Editor's note: June 12 marks one year since the Iranian presidential election and subsequent popular protests against the re-election of hard liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranian authorities reacted to the protest — ostensibly led by opposition political figures — by sending in police and the Basij, a paramilitary group, resulting in deaths, and suppressing media coverage. The authorities later blocked websites, mobile phone transmissions and text messaging, and banned rallies. In a series of raids across Tehran, over 170 people were arrested in the crackdown, among them prominent reformist politicians and journalists. One of those arrested, photographer Majid Saeedi, was on June 21 sentenced to three years imprisonment for photographing during the elections. This story was written prior to his sentencing.
KABUL, Afghanistan — Majid Saeedi, an Iranian, stepped out of his hotel in Kandahar City, leaned against a parked car and smoked a last cigarette after a harrowing few days photographing a city on edge. Then, he hailed a taxi to the airport, thankful that he was leaving behind these tense streets just as a NATO campaign to quash growing Taliban influence loomed.
Fifteen minutes later, as Saeedi checked into his flight to Kabul, that same car he had leant against exploded, tearing the facade off his hotel and wounding seven people.
“I was relieved to survive but upset not to have been there to photograph the aftermath,” was Saeedi’s blase reaction. “I wrote an email to my editor in London apologizing.”
A two-time winner of the Picture of the Year International award for his work from Iran, and a contributor to Getty Images, Saeedi is used to putting himself at risk, whether in conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Lebanon, or back home in Iran.
Last year, the risks taken by photographers in his homeland worsened in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential elections. The regime of re-elected president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad detained dozens of photographers in Tehran in a citywide crackdown, effectively criminalizing the profession.
Saeedi became one of the crackdown’s most prominent victims. Arrested by intelligence officials at night at his home, he spent 39 days held in Tehran's Evin Prison and on a Revolutionary Guard military base. He was subjected to torture and summoned to appear as part of televised show trials orchestrated by the regime and designed to demonstrate that the post-election protests were sparked by the West.
Saeedi was released on $200,000 bail and banned from working in Iran. Putting up his house in Tehran as collateral for his bail, Saeedi moved in December to Afghanistan.
“The way Tehran has handled the Saeedi case, as cruel as it has been, is unfortunately no different than the way they’ve handled the cases of the scores of other journalists who are currently or were previously imprisoned,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, the Middle East program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York. “Ultimately, Tehran must — sooner or later — come to the realization that its current posture with regard to critical journalism is not sustainable.”
This week, Saeedi is back in Tehran, awaiting his trial date, the date of which keeps getting pushed back. On Wednesday, his case was adjourned to next week, when a verdict is expected to be issued.
Saeedi’s case is no exception. Hundreds of journalists and photographers have passed through Iran’s prisons since last summer, charged with acting as a fifth column for Western interests seeking to provoke a revolution and overthrow the Islamic Republic.
Over 50 journalists remain in jail, a third of all journalists imprisoned worldwide, according to a new report by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers. On Wednesday, well-known female journalist Jila Baniyaghoob was sentenced to one year in prison and banned from writing for 30 years. Another renowned journalist, Ahmad Zeidabadi, was sentenced last November to six years imprisonment and issued a lifetime ban on writing.
Proportionally, Iran’s photographic fraternity has suffered the most. Four photographers were imprisoned after the elections and another 10 fled the country. They have either applied for political asylum in neighboring countries such as Turkey and Iraq, or are considering it. Others, like Satyar Emami, a colleague simultaneously arrested with Saeedi, did prison time, were released and have turned away from political photography to less risky occupations. But none aside from Saeedi took as radical a step as moving to war-torn Afghanistan to continue earning a living.
“I wanted to work and have never been political,” Saeedi said. “I was arrested for my work and I need to continue working.”
Saeedi swapped a comfortable house in Tehran and a high-visibility job working as the picture editor of a major news agency for a small apartment in a dust-choked street in Kabul’s Shahr-e Now district. The area is patrolled by Kalashnikov-toting soldiers and ringed with cement blast walls, barbed wire and police roadblocks searching for incoming suicide bombers.
Now almost permanently hunched over his laptop when not out chasing car-bomb aftermaths, Saeedi fields calls from media colleagues, monitors international news coverage of Afghanistan, and arranges stories to shoot in the neighborhoods of Kabul.
“I’ve become a war photographer,” he said, sipping from a cup of tea as he sought to arrange access to the Kangoral Valley shortly after the Taliban seized it from retreating American forces in April. “We’re the people that are sent in to do the most dangerous, most risky work.”
When not dealing with war zones where few Western photographers would ever dream of venturing, Saeedi worries about his impending court date in Tehran. His trial date has been set close to the one-year anniversary of last June’s elections which is widely expected to become a flash point for opposition sympathizers.
“If the law were to be respected, I would be proven innocent because I did nothing but my duty as a photojournalist,” Saeedi said in Kabul. “In the way that I photographed [opposition figure Mir-Hossein] Mousavi’s campaign I also photographed Ahmadinejad’s.”
“Why should I be judged for photographing Mousavi but not Ahmadinejad?”
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