Assignment Iran: Peter Bregg

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Iran, the country of rich history, colorful cultures and society, spectacular natural beauty and vast fauna and flora diversity has long been at the receiving end of unfavorable propaganda to the detriment of truth, reality and touristic curiosity. Those who have visited Iran have been pleasantly mesmerized by its people and places. But, how do professional photo journalists and photographers see this country? Assignment Iran is a four part documentary that, in each episode, tries to depict what a renowned photo journalist or photographer has to say about his time in the country. Some recount their stories and experiences of their deployments to Iran at the time of what later became one of the most essential turn of events in the second half of the 20th century: The Islamic Revolution of 1979 and then during Iran-Iraq war which is known as the most elongated war of the century. While others say what they found fascinating about the people and what frames they have frozen through the lenses.

So I’ve been in the same room as the Shah of Iran & in the same room as Ayatollah Khomeini, and the same room as Ayatollah Khamenei

It was probably the most tense, the most exhilarating assignment of my career .

I’m from the Ottawa area I was born on the Québec side holm, now called Getno Quebec So I grew up in the Ottawa area & I started my photographic career in the Ottawa area working for Canadian press on the parliamentary bureau in Ottawa And I was there for about seven years, actually when I started I was 17 years old as a copy boy When I was based in Washington between 1975 & 1978 in I think it was in the winter of 78, the Shah of Iran visited the White House & this riot was taking place outside the White House; there were people who were pro-Shah & there were people who were anti-Shah & this guy here was anti-Shah, & so was she, but this guy here is from Savak And see this camera; he was photographing the students, that’s why he’s ripping of her mask So they can prove who she was/ is And so these people here are protesting And this group here, the communist group, they’ve been banned as a terrorist organization But now I think the Americans are reconsidering And that’s the White House back here .

So they’ve got one guy here This guy was from the Savak, and this guy here was a student So in 1978 after almost 5 years in Associated Press I left Washington, came back to Ottawa back to my old job I got a promotion I was now Chief Photographer of the Ottawa Bureau and so about a year & a half later, after the revolution the American embassy was seized by the students .

And so the Canadian Press asked me to go back since I already had experience with the Associated Press Because Canadian Press is a national agency, strictly Canadian News but the Associated Press was closed down and many of the American & British agencies were also closed They expelled all the British & the American journalists so Canadian press was not getting any news from anybody At least to buy it from other agencies, so they assigned me to Tehran I was there for 3 months & then I was relieved by someone else and this was in January of 1980 The embassy was taken in November 79, and 3 months later in January I was sent to Tehran.

We arrived there around 16th or 17th; I think it was the 15th of January of 1980 when the Iranian government announced that all western journalists would be expelled And I guess we were back, we were in Tehran within 5 days And then within another few days I visited the Canadian embassy and with a reporter & we had an interview with Ken Taylor, our Ambassador.

What we didn’t know was that 6 Americans were in the basement that day Because you know when the day of this ceasing of the embassy, these 6 Americans found their way to residents of diplomats and then stayed in residents of diplomats for quite some time But near the end, when they were getting ready to leave the country, they brought them all to the embassy for security reasons This is what I’ve read .

And so from what I read it appears that the day I was there with our reporter interviewing Ken Taylor these people were down in the basement or lower level And in about a week later when they left in about midnight I got a phone call from our office in Toronto saying the Prime Minister just announced in the House of Commons that Ken Taylor our Ambassador has left Tehran and is escorting 6 Americans What do you know about this? Well, obviously we knew nothing You know, there was one reporter from I think it was La Press in Montreal who had found himself with information about that story & was sworn to secrecy until they were released because they didn’t want to jeopardize the escape of these 6 people Now this is in Tehran and the students this is taken through the gates at the American Embassy But every day I would go to the embassy & try to find pictures of Friday morning prayer .

The Chador was a good piece of clothing because no matter what the person was doing it said Iran, so it’s one of the students with her riffle .

That’s me; I had hair on my head then .

Now wait a second why is it that these 6 escaped about a week & a half after you arrived You know we weren’t part of it, we knew nothing… Gosh! Can you imagine what a scoop that would have been for me? But we knew nothing But went through my mind that they might be suspicious And so within a week no one had bothered us officially But when we showed up at press conferences held by the students or representatives of the students, when they looked at my badge you know Canadian they would scuff, but still let us in You know they understood that the free flow of information was important to everybody’s cause.

I was replaced by another Canadian photographer in early April or late March and the aborted rescue attempt caused the students to panic, they took the hostages out of the embassy & dispersed them around the country that we were told And the photographer who replaced me Fred Shocktrof of Canadian Press in Ottawa had a tip that they were somewhere near Tabriz I think was the town So he headed out of town on his own and of course he got caught And he wasn’t allowed to Travel outside of Tehran without permission at that time so they expelled him And he came home and we were pretty bare on the ground, we had a couple of Iranian journalists who were freelancing for Canadian Press providing day to day coverage And then in September when war broke out with Iraq the coverage for the first 2-3 weeks was mostly from the Iraqi side And of course the Iraqis had made inroads into Iran territory so the news was probably negative towards Iran, and all of a sudden we got a phone call saying you know if you want a visa to cover the war, we’ll get you visas .

The war broke with Iraq in September it was I think of 1980, and so then we applied for visa again & the Iranian government said ok So I went back to Tehran and stayed for 3 months until Christmas and then I was heading off home .

This picture here with the machine gun, & he’s got a portrait of Ayatullah Khomeini here on the other side I have, I took a picture from the other side, but the one on this side looks better So you have a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini This war people have said that was fought very similar to WWI where you know masses of troupes from no man’s land crossing over, machine gun nets & that’s what these guys are doing All these machine gun nests, although I hate seeing the Iraqi army marching up these hills for whatever purpose You know we were shelling because we had to This guy’s standing up & we’re all told walk low, they didn’t want the Iraqi spotters to see us & start hopping shells over .

And someone else was supposed to replace me but his visa got refused so they asked me to try & go back I applied for visas in Paris, London, the Iranian embassy Pardon me I tried for visa in Paris because I was in London at the time but the Iranian embassy in London had been closed down so I flew to Paris & applied for visa And they said well that can take days, so for about a week or so I waited in Paris & then the release was becoming more eminent They were rumors said that it was going to happen and so & that they would, the hostages would go through Algeria I also applied for a visa to go to Algeria and but oh, about a week & a half after I applied for visas, the Iranian government said no & the Algerian government yes so I went to Algiers Algeria would be the first stop, because the Algerian government had been negotiating the release of the Americans on behalf of the American government .

The Americans had not been allowed to speak to the Iranians priory; Warren Kristopher was the Deputy Secretary of State who has said that he wasn’t allowed to speak, or they would speak with him He did it through the Algerian government In any case on the 19th Warren Kristopher signed the document and the agreement with the Iranians & the Algerians that for one they would not retaliate by suing the Iranian government and or allowing any Americans to sue the Iranian government And the next day on the 20th at close to midnight Algerian airlines sat down in Algiers & the hostages came out of that plane And I was there with my camera as Canadians were used to be a little guy; you know we feel impotent all the time But for the Americans to feel impotent must have been a very strange feeling And they were, during that hostage crisis And so being able to photograph these people who had been 444 days in captivity and I know myself I felt I was a captive in Tehran that 3 months stretch twice that year It starts to wear you down So the Americans arrived, I took some pictures & the next day or 2 days later I left, went home, went back to normal life I had a wife & 2 daughters they were about 11 & 12 so I took a few weeks off vacation & we took them to Disneyland.

I’d love to go back, I think you know to see what I missed you know I was I traveled through many parts of Iran but it was always you know chasing the story, it was during the war with Iraq & you know photographing villages that have been bombed by the Iraqis or out in the hills with the Iranian soldiers And then you know downtown Tehran & then of course the bus rides you know from when I went to Iran in the fall of 1980 after the war broke with Iraq, the airport, Mehrabad airport was closed so I had to fly to Turkey & then to Erzurum & then from Erzurum take the car to the border & then take a bus from the border to Tehran And so that was I forget a 12 hour drive And overnight it was very tough And then when we were during my time in Tehran that 2nd trip we were expelled; the reporter & I were expelled so we had to go by road again back to Tabriz & then onto the border, and crossed over & then we went to Istanbul & we applied for visas & then 2 weeks later I guess it was we were back in Tehran So it was kind of strange that they would expel us & then allow us to come back.

I got to photograph Ayatollah Khomeini It wasn’t that great a shot, it wasn’t that great an event; it was he came into a mosque & said a few words & everyone cheered & prayed & then he left But for me it was a highlight because this man was so famous I’ve been photographing over the last 40 years, 42 years presidents, kings, emperors, prime ministers, actors you know so many people; and so having a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini fits right in there with all the famous people And of course while I was there I covered the daily politics because the daily politics would have an effect on the negotiations And everyday working for a news service you have to supply news & pictures everyday Even though nothing is happening with regards to the Americans Every little bit of news everyday is what gets into the front pages and this story was front page news.

They took us to a wait for a moment to the helicopter, the orange helicopter

-flies over often I guess?

-Well, the hospitals are right over there So we’ll just let them land

Friday prayer was always a good place to be because you’d have a couple of thousand, 3000 men praying & there’d be a someone making a speech

This is one of my favorites because at the time Ali Khamenei was a HujjatIslam, and Friday prayer, we used to go to Friday Prayer I’m a Catholic but I went to Friday Prayer so that I could see whoever was speaking that day & what was happening And at this particular day it was a bit unusual to see a preacher with a riffle & a (?) in his hand and of course he has since become the supreme ruler

Working as a journalist back then, more then than now—today journalists are targets like everybody else—it wasn’t as common back then to target journalists I think in the war in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia that’s when I think I remember seeing journalists being targeted so readily by either side .

You know in the Vietnam War the Americans you know were there & most of the journalists covered the war from the American side of the war And so you’re always with what you would call friendly’s But you’re not supposed to take sides as a journalist, but you can’t help but be optimistic about the side you’re traveling with because your safety might depend that But journalists who were, there were journalists who were killed by accident obviously, you know if they were there in a helicopter with American troops, they get shot down, they get killed, they weren’t targeted .

This was a Yugoslavian journalist, Mr Petrovich we were at a village during the Iraq War, we were at a village that had been bombed and I saw him pushing the kid away, and he put this kid here in the middle of the rubble & so I started taking pictures I knew what he was doing & this is something you’re not supposed to do; he gets the kid to sit right here, he says stand right here, see these books? This was a school that was bombed by the Iraqis—and then he has the kid to sit down & then he gets back and takes the picture.

After I took this picture, he happened to look up & he noticed I had taken his picture—he’s a big too so he comes after me screaming… Give me that camera! Give me that film! …Uhr uhr ! I back up & Mike Wallace is with us & Mike Wallace stepped forward you know… What’s going on? What’s going on? And then one of the mullahs who was guiding us stepped in & so Mr Petrovich says: He took my picture, I want it! So I looked at the mullah & said I’m happy to make him a print as soon as I get back to Tehran, I’ll give him a print Well, but he just gave up & just walked away But that was the shot that he wanted to make & you know it’s a good picture but you’re not supposed to set it up You know, & of course & that was before during the cold war and so because the Americans were being blamed for the Iraqi War, it played into the hands of the East Europeans quite well So Mr Petrovich was quite happy to accommodate the political slant on the story So that was the whole sequence there.

You know the media writes what they hear They don’t always write what you say, they write what they hear So it’s not so that I mean I’m teaching photography & journalism in school & in all the journalism schools they teach & they preach the young people that they’re supposed to be objective, they’re supposed to be able to tell both sides of the story But if the news, the information he was getting is only from one side then you have to report just that one side You know when we look at American politics today, religion; I’ve heard religion, the talk of religion a lot more in this last election campaign than the previous & the one before that So you know the world is very different from one corner to the other You have to learn to live side by side with everyone else’s culture And so the media is not perfect, media gets it wrong often .

And here I am 30 years later I thought about doing an exhibit of photographs from Tehran a couple of times over the last 30 years And finally it dawned on me that this was a good time to do it I’ve since retired from full time photo journalism & so I was able to go through my pictures in the basement And I came here to this gallery & they were very anxious to show these pictures, and so here we are 30 years, but to the day it was probably the most tense, the most exhilarating assignment of my career I talk about it as if it happened yesterday but obviously it’s been 3 decades ago .

   

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