For 27 years, the identity of the only anonymous Pulitzer Prize recipient remained secret. Last year, Wall Street Journal reporter Josh Prager went to Iran to find the winning photographer. This week, Jahangir Razmi finally claimed his Pulitzer. Razmi and Prager tell their story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. In the 90-year history of the Pulitzer Prizes, only one has been awarded anonymously, the 1980 winner in Spot News Photography. That photograph, called “Firing Squad in Iran,” is a black and white image of the court-ordered execution of 11 Kurdish men in Sanandaj, Iran, in August of 1979.
The photo was taken exactly as the executioners fired their rifles, capturing a moment between life and death. It ran on front pages around the world, a rare glimpse of the violence perpetrated by Iran’s post-revolutionary regime.
The photographer, worried for his safety, remained anonymous until last December, when he revealed himself to a Wall Street Journal reporter named Josh Prager. His name, now known around the world, is Jahangir Razmi, and this week, he traveled to New York to accept his Pulitzer, 27 years after the fact.
Jahangir doesn’t take photos of executions any longer. He snaps portraits now, mostly of brides in Teheran. He joined us on Monday to talk about the effect of this photograph on his life, and why he remained anonymous for so long. [JAHANGIR RAZMI SPEAKING IN ARABIC LANGUAGE] INTERPRETER FOR JAHANGIR RAZMI: I just didn’t want to stir up tensions in society, once again, and so I waited and wanted the matter to remain quiet. And during this time, many people took credit for this photo. Some of them were my friends. It was when Mr. Josh Prager traveled to Iran with the permission of the Islamic Republic and the Ministry of Culture that I agreed to talk with him.
He seemed at the time, and turned out to be, very trustworthy, and I turned over the original photos to Josh. Had Josh not traveled to Iran and found me, I may never have come forward. BOB GARFIELD: Obviously, you captured an extraordinary moment, a historic moment, and obviously you got the greatest recognition that journalism gives to photographers, and you also witnessed something dreadful. How has this moment affected your life? [RAZMI SPEAKING IN ARABIC LANGUAGE] INTERPRETER FOR RAZMI: At the moment of the execution, while the prisoners were lined up and after they were shot, I was only paying attention to the technical aspects of my work, to the speed of the camera, and I was thinking of how I could capture that scene.
It was only after I saw the picture on the front page of the newspaper that I realized what I’d done. The effect on me, covering this execution – the executions before the revolution, at the beginning of the revolution, other things I’d witnessed in Kurdistan and the Iran-Iraq War – there was a war following all of this – it affected me terribly.
It left me in a state where I didn’t have the desire to work any more. I was devastated emotionally. I really couldn’t continue to work without addressing these issues, but my employers just wanted me to go on doing my job, and I began to feel like work was meaningless.
So I left the newspaper and sort of sidelined myself from the journalistic community and I gained some solace, after I did that. BOB GARFIELD: Now that you have been named as the author of the Pulitzer-winning photograph, do you have any desire again to return to journalism? [RAZMI SPEAKING IN ARABIC LANGUAGE] INTERPRETER: No, I have no desire whatsoever to work for Iranian newspapers. If I decide to go back to journalism, I would want to work for foreign news agencies. BOB GARFIELD: The current regime is, by our standards, quite reactionary, yet you are here, I presume with the government’s knowledge and permission. Has this acknowledgement of the work you did 27 years ago created any risk for you personally? [RAZMI SPEAKING ARABIC] INTERPRETER: Well, no, luckily. Until now, I’ve not been in any danger and I’m hopeful that from here on out, I will continue to be safe, because this government is very different from the government that existed 27 years ago. And there are laws now, and they’ve reached a place where they’ll consider the law when it comes to dealing with situations like this one. BOB GARFIELD: Jahangir, thank you so much for joining us. JAHANGIR RAZMI: Thank you very much. BOB GARFIELD: Twenty-seven years after winning the Pulitzer for Spot News Photography, Jahangir Razmi accepted his prize at the Pulitzer Luncheon in New York City this week.
We might never have known his name, had it not been for the Wall Street Journal reporter Josh Prager. Josh has a pretty fascinating beat. He writes about secrets. The quest that took him to Iran in search of the secret photographer was inspired when he was on vacation, casually flipping through a book called Moments. JOSH PRAGER: It was a book of all the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs, and when I turned to 1980, one very large word in bold letters caught my eye. The word was “anonymous,” and that made me very much want to find out who this person was, because I figured he or she, Iranian or American, had a story to tell. BOB GARFIELD: Now, in the course of your reporting, you actually spoke to at least a couple of the people who, over the last 27 years, variously had claimed to have taken this series of photos. Those must have been some awkward interviews. JOSH PRAGER: Yes, they were difficult interviews. The only reason it was even relevant to the story is because it was one of the real motivating factors that led Mr. Razmi to come forward. He is a very humble man. He’s an unbelievably patient man, and yet it really gnawed at him that other people had taken credit for his work.
And his sons, they had for some time urged him to come forward, but he did not because there was a real fear that he had lived with for all of these years, almost from the day after he took the photograph.
The government, as this photograph was getting passed all about – it was getting xeroxed and copied and tacked all about Teheran, the government did something very dramatic. They simply appropriated Ettela’at. They just took over the newspaper. So Mr. Razmi was well aware of the incredible repercussions of this one click of his shutter.
When he then learned that he won the Pulitzer Prize, it was simply told him quietly in the Ettela’at newsroom. As he said to me, I didn’t have the guts to celebrate. BOB GARFIELD: When you first went to Teheran to dig around here, you clearly had to be invited by some official agency. How delicately did you have to dance around the facts, in order to get access to the people you needed to get access to? JOSH PRAGER: It was quite tricky. I did not mention that I wanted to write about this photograph, and that I wanted to meet Mr. Razmi. What I said was I wanted to write about Iranian photojournalism. There are an enormous number of really talented photographers in Iran, and it was the small fraternity of top photographers who knew Mr. Razmi’s identity, and wanted him to be able to get his recognition after all these years. BOB GARFIELD: We are speaking with you on Monday, the day that Mr. Razmi actually accepted belatedly his Pulitzer. I wonder if you’ve been in touch with the families of the victims of the shooting, 27 years ago, for their reaction to the events as they’ve unfolded. JOSH PRAGER: I’m not only in touch, they’re here as well. Two of the eleven people who were killed that day were brothers, Ahsan and Shahrivar Nahid, and their mother and sister live in Los Angeles, Roya and Monir, and they have always wanted to know who took this picture because they felt that the picture helped their sons live on, that their death had served a higher purpose in making the world realize what was going on in their country, and they always felt indebted to this anonymous photographer.
And so Roya and Monir flew in from Los Angeles to New York, and they were also with us at the Pulitzer, sitting at our table. These are people who I met while working on a story, but who have become real friends of mine, and so this – I’ve never felt more exhilarated in all my life to be a journalist. BOB GARFIELD: Well Josh, congratulations to you as well. JOSH PRAGER: Thank you very much. BOB GARFIELD: Josh Prager is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. He’s also the author of a book about another secret, The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thompson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the World. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
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