His hands clutching a white shroud, a man stands in tears and in visible pain as mourners gather in the Behesht-e zahara cemetery in December 1978. They are burying a 27-year-old teacher who was shot dead by the army in 24 Esfand Square in Tehran.
US photographer David Burnett was at the funeral, and captured the tragedy of the friends and family of this teacher paying their last respects to a victim of the demonstrations that rocked Iran from December 1978 to February 1979. Thirty years after the fall of the Shah, Burnett is exhibiting his photos - “44 Days: Iran and the Remaking of the World” - at the Perpignan photo festival.
As a photographer with 40 years’ experience, Burnett is something of an icon in contemporary photography. He has covered, amongst other world events, the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, Pinochet’s bloody coup in 1973, the Ethiopian famine, and the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989.
Witnessing history in the making
Burnett’s take on history reveals itself through sharp contrasts: stark images of demonstrations, burning buses, and political meetings at Tehran University. In one picture, the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, poses. Just days later ecstatic crowds celebrated his demise. On February 1, 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini is given a hero’s welcome as he steps off a plane in Tehran. Flanked by bodyguards, the revered Imam descends to the tarmac, ready to take up the reins of power. On this day, the Iman carried the hopes of a generation on his shoulders, all looking to a democratic future.
Burnett witnessed 44 days which changed the face of Iran, a country that has experienced foreign control, an enlightened monarchy, an obtuse autocracy and, finally, an authoritarian Islamic regime.
In less than two months, the country underwent profound change. In December 1978, Burnett hopped onto a plane to Tehran, interrupting a job in Baluchistan, Pakistan, for “Time Magazine,” with the feeling that he was missing out on something big. “"I had a sense of emergency of what was happening there. In the first couple of days, you could see it wasn’t an isolated accident. Everything that happened became a political act. […] In December, events reached a climax. I really didn’t know what I was stepping into, but I knew something important was going on. I planned on visiting the country for two days and stayed a couple of months,” he said.
Burnett plans is to release a book blending history and photography about the 44 days of upheaval in October 2009 (Contact Press Images). “We really wanted this book to be about photography but also a history book. We wanted people, who are interested in what happened in those days, to understand that it’s not just some made-up of history but a story of events in the timeline they happened”, says Burnett.
Burnett is happy to see high school students taking notes as they stroll through his exhibition. “You really want to share the pictures with people. They’re made for other people to see. It’s not that I fell like a teacher, but if people can get some sense of the history of that time thanks to the pictures, it’s terrific ! (...) When I see these young kids with their notebooks, I realise what I did had value.”
Old cameras are like big boxes of candy
Even if Burnett’s thirst for adventure has not left him, he has not worked in a conflict zone for almost twenty years. After getting married and the birth of his daughter, he decided to play safe and turn to political photography, capturing Carter, Bush, Clinton and Obama. Though competition is harsh, he still manages to stand out.
In 2004, he used a 1946 folding camera while photographing John Kerry campaigning in Las Vegas. His tripod looked out of place amongst the cutting-edge digital cameras, but Burnett had nothing to prove and likes to go against the grain. "I started shooting with old cameras as a kind of reaction to digital when it was taking over the world in the late 90’s. We’re all taking the picture with the same cameras, the same lenses. I wanted to take them from another perspective. Old cameras are like a big box of candy. If I see a picture that seems to be right with the old camera, it’s what I shoot. It's like a nice sweet desert, after using digital camera as a main meal."
Strolling through Perpignan, Burnett keeps a digital camera in his pocket “just in case” and an analog camera around his neck. And though several photographers on holiday in Perpignan have left their cameras at home, Burnett keeps his close by. After taking photographs all over the world for the past 40 years, his passion for the profession is unabated. And his eyes shine with adolescent candour when he talks about his first prints in the dark room, when the white paper suddenly came to life, as “if by magic”. And if someone mentions the possible death of photo journalism, he doesn’t believe it. The answers are there, and only need to be found.