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Iran: Jailing the messengers

Iason Athanasiadis writes of Iranian journalists and friends who remain in jail.

A prison guard stands along a corridor in Tehran's Evin prison, June 13, 2006. Several Iranian journalists are being held at the prison. (Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters)

Editor’s Note: GlobalPost correspondent Iason Athanasiadis reported on the demonstrations in Iran. He was arrested in Tehran and held in jail for three weeks. In his first piece for GlobalPost since his release, Athanasiadis writes of fellow journalists who have been jailed.

ATHENS — I noticed the image as I scrolled down my Facebook page and it chilled me to the bone. Staring back at me from the screen was a younger version of me flanked by two Iranian photographer friends, in a personal photograph taken almost three years ago.

What business did it have on a friend’s thread illustrating a very public Persian-language article?

I squinted to make out the writing. The heading above the picture read: “Security Apparatus Conspiracy Against Journalists: Majid Saeedi Also Arrested.”

Majid Saeedi squats on the left of the picture. A gifted photographer, he shoots for Getty Images and has been on assignment in Afghanistan for Time Magazine. Within Iran, he is one of a few professionals so versatile as to have bridged the ideological divide among Iranian news agencies, working both for reformists and conservative media outlets such as the pro-Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Fars News.

Majid is not political but very passionate about photography. The opportunity to pound the pavement and capture unique moments that he would later edit and then whirl round the world on the Getty wire was what enabled him to work for such ideologically polarized extremes. His work humanizes a world that so many want to see demonized.

Majid does not see bearded or chador-clad masses, does not construct cliches for public consumption. He is in the business of individuals whose humanity he conjures brilliantly and kindly.

This extraordinary quality was on show during that short trip. In an out-of-the-way village such as Horaman-e Takht, we did what every 19th-century traveler would do: We stayed with the village doctor. He was the only non-Kurd in the village, an educated member of Iran’s Persian majority who was paying his due in westernmost Iran’s snowy wildernesses before moving to a more comfortable post. He and his wife took in three near-frozen travelers, fed and warmed us. Sensitive to Iran’s conservative society, Majid offered to take a series of portraits of the recently wed couple. It was an imaginative and eloquent expression of gratitude in place of a box of chocolates or any other hackneyed gift.

After dispelling their awkwardness with his jovial manner, Majid took the couple into another room for a half-hour photoshoot that left them stunned with the results.

“Is that really me?” the doctor’s wife gasped, looking ecstatically at the results on Majid’s laptop.

Majid could have acted like any other big-shot photographer from Tehran and the level of hospitality would have been the same or higher. But his deep humanity did not allow him to exploit Iran’s rigid social stratification. He behaved toward the doctor and his wife with deep humanity.

A few months later I bumped into him in Tehran.

“Any news of the doctor?” I asked.

“We’re in touch every day over IM chat,” he grinned.

In the photograph on my screen, taken on the back of a crowded pickup truck in the snowy passes close to the Iraqi border, Majid flashes his trademark grin as he shields us from the cascading snow with an umbrella. To my left, Ali Vahid peeks up under a Puma head-warmer. Slightly disoriented, I smile up from under my green hood.

It was the end of a viciously cold day in 2007 and we were in Horaman-e Takht to photograph a mystical Sufi ceremony in the local graveyard. Slipping on ice, we captured extraordinary moments of passion at the limits of religious devotion. When the picture was taken we were chilled, aching to the bone and headed to a local chaikhane to indulge in what photographers love most: savouring the end of a productive day in a warm space, sipping tea, smoking cigarettes and comparing shots.