Anthony Suau, a renowned award winning photographer with a vast repertoire came to Iran in 1989. He came to Iran when the nation was in the grips of unfathomable grief. The entire nation was mourning the loss of Imam Khomeini, the great leader who had delivered the country from the tyrannical rules of Shahs. Suau snapped roles upon roles of films of frenzied scenes and raw emotions of grieving people. People were so overwhelmed by sadness that they could hardly bring themselves to let their beloved leader and the nation’s father go. In this documentary Anthony Suau reminisces his extraordinary journey to Iran at its highest level of grief in living memory.
Anthony Suau: You know I think that when you are out there and you do see those things so closely that you obviously form your ideas and opinions. And you know I like to be able to take the material that I’ve done and create the impression of what I saw in the best way I can , whether my feelings or my… make my own, I don’t know if it’s a political statement or a human statement, or whatever, it’s my statement you know, about what I felt.
I’ve covered many political events around the world and wars, Gulf War I, the War in Angola; I’ve worked in Africa & South America & Asia & throughout the Middle East and Europe as well. In 1989 I covered the fall of the Berlin Wall, which was one of the sets of photographs that became quite well known. I spent 20 years living in Paris, France & ten of those years traveling back & forth between Moscow, Russia & Paris working in the former Soviet Union.
This book is a book that I did on the ten years that I spent living in Russia, in the former Soviet Union traveling around from 1989 from the fall of the Berlin Wall, it begins from the fall of the Berlin Wall, then goes into basically the life in the former Soviet Union, following the fall of the Berlin Wall & it’s movement from a communist based society to a capitalist system.
So I followed for ten years & this book was published in 1999, ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and with a major exhibition & four exhibitions I actually traveled throughout the world one was in the United States, one was in Russia, one was in Great Britain & the other was in Eastern & Western Europe; and was very successful.
One morning and it was the news that the Ayatollah Khomeini had died in Iran & I really wanted to go, I thought you know this is an amazing moment in history, in Iran & the world. I was living in Paris, France at the time, and it was 1989, I believe it was June. But it was without a question the biggest funeral I’d have ever seen in my life, I’d never seen anything close to that, it was just extraordinary. The city itself when we drove around the city was empty, every shop was closed down; it was like an abandoned city. Everybody was focused on this funeral. And they were going there, they were in the streets, they were mourning this death of Ayatollah & so it was just so big it was hard for me to understand and to father the size of this thing. And even to get it into the lens, it was impossible to have a sense from one picture how big it was.
I didn’t have a visa & you know the complications of actually getting in & getting there seemed insurmountable. But I called my friend Reza & said what do you think I should do Reza, & he said go. That they’ll give you a visa at the airport, that’s really an important event for them, they’re going to want the coverage so just get on an airplane & go.
So within a few hours I was on an airplane to Tehran. I had no visa but I had my cameras & film & everything. I arrived at the airport. And I was there probably with 50 or 60 other journalists who all came in without visas, many of them French & from different nationalities. Me being American, I was the last one of the journalists that they interviewed, I think I waited like three hours at the airport, 2 or 3 hours to get in. And when I was brought into a room with two or three guys & they knew pretty much everything about me when I walked into the room.
And as soon as I came in I remember there was, just wall and in the foyer with big letters that said DOWN WITH USA, so that was my kind of welcome into Iran… [chuckles,] Tehran; but the people were lovely & very intelligent & smart & good looking people & you know really and amazing people. They took us out to where, immediately I think in the evening, it was night, they took us out to where his body was on display and we made some photographs there. It was in a massive crowd that was in complete hysteria over the body & his death & you know we were able to make some pictures that night.
The next morning they took us out, they were going to bury him the next day & they took us out again to the same place the morning I remember. And then they took us by helicopter to the actual burial site, where he was going to be buried. And that helicopter ride was absolutely phenomenal, because the street s from where his body was to the burial site which was quite a distance, was just outside of Tehran, was like black, entire road… you know we lived the entire road was just black with women in chadors, like the entire I don’t know five or ten miles was just packed the entire way.
And we flew over this scene into almost a desert area where there were these containers blocking off in a square, stacked up two or three containers high around this squared off area that was probably about the length & width of a football field, it must have been probably a hundred yards in each direction, it was fairly big. And we landed the helicopter & we came out & the mullahs & some of the dignitaries were coming in & out of the place.
Crowds were beginning to filter in. It was empty, pretty much empty when we arrived, but very quickly that space filled with people. And the people were just in hysteria, I mean they were screaming & fainting & crying & it was initially all men inside that area. And at one point I got up on some sort of stage & there were people just spread on top of the crowd being passed over crowds, & water was being sprayed onto the crowds to keep people down, I guess… I don’t really know why. But then at one point these two helicopters came in. then other pandemonium just broke loose cuz the place was entirely packed with people shoulder to shoulder & you could barely move & yet they were going to land these helicopters right into the crowd. The helicopters came right down into the crowd.
I didn’t really understand what was happening at that time. I would only know the ayatollah’s body was in one of those helicopters and he was being brought in to be buried. But the madness was so intense & the crowd was so thick that they couldn’t bury him; they couldn’t actually physically move his body from the helicopter to the grave that had been dug, which was probably you know maybe 20 yards or so from the helicopter. We actually watched his body being buried on television
And the next morning I got up before sunrise, somewhere around in the morning & without a minder & without anybody else, I went out to the gravesite on my own. And the scene was just amazing, amazing… and I had no minder, there were no other journalists, I was all alone. Especially as a foreigner that’s for sure. I believe it was the Hezbollah guys, they were on top; they had put containers and a one container on top of his grave & they were standing on the container. Women were coming with their babies & handing them to the… and they would take them & they would take the babies on.. touch them to the container. And women were crying & women were in one section & men were in another secton, they didn’t mix I remember, & I actually remember getting up on the container at one point I stepped on the container & I actually shoot down a photograph on the crowd so were coming in & it was utter pandemonium & chaos & emotion.
And it was hard for me obviously to understand where all of that was coming from; what all of that was about as a foreigner. Obviously being American, that Ayatollah Khomeini was considered some sort of devil or something in the American media culture, not that you know I buy into everything media said. I was living in France at the time so they were a little bit more moderate on that but. so I had probably shot like 10 role of film or more, something like that , that morning out there on my own. & then I went back to the hotel .
I think the next day they took us to his residence in Tehran & we saw the room where he lived & we saw his mosque & there was Hezbollah military people all around, they were mourning. Women were crying… and it was a little bit more intimate than the gravesite.
I was there as a foreigner journalist, as an American working at this gravesite with thousands of people. I think most of those people were coming in from the country side, coming in from more remote rural areas
Everyone accepted me, I never had any problems, everybody was kind with me, they… you know I was able to work with total freedom. You know I probably worked with more freedom in Iran than I’d do here in New York in some respects. People don’t necessarily like to be photographed here in New York, or in Paris, France, people tend to come at you about that. In Iran everybody was very kind about that, nobody interfered with me, nobody bothered me, they were very open .
You know Iran was a kind of pretty much what i thought it gonna be if I want to be honest, you know there are some political and religious tensions between two nationalities and countries and I had a couple of friends were Iranian and you know so I believe the idea what was going on in the country and how it worked .
But I think the most impressive thing for me ,when I was there is how smart they were, I mean they were just on top of everything, they understood who I was coming into the country , they understood who they were working for, the understood what I was doing and they were just so sharp, I mean I have been anywhere in the world , where are you walking to place, you know they knew what was going on , these are really smart people , there was a lot of kindness , there was a lot of warmth in the people, I mean it is great to be there , and see this things, and photograph them and work in as a photographer but I think it is more than it need I had to be thinking as a photographer and somebody who has an idea , opinion about what you are doing, how you are going to present that to put that idea out to the world .
You know we live in this world today , we have all these people, you know people on TV, people from universities who come out , they suppose to thinking you the well educated and smart people, but there is no comparison into them .