Assignment Iran: Yamashita

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.

1:57 My name is Mike Yamashita & I’m a photographer for, I’m a photojournalist I’d worked for a lot of people but I’ve been working for National Geographic for 33 years. 2:12

2:24 I shoot culture & people of usually with some sort of an eastern theme, so.

2:41 That’s why I was shooting Marco Polo which of course everybody associates with China, but also he travelled through a lot of countries en route & that’s what brought me to Iran. 02:57

3:15 Admiral (?) who sailed around the world from China to Iran, Iraq, Arabian Peninsula on to Africa; that was my next big story after Marco Polo. Well, the year was 2000 & my assignment was Marco Polo, so I was retracing the great explores – the 13 century explores—& route from Venice to China. And it goes right through Iran which of course at the time was Persia. 04:06

04:26 He describes his travels there very.. in great detail. And So I had a lot to work with. That was basically trying to prove that Marco Polo had actually made his trip as there were nay-Sayers at the time there was a new book out called Did Marco Polo Go to China, so basically my job was to prove whether he made it or he didn’t make it. 05:00

05:09 So, I basically had a shoot list according to what he saw & did & described in his travels through Iran. Actually, he made two trips in Iran one was his first trip; it was going from Iraq, Bandar-Abbas, uh. Excuse me I’m blanking on the name of Basra. He left from Basra by boat & went to Bandar-Abbas & travelled up the Peninsula to.. up through the country through to Tabriz. 05:50

06:04 And on second trip he.. which is his return trip he landed again in Hormoz & around Bandar-Abbas, & travelled overland through Kerman up through to the Iran border with Turkey & that’s the way he returned to Venice. 06:30

06:45 That would have been the year 2000; & yeah, I had just actually come from Iraq & to get to Iran of course you couldn’t go directly, so I’ve forgotten exactly.. I think I went back to Istanbul & from there came down, flew into Tehran. 07:08

07:33 Yeah, you know you go on these assignments they’re very focused. We are going to each place with a picture in mind. So you know, again the shoot list that I talk about is the result of a lot of research & I’ve read everything there is to read about Marco Polo and the time he spent in this case in Iran. So my shoot list really is of course… often there was an ancient name for the city. 08:05

08:12 I think we started in this north; yeah we went to Tabriz first & then came down & went to Alamot, which is where the mountains where the assassins lived & Marco Polo has a long description of who those people were.& 08:33

09:01 And well let’s just go right up to the top; in Tabriz he describes the markets & of course he was a merchant so he was always describing markets. And the rich, very busy market in Tabriz was obviously something that was interesting to him & he talks about the gold threaded cloth & the souk & the carpets & of course that’s what I photographed there. 09:31

09:52 Then we went to Alamot which was the assassins’ area & it made a great landscape as I recall there were some archeological projects going on there where this period was being studied by local archeologists. 10:10

10:35 Anyway so then in Yazd, we then went to Kerman, then to Bam -- I spent quite a bit of time in Bam—because of the walled city there.10:49

11:06 Because he describes these walls –lofty walls --of mud & obviously he was impressed by them, I was using this particular fact –well, I didn’t know it at the time but as illustration of how or why he did not respond to the walls he saw in China as the Great Wall cuz they just weren’t great! 11:30

11:40 Whereas he was very really excited about the walls that he saw in Bam, & he talked about the lofty walls of mud in Bam & therefore when I took pictures of that citadel I concentrated on shooting those great beautiful hundred foot tall walls. 12:02

12:17 And then how many years later –3 years later –it got destroyed in that earthquake; And of course that was a shock to us all. The story had been published & we ended up sending photographs that I’d taken there to the United Nations as hoping that they would help them in their rebuilding process. Of course I haven’t been since I’m just curious is there anything yet there now, has it been rebuilt? Have they rebuilt the ruins? 12:47

13:21 And now as I recall there were very few issues about getting things arranged. I think there was a great surprise from the locals that to see these two Americans, except 3 Americans actually cuz writer was also travelling though he had a different itinerary, we had a different driver & guide but we would occasionally meet up with him. But I think their surprise was that (you know) we were Americans & wondering around 13:55

14:00 This is Yazd. And I remember standing on this roof & wondering where the sun was going to set. I was you know the roof; you only have so much space on a roof where you’re confined to that space. I can even remember was it 10 or 20 meters, either way? And so it was amazing to me to be on this rooftop overlooking the city at this mosque & watching it come down directly. 14:37

14:42 This is also the Jame Masjid, Jame Mosque, & I loved the reflections & of course the other thing that makes good pictures is actually these students’ uniforms with the head dress & full covering, it makes a good picture. 15:08

15:15 This was in Kerman, the famous Turkish bathes & I was in there, I was really hot of course & I’m in there with these cameras & I remember now I had to be careful about them getting smoked up, getting the moisture forming on the outside of the lens making it impossible to take a picture. So as I recall I got in there & warmed up the cameras & anyway got this photograph which again my story is about a 13th century traveler, so I want to show pictures as these subjects are something that Marco Polo might have seen. So this is my intent & my thinking is always how to make a picture & in this case the 21st century that takes you back into time, 700 years ago. 16:30

16:54 We followed the directions, not that there were a lot of roads or places that you can wander off to; there aren’t that many roads actually in that part of the world. But we followed directions, we ended up in this wonderful hot spring & of course the big surprise was the water is running this blue-green because of the mineral content probably copper. And I was absolutely delighted as a photographer cuz it made this wonderful photograph of green water, huge surprise running through the middle of the desert. 17:37

17:43 Of course the Geographic being we’re looking for some human focus & it just so happened that nearby I ran into this mother & child who were washing clothes in this same warm hot spring water, so… 18:00

18:07 If I was to sum up my Iran shoot in one picture it has to be this one with the portrait of a woman in Minab, Bandar-Abbas; it became the cover of the magazine. 18:23

18:27 That in itself is.. this is one of the biggest stories ever published in Geographic , it ran 3 issues which is unheard of & I’ve forgot how many, 80+ pages but this being the cover of the first issue was extremely gratifying, meaningful to me. & let me tell you how I shot this one, this is interesting. I knew I was going to get some picture here in Minab, because I knew that they had this very interesting form of Hijab, & red mask. So I carved out maybe a half a day there. I arrived in the morning, did some scouting, I asked number of the local women the reason why --this is also a very important subject for Marco Polo’s because he mentioned that there were these black-skinned people who lived in this area. 19:40

20:03 This, it was interesting, it was a moment, I saw this kid in the water just sitting there relaxed & it’s instructive, I get here to Bandar-Abbas and like Marco Polo, he’s looking for a boat to take him to China. And I’m looking for a boat, an Arab dhow to photograph to show this part of the trip. And he says this; the residents avoid living in the cities for the heat in summer is so great that it would kill them. Hence they go out to sleep where there are streams & plenty of water when they perceive that wind coming they plunge into water up to the neck. And so abide until the wind has seized, so we thought that was a great illustration of the heat as this kid is just hanging out here in the waters of Strait of Hormuz. 21:18

21:29 And so we go out in a boat looking for Arab dhows in order to illustrate these fact that Marco went here to find a boat to take him to China; and I didn’t find any because all the boats there were now plastic, they’re made out of fiberglass & so here we are hoping to see the Arab dhows of big sails & still I couldn’t find a thing in the end I ended up shooting this in a silhouette. 22:06

22:40 And of course (you know) the old cliché, shooting extraordinary pictures of ordinary situations, I believe it’s much better to be shooting extraordinary pictures of extraordinary situations. So that’s what I’m always looking for in a story, something extraordinary, something the world hasn’t seen before. 23:03

23:24 Yeah, I’ve been doing these kind of mega-stories about if not explores, then also routes, the routes of Silk Road, Basho the 16th Century poet, his journeys throughout the northern part of Japan. 23:46

24:27 You know again my whole reason to be there is to link Marco Polo to whatever his experience 700 years ago in a place called Persia, & you know I’m visually looking to find places that I imagine haven’t changed for 700 years; so basically I’m trying to put the past into the present in as far as doing the story. So basically that was my concentration; looking at Iran from a very historic point of view. 25:08

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