David Burnett’s 44 Days in Iran (Interview)

It was hard to walk anywhere and not see signs of the Revolution. Here, a makeshift wall painting, with a portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini, in Tehran, February 1979.  Photo by David Burnett

It was hard to walk anywhere and not see signs of the Revolution. Here, a makeshift wall painting, with a portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini, in Tehran, February 1979. Photo by David Burnett

Like much of the world, David Burnett spent the tumultuous days after this year’s disputed Iranian elections mesmerized by the images of enormous crowds protesting in the streets despite violent repression. Defying the authorities, ordinary citizens made and distributed photographs and videos that revealed a regime that was brutally striking out at its people.

The images that shocked others seemed eerily familiar to Mr. Burnett. He had witnessed and documented similar scenes in 1979 during the Iranian revolution.

“When you look at my photographs, and some of the cellphone pictures this summer, it’s almost spooky because you see the same kinds of moments, except with different cars and different clothes,” Mr. Burnett said in a telephone interview. “The irony is that the people in my pictures became the new regime that is now trying to quell the street demonstrations 30 years later.”

His extraordinary photographs of the Iranian revolution, many of which were published in Time magazine, have been compiled in “44 Days: Iran and the Remaking of the World” (Focal Point/ National Geographic), which features an introduction by the reporter John Kifner of The New York Times. The 223-page hardcover book also contains Mr. Burnett’s chronological account of the events culled from scattered notes, caption envelopes and memories prodded by looking at old contact sheets.

Mr. Burnett writes about being arrested by the shah’s police after photographing the smoldering remains of a house used as a torture chamber by Savak, the domestic security and intelligence service. He also writes about photographing General Taghi Latifi, who was said to work for Savak, being dragged from his burning car and beaten by anti-Shah demonstrators.

One of Mr. Burnett’s greatest successes in Iran was an early opportunity to photograph Ayatollah Khomeini shortly after his triumphant arrival in Iran. After several days of photographing him from the crowds outside his window, Mr. Burnett talked his way into photographing the Ayatollah inside his room. He was led to an ordinary door and was asked to remove his boots.

“I check my cameras. More than once, like every other photographer in history, I’ve shot picture after picture with no film. This time, there won’t be any screwups. I flip up the rewind lever on each camera, backwinding until I feel the tug of the roll. Then, guessing at what I think the light might be in the room I set the exposure. I nod to Javad that I’m ready.

The door opens. It’s so quiet inside it’s startling: on the outside it is noisy, loud, hundreds of well wishers pushing and shoving and screaming. But inside, the glass window overlooking the playground is closed, and it’s as if I’m looking through a TV screen with the sound turned off.

As we walk in, one of the mullahs is holding a tray to pick up an empty teacup from Khomeini. The ayatollah is sitting on the floor with his back against the wall about eight feet from me. Seeing him up close, the first thing I think is that he actually looks like I thought he’d look like. I mean, Khomeini looks exactly like his pictures.”

I make a couple of quick shots. Then I vaporize, heading for the opposite corner of the small room. Khomeini is cool and calm, speaking in soft whispers to his fellow mullahs. He never makes eye contact with me and I have the impression he doesn’t even know I’m there.”

This is the second book by Mr. Burnett, who was a co-founder of the photo agency Contact Press Images.

Mr. Burnett has tried to return to Iran many times, but he has always been denied a visa by the Iranian government.

One of the world’s best working photojournalists, Mr. Burnett has been at the fulcrum of history for the past 40 years. But this summer, he found himself on the outside, looking at the photographs that everyday people took.

“There was plenty of photographs getting out,” Mr. Burnett said.

Related Photo Essay:

44 Days: A Revolution Revisited

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