Maziar Bahari would have been around 11 when he first saw a photograph by famed Iranian photographer Abbas. It was Iran, circa 1979. Bahari was flipping through a foreign magazine, brought into the country by a friend of his father’s, when his eyes landed on it.
The photo has since become an iconic emblem of the Iranian Revolution. In it, a woman runs through a street, chased by an angry crowd of men; several have grabbed the sleeves of her jacket and are brandishing sticks and umbrellas. The woman is an assumed supporter of Iran’s recently overthrown leader, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi; the men are revolutionaries who worked to free Iran from the shah’s authoritarian regime.
The photo was taken on January 25, 1979, after the shah had left the country but before the rise of the Islamic Republic, when the people still anticipated the victory of the revolution.* Later, after the populist revolution turned Islamist, after the purges and secret trials and executions, after the new regime became dishearteningly like the old, it was clear that on that July day, Abbas’s camera had seen the violence and destruction that was to come. But at 11, as he thumbed through a magazine and studied that very photo, that’s not what Bahari saw.
“At that time, we were blinded by the revolutionary fervor,” he says, today a journalist and filmmaker, “and we did not pay attention to that kind of violence.”
The image of the woman being beaten is one of hundreds of photos published on a new site that showcases Abbas’s work in Iran between 1971 and 2005. The online exhibit, titled Abbas and the Revolution, was produced by Bahari and launched last month, in time the 37th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution on February 11. Abbas and the Revolution is an outcropping of Bahari’s other work supporting journalists in Iran; he oversees both IranWire and Journalism is Not a Crime, a campaign for press freedom in Iran today. He hopes Abbas’s work, which he calls “a family album of Iran,” will contribute to the story Iranians tell themselves about their history, as well as their present.
The bulk of photos on the site date from 1977 to 1980 and capture various phases of the Iranian Revolution. They focus on artists and peasants, rulers and revolutionaries, demonstrations and daily life. One photo depicts the shah in full regalia; another, the bodies of four executed generals from the shah’s army, lying in a morgue. Ayatollah Khomeini steps off a plane, returning from France. A lone woman in a black chador stands behind a row of men with their backs turned toward her. She was one of more than two million people who took to the streets of Tehran on December 11, 1978, to call for the overthrow of the shah.
The photos on the site are displayed in sets—some chronological, some thematic—and are accompanied by Abbas’s marked-up contact sheets and video commentary. The contact sheets show the complete sequences of shots for many of exhibition’s featured photos, with the ones selected for publication framed in red crayon. In the video commentaries, Abbas provides the backstories for many of his more famous photographs, along with thoughts on his methods, his philosophies about photography, and his life.
For Bahari, these are not just photos of a past that informs a present, they are the first claps of a long-heard echo, part of the same cavernous history. The photograph of the woman being beaten in the street, for example: It’s a moment in time, a premonition, and a lesson. “You can learn so much about what’s happening in Iran right now by studying that photograph,” says Bahari. Especially now, with the lifting of the sanctions, Iran seems poised for change—but as Iran knows only too well, times of transition are unpredictable.
Bahari also knows it well. He spent more than a decade as Newsweek’s Tehran correspondent. He was arrested in Iran in 2009 after covering the protests surrounding then-prime minister Ahmadinejad’s reelection and imprisoned for 118 days. The story of his detainment was portrayed in Jon Stewart’s 2014 movie Rosewater, which is based on Bahari’s memoir, Then They Came For Me. Bahari, who left Iran to study in Canada in 1988, grew up admiring Abbas’s photos and, later, the man.
Abbas was born in Iran in 1944, but his family moved to Algeria when he was still a child. He returned to Iran in 1971 as a photographer, and again in 1977. That trip lasted two years. He refers to those years now as “the highlight of his life.” “Those two years were like 20 years of my life,” he says. “You see the best and the worst of people in a very short span of time.”
For him, what was happening in Iran was personal. “In the early stages, it was my country, my people, my revolution,” he says. That changed when the revolution drifted into religious zeal. A pivotal moment came the day he photographed the bodies of the four generals, executed by revolutionaries the day before. A cleric entered the morgue as Abbas shot pictures.
“And I remember very deeply,” says Abbas, “he said, This is Islamic justice. And I said, Wow, when did the revolution to come to that? At that stage, I decided it was not going to be my revolution.”
Abbas left Iran in 1980, after friends cautioned him that the country was no longer safe for him, and he stayed away for 17 years. Since 1986, his work has focused on religion—or, as he puts it, “the stupid things men do in God’s name”—before quickly adding, “and the good things, too, of course.” He’s published books on Islam and Islamism, Christianity, and Buddhism, and his book on Hinduism will be released later this year. He’s currently working on Judaism. His interest in religion was sparked after the revolution, he says, when the fervor surrounding Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s Supreme Leader and the architect of the Islamist Revolution, was at its peak. “I could see that passion, that religious passion, that had risen with the Iranian Revolution was not going to stop at the borders of Iran,” he says.
In 1997, Abbas and Bahari finally crossed paths. Abbas was returning to Iran for the first time since the revolution, and Bahari had just moved back to the country, where he’d soon begin a decade-long stint as Newsweek’s Tehran correspondent. The two became friends, and whenever Abbas returned to Iran, he stayed with Bahari.
In 2009, 30 years after Abbas took the photo of the woman and the mob, Bahari was in Iran covering the Green Movement, which arose in the wake of then-prime minister Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s possibly fraudulent reelection. That revolution, a brief frisson of hope for Iran, fought with smartphones and hashtags, was one of the first populist revolutions to traverse the globe on social media.
That June, while the protests raged, Bahari was arrested on espionage charges held in Iran’s notorious Evin prison, though the charges were widely known to be baseless, and was released on bail because of international pressure. During an early scene in ‘Rosewater,’ Bahari, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, crouches with a student revolutionary behind a wall, dodging a shootout during a demonstration. Bahari clutches a video camera, but the camera is off. The young revolutionary turns to him and admonishes, “You have a real weapon, and you choose not to use it.”
It’s fitting, then, that one of Abbas’s most enduring photos is itself about the power of an image. It’s a picture of a group of Iranian youths gathered in a street in November 1978, burning a photo of the shah. It was a time when the shah was still in power, and Iranian citizens lived in fear of him. The image of the burning photo circulated throughout Iran and reverberated across the world. It made the cover of Time, The Economist, and other foreign magazines. It may have been one of the photos Bahari saw and admired before knowing the man behind the camera.
“Iranians go through these photos,” says Bahari. “They look at the family album, sometimes with nostalgia, sometimes with regret, sometimes with disappointment, and sometimes with pride.”
Abbas’s collected work on Iran is a record of that conflicted history; a necessary artifact to those invested in its future.
*This story was updated to reflect the correct date on which the photo was taken, and the events at that time.