Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Kaveh Golestan's life and work celebrated in new book

When in 2003 the Iranian photojournalist and documentary filmmaker Kaveh Golestan stepped on a landmine in northern Iraq and was instantly killed, the Middle East lost one of its greatest recorders of the tumultuous events in the region. And beyond his skills as a photographer and filmmaker, his companions and colleagues in Iran and in the world of international photojournalism lost a precious friend and mentor who is still deeply missed.

Five years on from Golestan’s death the German publisher Hatje Cantz, in collaboration with the Prince Claus Fund Library, has produced an enduring tribute to the man and his work in the form of the book, “Kaveh Golestan 1950-2003: Recording the Truth in Iran”. The handsome volume is jointly edited by the journalist and editor Malu Halasa and Golestan’s wife and fellow photographer Hengameh Golestan.

The large format of the 168-page book does justice to the 128 black and white images it features, some of which spread extend over double pages. One of the pictures that stretches across two pages is an emblematic photograph showing Ayatollah Khomeini making his first public appearance at the Alavi School February 4 1979, after his arrival back from exile. In another double-spread image, taken in Mahabad in 1980, Kurdish children rush towards the photographer, their faces full of excitement.

Golestan’s camera takes us not only inside the dramatic political events that engulfed Iran, but also intimately into the lives of individuals. He focused equally on the epoch-defining events, and on forgotten, marginalized people: the poor, prostitutes, the mentally handicapped. Among the upheavals he captured on film were the Iranian revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, the first Gulf war, the US-led war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and the invasion and war in Iraq. He was particularly concerned to record the impact of these events on the people who were most immediately affected by them.

The photographs in the book are divided into seven main sections, each introduced by a one-page essay by Golestan. The first section shows prostitutes in the Shahr-e No (New City) area of Tehran in 1975-77. Golestan writes of how the people in this area lived at an “almost subhuman level”. The majority of the prostitutes’ clients were poor rural men, who would transmit sexual diseases back to their wives in their villages.

The laborers portrayed in a series of photographs taken in Tehran in 1977 were rural migrants. They worked in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, enduring excruciating physical labor in dangerous conditions lacking the minimum health and safety protocols. “Due to insufficient wages, they are often hungry and undernourished, forced to live in shoddy shacks with only nylon bags as roofing,” Golestan wrote. He was perturbed to find that many children worked as manual laborers.

Golestan’s photographs of mentally disturbed children were taken in 1977 in the largest mental hospital in Tehran. Pumped full of drugs, the children “survive in a vegetative state similar to the plants grown in the pots placed around the rooms of the hospital”. Staff would chain them to radiators or tie their hands with string, ignoring their suffering.

Golestan’s extensive chronicling of the Iranian Revolution in 1978-80 began when a friend alerted him to demonstrations in Qom. He travelled there, and “with my photos I managed to capture the very first sparks of the Revolution.” He also saw the first bloodshed of the Revolution, when police started throwing tear gas and shooting demonstrators.

One section of the book is devoted to photographs of the uprising in Kurdistan in 1988-89. Golestan covered Kurdish social and political developments in the north of Iraq for more than 10 years, and was only eight miles from Halabja when it was attacked with chemical weapons in 1988. His extraordinary photographs of the Qaderi Dervishes of Kurdistan show groups of long-haired men dancing in ecstasy, their hair flung in the air.

The Iran-Iraq war 1980-88 had a profound impact on Golestan: “I spent eight years looking at death through my camera.” He was amazed at how youngsters were willing to die for their beliefs. “I felt I had to show this through my photos. I was in search of the deep human feelings that were buried within each person.” He became addicted to the chemical rush to the brain during the conflict and often felt like a vulture. “Death had become my companion and I was beginning to have psychological problems.”

When he saw the dismembered bodies of young children in Abadan, “the feelings of shock and violence were so extreme that I felt that it was my duty to let the world know about these horrors, to understand the suffering.” His photographs show in harrowing detail the impact of the ghastly Iran-Iraq war on humans, whether fighters or civilians. One image is of a chador-clad woman atop a tank, wielding a Kalashnikov. The caption says that when this photograph was published in the Guardian newspaper, a reader wrote in to complain about the woman’s mishandling of the weapon.

On one occasion he was forced to take cover in a trench “filled with the bloated and purple corpses of Iraqi soldiers. I was forced to hide in the trench for six hours with them – in the grave, in the world of death, ultimate annihilation.” He writes that after the war ended “I found that it had left me with a constant feeling of anxiety and unease. I do not have much emotion left to give. I have already seen the end.”

Golestan’s work was acclaimed worldwide, and in 1979 he was given a Robert Capa Award for his photographic coverage of the Iranian Revolution, which was the major foreign story of that year. He was present in Iran throughout the tumultuous process by which Iran was transmuted into an Islamic republic, from Ayatollah Khomeini’s ’s return from exile in Paris in 1979 to his funeral ten years later.

Malu Halasa notes that Golestan was the only Iranian photojournalist with a continuing presence in Iran from before the 1979 Revolution until his death in 2003. “He developed a distinct aesthetic long before the Revolution, challenging notions of beauty and honesty in the Shah’s Iran, where the poor and dispossessed were, for the most part, invisible,” she writes. She describes how in 1977 he hid his camera in a bag of fruit and befriended the prostitutes who inhabited dilapidated buildings in Shahr-e No.

Golestan’s work frequently aroused the ire of the authorities. When Britain’s Channel Four TV in 1991 broadcast his film “Recording the Truth”, about journalists in Iran, he was subjected to two years’ house arrest. As well as being stripped of his press card and barred from leaving Tehran, he was made to lecture at the art college at the University of Tehran where, Halasu notes, “he inspired a generation of photojournalists and reporters.”

The essays that comprise the first part of the book include six contributions from people who knew Golestan well. Among them is the veteran BBC journalist Jim Muir who was with Golestan when he was killed. Muir was the BBC correspondent in Iran between 1999 and 2004, and during that time, he and Golestan covered events in many parts of Iran, as well as in neighboring Afghanistan and northern Iraq.

Muir recalls how on what would be the last day of his life, Golestan’s thoughts seemed to be firmly focused on his own identity and how he related to the events he and Muir were covering and anticipating. Although he had by then been a TV cameraman for some years, he still identified himself primarily as a photographer. He suddenly said to Muir: “I am a war photographer... It is in situations like this that I am truly me.’”

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette February 25 2008

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