Thursday, June 14, 2007

Being There

Thursday, June 14, 2007

It’s a stark and grisly black-and-white image from the past – a line of executioners, kneeling and squatting under a hot mid-day sun - captured the moment they open fire on a row of prisoners several yards in front of them. Facing in the direction of the firing squad, but blindfolded, most of the prisoners are already crumbling to the ground or being thrown backward as bullets hit them, dust flying up from the earth. A lone prisoner on the far right side of the image adds to the photograph’s considerable power – he still stands facing above and beyond his executioner, unable to see him, awaiting death.

For 27 years this Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Kurdish prisoners being executed was attributed only to an ‘anonymous’ photographer. When it ran the photo in 1979, the Iranian newspaper Ettela’at chose not to reveal the photographer’s name out of concern for his safety. Fast forward to 2002, when reporter Joshua Prager of The Wall Street Journal tracked down the unknown photojournalist. He eventually found the author of the photograph – Jahangir Razmi – and convinced Razmi to show him the entire contact sheet. The Iranian journalist’s name finally appeared as the photo’s author in a Journal story from December of this past year (throughout the years numerous other photographers had been cited as the author) and at the Pulitzer luncheon at Columbia University on May 21 Razmi received his Pulitzer certificate and $10,000 prize.

Kudos go out to many in a fascinating story like this – to the folks at the local UPI desk 27 years ago who immediately appreciated the photo’s value and had it transmitted around the globe; to Prager for the persistence in pursuing a difficult story; to Sig Gissler, who administers the Pulitzer for exploring whether this is now a safe time for the prize to be given; and to Razmi. For being there when it counts.
To see Prager’s December 2006 piece in the Wall Street Journal (includes a link to the entire contact sheet of photos that Razmi took that day)
To see a New Yorker piece on Razmi’s recent trip to the U.S.
To see an International Herald Tribune piece which includes the photograph

For those in the Chicago area: The First Division Museum at Cantigny (Wheaton, IL) is hosting a summer exhibit “REQUIEM: By the Photographers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina.” These 150 ‘moving and powerful photographs – taken by men and women on all sides who gave their lives during the conflict – begin with the French Indochina War in the 1950s and culminate with the fall of Phnom Penh and Saigon in 1975.’ The opening is June 21, 2007, at 6:30 pm. See the Cantigny website for more information at

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