly described this in a ceremony to honour her work hosted by the literary magazine Bukhara: “Sometimes a photographer can capture what hides beneath your exterior, that’s what Maryam’s work did for our poets, sculptors and artists. She reflected who they were on the inside.”

Revolutionaries hold up giant pictures of Ali Shariati (front) and Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh (back). Photograph: Maryam Zandi and the Guardian.

Secular women took part then fell victim to the revolution. Photograph: Maryam Zandi and the Guardian.

An older man holds up a photo of Mehdi Bazargan. Photograph: Maryam Zandi and the Guardian.

Man walks past a wall with ‘Death to the Shah’ scrawled over a what appears to be similar covered up graffiti. Photograph: Courtesy of Maryam Zandi and the Guardian.

 A young girl holds up a photo of Ayatollah Khomeini above her head. Photograph: Maryam Zandi and the Guardian.

Rifle-toting revolutionaries, winter 1978-9. Photograph: Maryam Zandi and the Guardian.

Anti-Shah demonstrations. Photograph: Maryam Zandi and the Guardian.

 An array of literature. Photograph: Maryam Zandi and the Guardian.

A moment of euphoria. Photograph: Maryam Zandi and the Guardian.

An old man sleeps next to a wall covered with revolutionary graffiti. Photograph: Maryam Zandi and the Guardian.

The United States had a far reaching presence in Iran under the Shah. Photograph: Courtesy of Maryam Zandi and the Guardian.

Famous scenes from the revolution

Henghameh Golestan captured demonstrations against hijab
David Burnett’s 44 days of the Iranian revolution
Gilles Peress’ Telex Iran has become a collector’s item
Abbas Attar has a new site showcasing his work from that period
Reza Deghati, another well known Iranian photographer, also documented the revolution

Women join forces to protest against the hijab ruling in Tehran, Iran, 1979. Courtesy of Hengameh Golestan and the Telegraph

The Tehran Bureau is an independent media organisation, hosted by the Guardian. 

Via The Guardian

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