The airport security guards, all five of them stood behind the counter just shaking their heads at the request before them, “Please, give me my jewelry back?” she said for the fourth time when tears began flowing down her cheeks. She had to get on her plane as another airport security personnel was making the last call, because this was her one and only chance of leaving the country, Iran. It was not only a bracelet or necklace but all of it in gold and her wedding ring too that she had placed in a small bowl to get through the X-ray machine.
Her jewelry, or her freedom!
I was one of only a handful of people in the small waiting room watching the drama unfold. However, I had been in this airport for four hours waiting in lines, sweating at every step as family members in line next to me were denied permission to leave because of some detail on their visa that was not just so. This room was the last in a long line of humiliating and demoralizing steps to get through customs. So the drama was only an extension of what had transpired for hours, and yet this final act was no less difficult to watch. Suddenly a little old lady who had been quietly sitting next to me got up wandered over to the guards and fired off the most emotionally powerful Persian I had heard during my entire life. Whatever she said worked! Just then with only seconds left, the guards reluctantly handed the jewelry back, while the young lady wrapped her arms around the little lady and stormed off through the gate to her freedom, with her jewelry.
I certainly don’t face such challenges to my freedom while living here in the US, but since that early morning experience in the gates of the Tehran airport in the spring of 1996, I am thankful every day for where and when I live.
I was working for Ski Magazine on a story about a ski resort called Dizin, built by the Shaw of Iran back in the ’60s. The writer Michael Finkel and I were the second American journalist allowed into the country since the revolution. I expected the experience to be much worse than it turned out to be. At 2 AM in the morning prior to leaving the country, we had a scheduled meeting with the Minister of Tourism. He was the only one able to wrap up my 60 rolls of film and give it the one and only government stamp that would allow it to go through customs and not be opened. To go that far out of his way at that time of the morning was spectacular. All my suspicions and preconceived sentiments had been slowly eroded away during the ten-day trip. One by one, each person we encountered had heartfelt welcomes topped of with sincere invitations to come back. Iran really was a fascinating country and the majority of its citizens that I met knew it. The conundrum they live in though is their biggest challenge.
Usually, my ski images are depicting ideal conditions with adventurous, skilled skiers gliding through spectacular conditions. Iran was different. I needed to address the unusual two sides of a country torn. The image below is of a lady skiing in her Chador. All women are required to wear them in public, even while skiing!
As photographers, we have the freedom to tell our stories and share our impressions of a place as we see fit. Since my visit to Iran, I have always considered this freedom first when making images. If there is one issue I feel strongly about when making images anywhere it will always be freedom. I feel very fortunate to have witnessed such strength and power in the people of Iran. The little old lady who saved the day will always be my hero.
Life is so very short. Take pictures of it.