[25 November 2009]
When you think about it, the legacy of the Iranian elections last year isn’t going to be anything that actually happened in Iran. The thing we’re all going to remember about that election is how profoundly it demonstrated the power of Twitter. One of the biggest selling points of Twitter at the time was that it was “the only way” to get information out of the country. We all got to participate, too: a Twitter location stating one was in Iran became akin to the latest fashion accessory. So, if you do get to read 44 Days: Iran and the Remaking of the World, don’t be shocked when you learn that during the Iranian revolution, photographer David Burnett had to smuggle his film out of the country by going to the airport and searching for “pigeons” who might be willing to carry it to Paris where they handed it off to a correspondent. The photographs still made it out, but their journey required physical, not digital ingenuity.
44 Days is an annotated compilation of the photographs he took during that time. The book chronicles the last days of the Shah’s rule, the protests and bloodshed that followed and the return of Ayatollah Khomenini. The photographs are accompanied by Burnett’s journal-like descriptions of each experience. Essentially, it’s a compilation of his Twitter stream, except, there was no Twitter. He writes objectively about the political situation, the emotions of the crowd and his own investigative journey. Burnett also writes about the relationship of the press to the government, and to the protesters.
Of course, Burnett’s book chronicles the events leading up the real crisis, the capturing of American hostages for 44 days. He shows us what Iran was before it became the sort of place that would cut off email in 2009, and his notes as a journalist reflect the painstaking devolution of democracy. While his photographs are certainly not to be missed, one of the more fascinating aspects of the book is watching the new government piece itself together from the perspective of a journalist. At certain points, the press was restrained. Burnett notes that he had to tell everyone that he was Canadian, because as an American, he says he was treated as though he personally had put the Shah in power.
But at other times, the government gave instructions to accommodate foreign press. He tells a story about passing film to a fellow photographer across a crowd of protesters; after the roll Burnett threw to his colleague failed to go to the distance, it was caught handed over from person to person until it reached the other journalists. That attitude shifted when the Ayatollah came to power, but Burnett was able to secure a private shoot with the religious leader by suggesting that in large crowds, he appeared too much like Hitler and was going to garner distaste from the rest of the world. In a private shoot, he argued, he could show the man’s softer side. Burnett’s journalistic maneuvers are certainly quite different then the ones employed to get information out via Twitter. While his experiences seem more real and more vivid, it is valuable to note what the change in freedom of speech says about the changes in Iran. Burnett’s account carries us across the River Styx; he captures, in words and images, the experience of Iran as it crossed the threshold from old to new.