When words are inadequate, photographs guide us:
52 days of resistance in Iran
Neal Ulevich, the American photographer who captured the images of the Oct 6th, 1976, Thammasat massacre in Thailand, and won the Pulitzer Prize for his work, recounts the day he walked inside the university campus at 7:30 a.m., held his camera up and ready, and started to document what is now described as one of the darkest days in Thailand’s modern history. “I had seen violent riots elsewhere and of course, considerable combat in Indochina. But this event was marked by a surfeit of wild shooting, crazier than anything I had seen.” He says in an interview published by Bangkok Post.
The brutal crackdown by the police and the right-wing paramilitaries against the leftist protestors who had occupied the Bangkok Thammasat University created a day that even a photographer like Ulevich, who’d witnessed so many other riots and unrests, could never forget.
One of the most renowned photos of this day, now known as the “folding chair” picture, became a history lesson in the country and in Ulevich’s own words when they talk about learning from history in Thailand, “the reference is almost always the ‘folding chair’ picture.”
The image, vicious, sharp, and almost too unreal that makes you want to huddle up in denial, shows the lifeless body of a lynched student protestor, surrounded by a crowd, some of whom are sporting a smile on their faces, as a man proceeds to beat up the body with a folding chair. This image, along with another 16, was sent to AP Tokyo, London, and New York on the evening of Oct 6th to be released and shown to the world. “To put things in perspective, sending 17 images was nearly unheard of for reasons of effort and cost. But this was clearly a story that deserved to have all available resources thrown at it.” Ulevich explains.
That same night, the police raided local newspapers and seized films and photos of the event, leaving foreign media offices untouched; one must wonder if the police and the government wanted the world to see what had transpired that day.
History is filled with tragedy, and when words cannot explain the depth of one event, we rely on visuals to guide us through. For this piece, I googled the term: “photos that shocked the world,” and it didn’t surprise me to see an array of images that held the warning “some of these images might be disturbing” on their headlines.
From the Tiananmen Square 1989 by Stuart Franklin to the picture taken by Nilufer Demir of the lifeless body of little Aylan Kurdi on the shores of Bodrum, the internet is overflowed with images that have touched our communities one way or the other; in fact, some of them have gone beyond borders, to touch our very souls. It is unfortunate that the theme of most of them is war, fleeing and refuge.
A photograph speaks louder than words. It creates a bridge between the past, the present and the future. And whether it is taken by a professional or an ordinary citizen, the importance of the event captured within never wavers.
We are now on day 52 of the uprising in Iran as a result of the 22-year-old Mahsa Amini’s murder by the morality police for wearing an improper hijab, and images and videos of protests are surging out of the country. Most of them are captured by ordinary citizens and independent local photojournalists, who have taken it upon themselves to document this important time in the country’s modern history since the regime controls the official media, and the presence of foreign correspondence is unofficially banned. While the regime has shut off the internet, the tactic that it also used in the 2019 protests which led to a brutal crackdown of protestors, it is important to understand the level of bravery these people are putting forward to capture every moment since the mere act of filming and taking pictures can get you arrested, and in cases like Niloufar Hamedi and Elaheh Mohammadi, can criminalize you by the regime; the struggle of sending out these documentations is another story, with what little access people have to the internet.
Iranians all around the world have been bombarded with images and videos that show the brutality used against citizens from all ages and groups, and even though this act of violence has been the core method of the regime since it took power in 1979, now, with the aid of social media, the ferocity seems unbearable. It started with the image of the bruised and tortured Mahsa Amini on a hospital bed a few days before her death, and it has since continued with one horrific photo after the other.
They say every photo has a story, a set, a theme, characters, and a past that we might not see within the frame. To understand history through a camera lens, it is crucial to learn the story being told. I asked my comrades, a group of diasporas that have come together since the protests began to do what we can for our sisters and brothers on the streets of Iran, to share a few of the images that have struck them the most. I wanted to know if we’ve all been touched by the same images or if our own experiences in life create a bond between our feelings and a specific visual. What follows is only a smidgen of the many they shared with me, and it seems that our collective consciousness is petrified by the same events.
Roya stands over her mother’s grave with her newly shaved head. Her defiance has been captured in various artworks dedicated to the protest. Minoo Majidi was shot and killed on September 21st in Kermanshah.
16-year-old Erfan Zamani was shot by the regime forces. They didn’t allow other protestors to take him to the hospital, and kept him on the ground, until he bled out and died on November 3rd in Lahijan.
A female protestor burns her headscarf in front of the riot police. Burning the hijab has become a symbol of women’s resistance and their way of saying: “My body, my choice.”
Hossein Ronaghi, a renowned political/social activist, is being taken away by the police. He was arrested a few days into the uprising. He was beaten by the police, which left one of his legs broken, as he serves time in solitary confinement without access to healthcare.
Mehran Shekari was shot at point blank by the riot police and left to die on Nov 3rd in Khoramdasht.
A little girl mourns over her mother’s grave. Fereshteh Ahmadi was shot and killed by the regime forces on Oct 26th in Mahabad.
A 7-year-old Kurdish girl stands over her father’s grave and shows the victory sign. Mahsa (Jhina) Amini was also a Kurdish woman, and the Kurds have been at the forefront of the protests.
If the occupants of the Thammasat campus had the advantage of having foreign journalists and photographers present on the day their government failed them and created a catastrophe for generations to mourn, Iranian protestors have the advantage of social media.
In his op-ed for Maclean’s, Murad Hemmadi writes about the erasing of history and explains it this way: “Societies are built on shared sets of facts, ideas, and stories. In other words, societies are built on canons. History is a subset of the canon, containing events and figures from the past that are of some interest or importance. Religion is another, consisting of beliefs and rituals. A nation is based on a canon: groups of people share history and principles, from which come culture, economy, and systems of law and government.”
Totalitarian regimes are prone to shutting out what contradicts their power and belief system, and we have seen this with the Islamic Republic as well. Erasing the past, and censoring the present, is one of the ways to control the nation. Documenting what is happening on the streets of Iran is the only way to preserve history and, second, to hold the regime accountable for its crimes. While the people of Iran are fighting for their most basic human rights and brave grave danger on the streets, it is up to the rest of us to keep the momentum of their fight alive by continuing to educate ourselves about their demands and record history as it happens.