Kaveh Kazemi’s images of the Iranian revolution and its aftermath reveal the country’s transition from a different era, and a contrast with its social upheaval today.
The image is one erased from official Iranian history books. Two women, both unveiled, have just been detained by Islamic volunteers with automatic rifles slung on their shoulders. The Iranian photographer Kaveh Kazemi, 28 at the time, followed the women walking home after they had participated in a protest against the introduction of the compulsory veil. Dressed in denim, so fashionable at the time, they are escorted away.
That picture, from 1979, captured the end of an era. Soon, Iran’s parliament passed a law making the Islamic veil compulsory for all women, even visiting dignitaries and tourists. The country remains one of the few in the world to ask people to dress according to the state’s wishes.
Four decades later, some women have again taken to the streets, removing their veils in protest. Feb. 11 is the 39th anniversary of the revolution that ousted the Shah and led to the Islamic republic’s creation. But instead of celebration, there is general dissatisfaction, as well as tensions over the economy and the political system. Nationwide protests that started in December lasted more than a week, leaving 25 people dead and nearly 5,000 detained.
With cameras everywhere and an unending torrent of images on social media, we forget how photography documents history. In Iran, where the state has long tried to impose its own versions of the truth, Mr. Kazemi’s work has aged particularly well. His images of the revolution, its aftermath and the war with Iraq have now been published in “Revolutionaries, the First Decade,” which shows that while today there is upheaval in Iran, and opponents abroad hail it as the start of a new revolution, it’s still very far from those early tumultuous years.
“These events do not compare in any way,” said Mr. Kazemi, who still works and lives in Tehran. “In 1978 and 1979 the people unanimously wanted the Shah out. Now there is disappointment among many, but the feeling is very different. Still the majority wants to see reforms within the existing system.”
His book has been as successful as a photo book can be in Iran, perhaps because it offers an alternative — and more realistic — narrative of the events leading to the 1979 revolution and its aftermath. Over the decades, the Iranian state has smoothed over the early era’s rawness, chaos and pain. Instead, state media and history books now portray it by relying on images of Ayatollah Khomeini’s return from exile, masses cheering and a new, Islamic administration taking hold.
Mr. Kazemi’s images, taken for international publications like Newsweek and Stern, were a test of sorts for Iran’s leaders, since censors at first wanted to remove some 20 images. “The publisher and I objected, saying we couldn’t alter actual historic events,” he said. “They reduced it to one image, not a bad score.”
That one objectionable picture is of a banner showing the late founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, with a protester’s fist in front of it. “I never understood what the issue was with that particular image,” said Mr. Kazemi.
The book shows many taboo topics, like a sequence of a post-revolution firefight between competing groups. Years of bloody infighting have long been ignored by the state media’s narrative of Iran’s visual contemporary history, with those in power preferring to pretend — with images at least — that they led the revolutionary vanguard from the start.
He also followed protests where women refused to wear the Islamic veil, while men smile arrogantly at them. Official news media rarely show images of the transition years before the veil became compulsory, going as far as editing out those women without scarves for their archives.
Mr. Kazemi waited decades before he could publish these pictures.
“I did not want to compromise on the images I wanted to show and frankly, I thought for many years that getting a permit to publish such a book was a near-impossible dream,” he said. The fact that he could publish his straightforward book now is a sign that there has been a change of view among some in the Iranian leadership. “Somehow some reforms are working,” he said, “and those in power are much more realistic nowadays.”
His black and white images also show how long ago the revolution occurred: The anti-American slogans and murals feel dated, as do the mustaches, hippie pants and now-classic American cars. Iranian society has changed and modernized beyond recognition, but what remains a fixture are the ruling clerics with their turbans and cloaks.
Mr. Kazemi has witnessed it all. The book’s final pages are devoted to the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, a moment when many thought the Islamic republic would soon end. He showed the millions who flocked to his funeral, an event that stretched over several days of public mourning. After the funeral, a new leader was elected, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is still in power.
Mr. Kazemi has always been an outsider in Iran’s journalistic circles, never belonging to any political faction. It’s the only way to survive in a polarized country.
“For me, photography is best at its simplest and purest form, looking at things directly,” he said. “But it’s not just clicking the shutter, you also have to convey a message.”
What message exactly?
“To put in perspective what you are witnessing.”