Assignment Iran: Michel Setboun

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 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.

TIME CODE: 00:00 _05:00

Michel Setboun :

My name is Michel Setboun. I’m born in 1952 and I am a photographer, photo journalist. While I was a student I was already taking pictures because I was always interested like in first of all photography, and also politics and any kind of problems around the world.

Here we have everything.

You see! Real time testimony; you see.

I decided to take the chance to become a photojournalist in 78 with the Iranian Revolution. Because during the year before I was working also as an architect in different agencies. I was also taking pictured in the same time. I’ve done several reportages in Lebanon, in Angola and other place like that, but I was not able to pay the bill with that and I had to mix everything.

I knew Iran because when I was a student I travelled a lot. I mean several times I traveled from Paris to Nepal at that time by the route of Katmandu, we call it an ice top in Iran always, you know. I remember I was staying in a hotel near Bazaar called Amir Kabir Hotel, a hotel for you know, backpackers. I mean that was my first contact with Iran, you know. At that time Shah was already in power and then I had some kind of knowledge about Iran.

TIME CODE : 05:00 _10:00

I started to write stories about you know, the first demonstration outside Tehran, South of Iran etc, etc, and for me it was the beginning of everything because I was confident with what I’ve seen this society was going to change, was moving. And then you know I was already working with CIBA, the bigger French agencies; and I talked to the boss manager, I said look, there is something going on, I’m sure something important is going to happen you should send someone to cover that. And to me are you stupid, why if you seen, if you are confident in it …you see it important you should go there. I told him but you know, I’m not I mean I’m a young professional photographer I didn’t have a big experience, and he said well this is your occasion to get your experience.

I went to Iran in March 78 at the time when nobody was there. I mean it was almost impossible to see any kind of demonstration, you know, and I had no money because I had no assignment from my magazine.

And I went back to France I took one month because I had not much my camera you know, and I stayed three weeks, four weeks in France and I started to go there again in Iran because the process was moving, I mean I could feel something important was going on there.

Say Down to Shah!

You know they started to have this huge demonstration, on the streets of Tehran, I don’t know, maybe one million people. And that was the beginning for me you know of everything because I got incredible picture of that and for the rest of the world they could see for the first time this image of this, you know, Shia people. Because nobody in the world knew what Shia was, what Islam Shia was, all the women in Chador and all that. That was a big discovery, you know. And I started to have publications around the world, you know, in many magazines I was also, because I had this experience before.

Now everything is in computer but you know here I’ve got… not everything is there but the important. And if you want to.. Ah, yeay, it’s here.

We see the first, that was the first layout of the book. It’s funny because today we don’t work anymore like that, but at that time we had some kind of real papers, scotch, you know, tape… funny.

More tourists were coming in and we were talking about what was going to happen in Iran. And there were two kind of people in, yeah two kind of people among the foreign press: one, let’s say 50% of the foreign press was thinking Shah was too powerful, I mean nothing were to happen, he will kill everybody and this revolution will not succeed. And I would say there was a part of the population, of the journalists, (who) were thinking you know I mean Khomeini was going to be successful. I could say, I mean let’s say it more the leftist, the left because you know among the left journalists you always think the people have the kind of power to change life you know. Then that was more or less the situation at that time.

Even in the street some people were coming to me also because I have also Iranian face and people were thinking I was Iranian you know, I’m not. But when I was in Iran I had a mustache, & all that I could look like an Iranian guy. That helped me a lot.

I knew at that time I was very confused you know because the Shah didn’t know what to do, you had these demonstrations, the Shah wanted to.. he was very westernized, you know he wanted to show us he was open mind, he was a kind of democrat, it was very very strange. But you know for us it was very interesting because so many things were happening and for me it was a good way to learn, you know to learn my work and to yeah, to have some kind of good relationship with the people. And then some photographer at that time like Abas and other people like that, they came to Iran because of …. becoming a very odd place, a place to be.

TIME CODE : 10:00 _15:00

Because they have not spent as much time as myself in Iran as I did before, and they were not convinced by the new situation. And in fact what happened I remember very well, two days before the killing in Jale Square, see, I mean, my friend, Mangul and Abbas, they left Iran, they said: Oh, you are always telling us something is going to happen, and nothing happened you know.

In fact when I went there the day of the Jaleh Square, I think it was September 8th, very few professional photographers was there; very very few. It thought that was my chance because I was one of the few who was there. And that I got my first coup let’s say.

A few weeks later someone called me from Paris, & he told me you should come to Paris because Imam Khomeini is coming. I thought that was incredible because nobody at that time remember you had no image of the Imam Khomeini, only paintings. No image at all, no picture, nothing, I mean very few we had only paintings even in the demonstrations, you could see only paintings. Because they called me, ok, I went back to Paris and I was in Paris when the Imam came.

He came first to the flat of Banisadr in Kashum Kind of a social housing in Kashum, a suburb in Paris. But of course the space was too small but nobody knew who he was. I mean it was France, you can imagine he arrived like in a very strange place. And when he stayed there you know he had of course many friends, many people involved in this fighting. And one Iranian said I have a house in Neufel Le Chateu, you could stay there, with more space for your team ect, ect. And then they moved the next day I think to Neufel Le Chateu and everything started from that, you know.

I mean when he moved to Neufel LeChatue I remember I was one of the first, maybe not the first, to be there, I remember I was there when he arrived in the garden and it was the first prayer under the trees you know, the Maple trees of Neufel LeChatue. At that time maybe five people were with him, no more. I mean very very few people, I mean he was alone in the middle of this garden with just that trees, you know, and then with some of course I was there with some journalists, Krier Brier, and other people like that from Liberation. Because they wanted to have interview with him and a guy from La Point but we were very very few, like ten or 15 people there, he was seated under the tree. Of course after several days you know this place was packed with hundreds and thousands of people coming from all over the world you know, not only from France, but also from Germany, from everywhere.

One (photo) is him alone, Imam Khomeini alone under the tree. I took it from far away, first day in Neufel LeChatue.

And Jaleh, that (photo) is Jaleh.

That is the demonstration for the Shah in Isfahan.

Again, Him on the rooftop in Qom.

You see how many I have, I’ve got this time during that period, I’ve got everything. I think Imam Khomeini knew because of all his advisors and friends more or less who we were, what kind of people we were, he knew you know some photographer has this, you know, some journalist has done that. Even he was not I mean a kind of person, he is friendly like that. We will not check you in like that. You know he’s a serious man. But that say knew, in there he knew who I was etc. I mean I stayed in France ten days like that where I took this picture. But I had to go back to Iran because the revolution was still on the way, you know.

TIME CODE: 15:00 _20:00

You know that time it was very unclear you know. Until, Imam Khomeini decided to come back to Iran of course you know when I knew the Imam Khomeini was able to come back to Iran I decided to go back to Paris in order to be in his plane you know. And for then I think, first of all they were going to invite some friend journalist you know I was, we were, you know many people were kind of friendly journalists you know, not that many. But then when he knew, I knew it could be a problem with the army and the plane could be attacked by the army, he decided to open the plane to everybody. I mean it was incredible you know I remember that night we left Neufel LeChateu during the night which we reached the airport, and the police was looking at Imam Khomeini like that, I mean someone you have seen on TV, he was somebody you know very very strange. what was very incredible I remember to see praying in the lobby of the airport, and what happened I mean we get on the plane, we spent the night in the plane, and we could get authorization to get some pictures of, I have a picture of the Imam Khomeini when the plane entering the Iranian space you know watching through the window and he had a big smile, I remember he was so happy you know he was not smiling that often but that day he was really smiling you know.

Voice of the Captain: We are beginning our descent; please fasten your seatbelt thank you.

We followed him you know it was crazy because of course we jumped out of that plane, and we were not expecting that many people to be there, 2 million people in the streets! I mean nothing was organized for us, for nobody you know, what I did, I mean some of my friends jump out of the plane and I left in the street, I stayed in front of the car of Imam Khomeini. Some people they say oh, why don’t you jump on the top of the car, I say no not good because if you are on the top of the car you could not get this picture.

Then I follow him like that, I jump on another car in front of him and I was like 10 meters away from him, it was just incredible you know, something I will remember all my life, you know. All this people getting mad at him you know because he is kind of like god coming back home it was incredible day because you know everybody was expecting that since so long. And for me it was also a success because I was waiting for that you know since so long, I was convinced something like that was going to happen.

TIME CODE: 20:00 _ 24:30

And I’m not saying it’s a bad book of the revolution, but we’ve got all the story from the beginning. The demonstration in the Bazaar… well the quality of the book, of the prints is not perfect but I wanted to be the first one, we did that very quickly. And of course today we don’t see the images the same way, you know you have to remember you know we had different cameras; it was much more complicated to work cameras. It was very complicated work, no autofocus, nothing like that you know.

During all that time, maybe thirty years I never came back to Iran, because I had nothing to do you know. If you don’t agree with the regime today you have to remember the story of in 53 with the Mosadeq, you know that was done by France and England & America and so on and also the western country helped that Shah during all these years, you know nobody said anything, and also on top of that during the war against Iraq you know even foreign country were not saying we help Saddam but everybody knows, you know we are helping Saddam. Then you have to understand after forty years whatever you think about Iran, you know, you have to be more let’s say aware of the real situation, you know. And Iran is a much more complicated country than you can imagine, you know.

And I’m so surprised, you know, Iranian people, they know everything about the rest of the world; but the rest of the world knows nothing about Iran. That’s a big big big mistake you know. And I’m quite happy today with the change in I mean the American and Iran are talking about you know all the… I mean process. And I think this is the best you know and could happen and hopefully the future will be better for everybody especially Iranian people.

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