Assignment Iran: George Steinmetz

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 six 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 Iraq-Iran 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.

TIME CODE: 00:00_05:00

SOUNDBITE [English], George Steinmetz, Photographer: “I’m George Steinmetz, I’m a photographer. For the past 15 years I’ve focused on all the world’s extreme deserts, very low kind of 3 dimensional almost humanistic aerial photographs. And I became fascinated with desert ramps because they were very beautiful. It’s like the Earth with its living skin peeled away. And you can see all the things that have shaped the earth & history of the earth like in ancient cities & all of her courses & earthquake faults & it’s all laid bare.”

“The kind of aircraft I use is kind of unusual; it’s a motorized paraglider, it’s the lightest & slowest aircraft in the world. And you can run to take off & land. The motor is a little backpack; I think it’s kind of like a leaf-blower. And then the wing is it’s a para shoot style wing. And I don’t need an airfield to take off or land. And I went to Iran I think it was 2004 to photograph the salt deserts in southern Iran, from the areas from the south of Tehran down to Chabahar on the Indian Ocean.”

“The landscape there is fascinating to me there & also the ancient culture & how the people have adapted to the living in the area is very interesting to me. And so I spent about 6 weeks in the Republic, at a very difficult time because of my nationality. But I had a civilian permit, I didn’t have a military permit I had a civilian permit & we kind of like these two warring parts of the government. And I was like a little piece of paper flying around between the two of them.”

TIME CODE: 05:00_10:00

SOUNDBITE [English], George Steinmetz, Photographer: “They could also get a permit to fly; I wanted to go with my own personal aircraft & take aerial photographs. And I don’t think anybody foreign has taking aerial photographs, foreigner taken aerial photographs in Iran since before the revolution.”

“Well, I really wanted to photograph all the world’s deserts. In Iran there are some of the most fascinating desert terrains in the world. I mean it has some of the best salt domes in the world and yardangs’; these wind welded rock formations are fantastic. And I think the people who were helping me, the travel companions, I think surely understood that. But for the government they just couldn’t understand why some American would over come here to photograph a bunch of rocks & salt, didn’t make any sense. They had this thought he must be a spy, & it’s all just cover up. Think this guy’s got to be a spy.”

“Oh, I remember you know even in America, Iran is not perceived in a very positive light. I mean because of the hostage crisis when Jimmy Carter was President and all the political doings of the government, it’s not the most people are … when you go to Iran as an American, people it’s like serious, it’s like especially we have no embassy there. If you get in trouble there’s no way to get you out of trouble. & I remember I went to arrived in Tehran I had to go & get. They had to fingerprint me like I was a criminal, like I was the only passenger who was taken aside & went to this room & they wanted to take all my fingerprints & go through my stuff. And then finally they let me go & you know I had my aircraft with me & all these cameras & radios & GPS & all this stuff and they just let me go through with that. I said wow this is amazing, I got to the hotel & got to call my wife & I said you won’t believe this, you won’t believe I got through, I’m here. And it was really quite miraculous, and it took about 3 days to get our stuff together & leave Tehran but I was you know once I got passed that initial barrier, people were wonderful, everything was great.”

“Yeah, I mean numerous times you know I was given extraordinary hospitality, people you know would take us in, you go up to you know a nomad in the desert, he will give you his last goat, he’ll slaughter his last goat to give you hospitality. And even in Shedar when I wanted to go out to Loot when we arrived there & they held us up for a couple of days for permits but the governor or the mayor, he invited us into his house for lunch.”

“I’m also somebody who likes challenges I’m the kind of person if somebody says you can’t do that, then all of a sudden that becomes the first on my list. And so with Iran it was the attraction of the geography and also the fact that nobody really goes there that makes me want to go. The Dashte-Loot as many people believe is the hottest driest place in the world & so it’s a place I really had to go, I had no choice.”

TIME CODE: 10:00_15:00

SOUNDBITE [English], George Steinmetz, Photographer: “So, I went to Iran in the fall of 2003 & I wanted to go & explore the desert & the salt paces in the south. And one of the most interesting was the Dasht e Loot in the south of the country & we started it in Kerman.”

“The reason Loot was fascinating to me was you can see this is a solar image from Google Earth. You have this … this is a field of yardanges its wind wurled to rock formations. And the winds they come out of the Northwest & they blow on only one direction extremely strong for many months of the year & they come down & they hit the bottom of the basin & they turn & they drop their sand over here to the East. And so the winds are the big wind & then they’re just kind of turns & drops. And this is all been excavated by blowing wind. And the geologists call this formations “yardanges”. The yardanges in Iran is the biggest yardang field in the world. The only other place you find these besides, well, you find them on Mars but only on dry areas, primarily in old lake beds with very soft sand & very strong winds. And what I wanted to do was to go out & take aerial photos of the yardangs. The locals call them “Kaluts” and so I flew in 3 areas. I flew right near Shadad. & I did some flying up here in north. And then I was also able to go round to the south, & go up into the dune area & the southern end of the yardangs.”

“When you’re out there, there it’s a very strange feeling I felt like I was kind of an ant crawling across the back of a crocodile because the Kaluts, they look almost like the skin on a reptile but to see with a microscope.”

“I was working on this book about all the world deserts. This Voostin van oben means deserts from above it’s the German edition. And I wanted to photograph all of the world’s deserts & this is actually the section from Iran. This is out in Dashte Kavir, I think that’s in Kerman.’

“This is down near Bandar-Abass, we had a lot of problems out in the Kavir, we keep getting stuck in the mud, they call it Charbeh, and it’s like this greasy mud. And then when I was out in the Dashte Kavir I had a couple of crashes & I broke 3 fingers of my hand. This finger is never going to be quite straight so I had to get x-rayed by the local hospital. This is my fixer Massoud Mobasheri who got me in & out of trouble many many times. Anyways so I was working on this book & it’s a completion of pictures from every extreme desert in the world. And you find these kinds of … these desert environments on virtually every continent including Antarctica. And Iran was one of the most fascinating places. But this is in the for example in the Dashte Kavir. And nobody’s ever been out there. This is right near the military rocket range south of Iran.”

TIME CODE: 15:00_20:00

SOUNDBITE [English], George Steinmetz, Photographer: “So, when I this is a model of my aircraft that was made for me by a young man in Africa.” And the glider its 3 parts, there’s a harness & the motor in your back & then the wing overhead. And when I want to take pictures I have to let go of the break lines that lead up to the trailing edge of the wing. And then I’ll take pictures for a few minutes and then actually get back into business of flying the aircraft. And I can fly anywhere from 10 meters above the ground to I’ve flown to as much as 2000 meter above take-off and its flown from 400 meters below sea level on the Dead Sea to 4000 meters above the sea level on the Indies in the Himalaya.”

“With the glider you can, because you’re hanging underneath the wing, its self stabilizing, if you get into a little turbulence it’s like a playground swing and It will stabilize itself. And so you can take pictures for a few minutes & let go of the controls & it will fly straight. I have right here my hands are up & I’m holding on to they’re call the break lines that go to the trailing edge of the wing. It’s much like pulling flaps on a plane, so if I pull left I pull this down & this part of the wings slows down & then I turn left. If I pull right I turn right. And so but if I don’t pull at all it generally it will fly straight so it gets set up for example over the yardang field. And the winds there were so strong when I was flying there I was almost just stuck in the sky. The wind was blowing at my flight speed. So once I would take off I would advance little but I would get up high & then all of a sudden they can’t move & then as I go higher I will start to be flying backwards into the wind, which is very frightening actually. It’s kind of dangerous.”

“When I was in Southern Iran one of the places I really wanted to go to was Bam, it’s a … at its time it was the largest piece of mud architecture in the world and a World Heritage Site. And I wanted to photograph it from the ground, but especially from the air because it’s very rarely done. And it took a couple of days to work out permission to do that. And I flew there & I then we moved on through southern Iran, & then about a week later I had to leave the country, they put out arrest orders for me & I exited the country quickly. And after I got home, like the day after Christmas the earthquake hit & you know 1000s of people were killed in Bam & I was reading about it in the paper, about you know the disaster & the people who were killed. And curiously it mentioned that there were a couple of Americans killed.”

“Like in Iran for example I flew over Bam, almost flew over Bam 2 weeks before it was destroyed in an earthquake. But I could see the plan of the city in a way that would be very difficult for you to understand from the ground.”

“I talked National Geographic into doing a big story in the Sahara. And I wanted to do a lot of aerial photos to help people understand the landscape. And I’d lined up a – before I made the proposal – I’d found a bush pilot that had an ultra light that we could use in Niger & then when I got the magazine agreed to the project, called him up & said he had a better job he couldn’t do it. And so I had to find a way, I had money from the magazine to do this project but I had no aircraft so I had to figure out a thing I could do on my own. And people told me about this kind of flying, I thought they were crazy at first. The idea of me piloting & taking pictures at the same time I thought was very dangerous. But when I looked into it & found people who had actually done it that said it was reasonable as long as we flew it early in the morning & late in the day when the air is calm. And that’s the same thing that we did in Iran, we only fly for the first 2 hours in the morning & the maybe the last hour of the afternoon and the rest of the time it was too dangerous to fly.”

“It was strange to once in Bam the only one hotel that took foreigners & I think they had only like 2 rooms that were you know that didn’t have a broken toilet & it was so we stayed there for a few nights & we had a lot of security issues, there were they didn’t want us leave before sunrise, they thought we were trying to escape & I wanted to take pictures early in the morning.”

TIME CODE: 20:00_25:00

SOUNDBITE [English], George Steinmetz, Photographer: “But after we left like 2 weeks after I got home the earthquake hit & the city was destroyed & 1000s of people were killed. And I was reading there was one American guy who was killed in Bam & he was actually killed in bed in the same hotel, in the same bed that I was sleeping in. And what happened was the ceiling fan & the ceiling collapsed & it impaled him like you know like the ceiling fan killed him & that was the same bed that I was sleeping in, the same fan which is weird, you do these things that are kind of dangerous & then you know you get lucky, & somebody else wasn’t so lucky.”

“We were working on the Kavir & I knew from research that there’s a lot of mud flouts we had to go across its easy to get stuck in the mud. We had welded special things called sand ladders which we couldn’t find in Iran. And it’s kind of like a small ladder made out of metal that you put underneath the tires so that if you get stuck in the mud you can kind of basically climb out on this ladder made of steel out of the mud. And those are the thing very very useful to us. Because we got out on the Kavir, and I wanted to go into areas with interesting geology but they were far off road. And so we’d be driving cross-country across the mudflats. And going in your all of a sudden hearing mad spatters & you slow down you stop & you’re stuck. You can get up to your axel in mud & it was just, it was nasty, we got stuck out there for literally days at a time.”

“You know the kind of pictures I got, I’m not trying to brag, the aerial photos I got of the landscape are things that one’s never done before ever & it’s really quite a privilege. It was a privilege I had to earn through a lot of patience & hard work & risk taking. But it was an extraordinary view of Kavir in a way no one’s ever seen it before and a spectacularly beautiful country.”

“I was surprised that you know I think in the western press, a lot of people in the Middle East, Arab people & Muslim people, they’re kind of seen as the bad guys, you know especially like September 11. This is kind of like you know, you can’t trust them & there’s a lot of bad sentiment pervasive in the United States. And when I got over there it was I was surprised at how sophisticated & open the people were. And they’re very curious, I mean like my fixer he was all upset when he found out the Bee Gees had broken up & it was like news-trapped in this 1970s mentality when the country was open. And it’s just its kind of like to me it’s a bit like Romeo & Juliet, where there are these two people that actually get along really well but their parents say it’s not allowed.”

“I would love to go back to Iran , of all the countries I went to I want to say I was in 27 countries over 15 years. If there’s one country I could go back to first would be Iran, it’s fascinating, the ancient culture, the ruins, the people, the landscape it was just extraordinary.”

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