The last 30 years of Iranian history produced innumerable scenes of war, revolution, human joy and human suffering. Images of momentous change – from Tehran’s restive squares and the war-torn streets of Khorramshahr – became visually accessible to viewers across the globe through the pioneering work of Iranian photojournalists. These photojournalists expanded the purview of Iranian visual culture to include the collection and publication of the present.
However, photojournalists have not just documented the world around them, but have also become curators of contemporary history. The photojournalist has become an artist, using his/her knowledge of the camera, experience, and environment to produce iconic images of significant emotional depth that can reverberate throughout the collective memory of future generations. They become more than objective observers, for they excerpt a reality that can shape politics and affect world-wide awareness.
Kaveh Golestan (1950-2003), one of the pioneers of Iranian photojournalism, covered historic events from the 1979 Iranian Revolution and Iran-Iraq War. His work chronicled the lives of dispossessed, depicted the wave of revolutionary fervor that swept the Iranian masses, and documented the horrors of an 8-year long war. His photography was not just an exercise in realism, but was meant as social criticism to discomfort and inform viewers of human suffering at home and abroad. Many of Golestan’s assignments focused on the plight of the people of Kurdistan and their struggle for self-determination across the region.
Though he extensively photographed the Kurdish uprising in Iran during the early 80’s, he gained international acclaim for documenting the aftermath of the Saddam Hussein’s poison gas attack on the Kurdish village of Halabja, which resulted in approximately 5,000 civilian deaths and 10,000 casualties.
Golestan was surprised by the lack of international attention for the Kurdish people and made it his duty to raise awareness of the oppressed minority’s struggles. Believing the world had ignored the atrocities committed against the Kurdish population due to the politics of the Iran-Iraq War, Golestan openly criticized the silence of the international community.
“For many decades, even centuries, the Kurds have suffered from various forms of social and political injustice and repression… Only a short time ago, the whole world witnessed the unbelievable genocide in the small town of Halabja, where Saddam Hussein “chemicalized” the entire population. The reaction from the international community have been limited to the useless expressions of sympathy and commiseration; many democratic government went on supplying the perpetrators against the Kurds with arms, economic aid and political backing. In general, it seems that humanity has turned a blind eye to the sufferings going on in Kurdistan.”
While many of Golestan’s pictures from Kurdistan prominently featured refugees, wounded, and the poor, his last photo assignment in 1990 documented the rituals of the Qaderi dervishes located in the Zagros Mountains. For Golestan, the religious practices of the Qaderi dervishes served as an act of resistance which safeguarded the survival of a people.
“The characteristic worship that sets the Qaderi order apart from the other Sufi mystical orders is their belief in mind over matter, that they are protected from harms of normal, natural causes. During their regular zekr sessions, when they reach higher planes of existence, they perform feats that defy logic… Today, closed in on one side by the fundamentalist Shiis of Iran and the chemical-weapon-trigger-happy militarist regime in Iraq, perhaps it is better for the Kurds to practice the patient tolerance and endurance they learn from their traditions and beliefs in order to – always – survive.”
Through the camera lens, Kaveh Golestan was able to chronicle what he saw as injustice (as well as resistance to that injustice) and present it to world. Golestan captured iconic images of the Kurdish struggle up until his death in 2003.
Today, injustice and resistance still continue in the Kurdish regions of the Middle East. On December 29th, 2011, 35 Kurdish youth, aged from 16 to 20, were killed in a Turkish air strike inside Iraqi Kurdistan. This is just the latest incident in a war that has been continuing for decades. As is the case with war, the civilians suffer the most. Although Golestan’s images were taken decades ago, these scenes are recurring – Kurds are still mourning their dead and are striving to keep their history and traditions alive.