A Firing Squad in Iran, 1979

After Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in Iran, the nation’s 4 million Sunni Muslim Kurds rejected his rule and his religious diktats and demended independence. Khomeini sent in his Revolutionary Guards, who slaughtered thousands of Kurds using mock trials.

On August 27th, 1979, in Sanadaj, nine Kurdish rebels and two former police officers were tried and sentenced to death. Their execution by firing squad was documented in startling detail by the above photograph, published in Ettela’at, a Tehran newspaper. The paper had an uneasy relationship with the ayatollah, having supporting the Shah previously and denounced Khomeini as a British agent, living an immoral life.

Fearing for the photographer’s safety, Ettela’at published the photo uncredited, and, inexplicably, flipped horizontally. A United Press International staffer in Tehran saw the photo and went to Ettela’at to obtain the photo. He then transmitted it via wire to UPI’s European office. On August 29th, various international newspapers including the New York Times put the photo on their frontpages. For security reasons, the name of the staffer was never revealed.

The photographer’s name had also remained unknown. Chief editor of the paper, Mohammed Heydari, was concerned with government reprisals and didn’t mention the name of the photographer. Predictably enough, the Revolutionary Guards later invaded the newspaper’s office and confiscated the photos. They didn’t shut the newspaper because it was the oldest paper in the country, and damage done by such a shut-down would’ve been much worse.

The photo, named Firing Squad in Iran or more poetically, “the Numbing Transition from Life to Death” was the only anonymous winner of a Pulitzer Prize in the 90-year history of the award. In 2006, Iranian photographer Jahangir Razmi revealed that he was the photographer behind the photo. The irony was that Razmi had been the official photographer of Iranian Presidents since 1997.

In August 1979, as Khomeini began sending the military to Kurdistan to quell the uprising, Razmi went there with another Ettela’at reporter, Khalil Bahrami. On that fateful day, August 27, Bahrami learned that a judge he knew would be trying a group of Kurdish militants at the Sanandaj airport. The reporters headed to witness the 30-minute trial and the subsequent execution. Razmi was unhindered by security forces when he photographed the killings, and soon delivered his two rolls of film to the offices of Ettela’at. (See all the photos he took that fateful day here.)

Razmi remained in Kurdistan, initially disappointed not to see his name on the paper, but soon realized the photo was dangerous. The paper had been selling for more than double the cover price in Kurdistan and was fast becoming a lightning rod for anger. On Sept. 9, the Islamic Revolutionary Council published a denunication, ending with the foreboding words: “If this occurs again, serious decisions will be made.” Just to be on the safe side, the Council also nationalized Ettela’at. Razmi and Bahrami were eventually interrogated but were swiftly let go.

But the photos continued to spread. Reza Deghati, then working freelance, managed to procured five additional photos of the execution from an Ettela’at employee and send them onwards to SIPA, the Paris agency that was represented him. Paris Match paid 14,000 French francs (about $10,000 today) for the photos, and they appeared in its Sept. 21, 1979 issue, with the title: “Les Kurdes, sous les balles d’Allah” (“The Kurds, under Allah’s bullets”). “Reza (Sipa)” was thus often erroneously credited on the photos.

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