“44 Days and the Portrayal of History in Tehran”
– David Burnett
My camera filter—should it be 30 magenta? Ten never seemed quite enough, and 40, well, it was a little too magenta. For decades this decision punctuated my daily life as a photojournalist. Why? The short answer: fluorescent bulbs. For the past three decades, they’ve been ubiquitous, yet no color film worked without camera adjustments in this bluish/greenish light. Flesh tones came out a very ugly blue. Getting people to look “normal” required adding a little reddish filtration. Hence, 30 magenta—somewhere between purple and red, in mild enough amounts so that flesh tones could be rendered realistically.

There was not much that an editor could do to correct the image after my shutter snapped. Film was our medium. Digital rendering existed on music CDs and image scanning but the digital camera wasn’t yet the size that photographers could use. Nor was everyone eager to replace film. It had a certain physical sturdiness and the quality of its image, well, it would be hard to match. While processing time could be frustratingly slow, there was something that felt definitive and assuring when those individual frames were finally in your hands.

Film is now yesterday, and where digital will take us in photojournalism is impossible to know.

Magic Phone Calls

For 40 years, I’ve worked as a photojournalist. Despite the rise of TV back in the late 1960’s, there were still plenty of magazines eager to publish photographs as their way of showing readers what was happening in the world. It was my good fortune to start out at such a time—when still photographers were much in demand and those magic phone calls from editors came my way.

In November 1978, Time’s picture editor, Arnold Drapkin, reached me with such a call.

“Are you free these days?” he asked.

Not wanting to give him the impression I wasn’t working, I replied, “I could be.”

By that afternoon, I was in his office.

“We’d like you to go to Baluchistan,” he told me.

“Great! Where is it?”

“I don’t know,” he replied.

On a world map on the wall, we located my destination in a western province of Pakistan, a scene of tribal activity and, even then, a center of intrigue. In the two weeks I was there I took pictures that ranged from Ashura self-flagellation parades to young girls weaving rugs to a portrait of the Khan of Kalat, one of the reigning tribal leaders. In the language of that time, such assignments were called a “country story,” combining visual depth with comprehensive reporting. I left with dozens of rolls of Kodachrome and Tri-X lovingly packed into caption envelopes and headed for Karachi to figure out my next move. As often happened, rather than heading back to New York, we’d look for another story in the region, and at that time I’d been hearing about the unrest in Tehran. The shah was confronting the rise of fundamentalist forces so after talking with Contact Press Images, my photo agency in New York, I decided to go to Iran—and ship the film back to Time on its own.

Tehran, 1978

RELATED MEDIA David Burnett recently spoke about his time in Tehran and showed his photos at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

Arriving the day after Christmas in Tehran, I found myself in a place that was slowly falling apart. The evidence was all around me: There was no immigration officer to stamp my passport, no interrogation as to how long I wanted to stay. I just walked through the airport corridors, got my bags, and found a taxi to the city.

Figuring out the logistics of how I’d do my work there was another matter. We had no mobile phones and no Internet, which meant no e-mail or easy way of communicating with those back home. And to get home what I would shoot meant finding people who were headed West and would agree to carry my film. (Now, when I hear those security announcements admonishing passengers not to accept anything from strangers, I laugh at the memory of what we went through.)

Choosing someone as a “pigeon” started with a taxi ride to Mehrabad airport. With the dissolution of civil order, I’d walk unchallenged into departure lounges where I’d find crowds of travelers whose sole interest was fleeing Iran. My job then became convincing someone of the importance of this mission to get my film safely to Paris—and from there it would be flown to New York. What amazes me to this day is that every roll of film I shipped this way reached its destination.

Back on the streets of Tehran a day rarely passed without an event of some significance, but in an era before cell phones finding out where I should be proved a constant challenge. However, with Time’s stringer in Tehran also being The Associated Press bureau chief—with his own team of stringers alert for news tips—my sources were good and reliable as they used phone booths on the street to report on what was developing.

The revolution was bubbling up on Tehran’s streets and at University of Tehran. Messages from Ayatollah Khomeini—still in exile in France—were played at Friday prayer gatherings on audiotape cassettes. On the street I had the feeling that I was chasing a race already in progress; the starting line had already vanished and no one could tell where the finish line would be. So I leapt into the middle and followed the action, and thereby came to learn more about what was happening.

Back in New York, editors followed news reporting about the increasing unrest. In some ways, the few days of delay that existed before my film reached them was good since by the time they saw the pictures they had a good sense of what they were looking for. Today, this idea seems quaint as satellites—and Twitter and Facebook—deliver live video feeds and TV stations often broadcast unedited video before journalists there have even absorbed its significance (or insignificance) for themselves. For me, the idea of having a knowledgeable editor be the one to look first at my images always made sense.

Enduring Value

Today, it seems that speed trumps all else, becoming the way success is measured. It might be better if other factors—such as content and reliability and value—were to trump speed when it comes to evaluating visual journalism. Add to these elements the enduring power of an image and its ability to touch the public in ways that provoke thought and motivate them to become engaged, and now we’re arriving at what might be a pretty good formula for figuring out what that elusive word “value” means.

During the past decade, many photojournalists have swapped their camera bag for a backpack. Gear for the camera is now supplemented by a laptop and wireless card, audio equipment, and other multimedia devices. Yet with us now, perhaps not so visible but just as weighty, is another companion—the feeling we have of always rushing. Competition in our business seems to be more about speed than value.

With cameras everywhere and everyone having one, the playing field of image taking and instant distribution is leveled. Still, how an image’s journalistic value is evaluated ought not to tumble down to the lowest common denominator. Speed matters. To pretend it doesn’t is to be out of touch with our digital age. But there are (and will be) times—and I hope plenty of them—when lasting dividends will come by taking a deep breath, sitting back, and absorbing what well-conceived photographs tell us. It’s remarkable what a picture can convey when we give it time to do so.

David Burnett is cofounder of Contact Press Images, a New York City-based photojournalism agency. His images, shot in some 80 countries have appeared in Time, Life, Paris Match, Geo, and Fortune.

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