12 Feb 2010

Capturing the tension, fear and calm of Tehran's rooftop protests

Italian photographer Pietro Masturzo wins the World Press Photo of the Year 2009 for his powerfully atmospheric photograph of rooftop protests in Tehran.

The winner of the World Press Photo of the Year 2009 is a surprising choice, described by the judges as powerfully atmospheric, capturing and balancing tension, fear, quietness and calm.

It’s a beautifully composed picture by Italian photographer Pietro Masturzo.

We’re transported to a rooftop in Tehran, at the height of the protests, on the night of 24 June. On a nearby rooftop, a group of women. One has her hands cupped around her mouth, her head tilted defiantly into the night, calling out “Allah Akbar” – God is Great, the nocturnal soundtrack of Iran’s green revolution. The photo can be viewed here.

On the photographer’s own website, by the way, there is a whole album of Tehran rooftop pictures, in the same vein. “During these protests,” he writes, “the dark Tehran nights were haunted by the ghost-like shadows and their eerie voices. Dreams, memories, emotions, and hopes roam around like ghosts on the rooftops of Tehran.”

The reason the photograph is a surprising choice is that to me, what was – and remains – amazing about the nightly protest chants was not the visual images but the goose-bump-inducing audio cacophony itself.

I have been studying the winning picture with an Iranian friend, for whom it is particularly poignant. “As children, 30 years ago, we would go to sleep every night to that sound,” she told me. “It’s so haunting.”

She pointed me to a YouTube video, which I would urge you to watch. It is electrifying.

Against the audio backdrop of the calls to God in the Tehran night, the female commentator speaks tearfully in apparently spontaneous poetry about the rooftop chorus. Watch it and read my friend’s translation as you do so.

(The background, quickly, is that on Friday 19th June, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, finally said enough was enough and that if the protests continued, there would be bloodshed – and the blood would be on the hands of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi.)

“Friday 29 Khordad 1388. Tomorrow is Saturday. Tonight you can hear the sounds of ‘Allah Akbar’ louder than the nights before. Where is this place? Where is this place which has been closed in from every direction? Where is this place where people can only cry out to God?

“Where is this place where every night the cries of Allah Akbar get louder and louder? Every day I wait for night to fall to see if the sounds of Allah Akbar will get louder or not. My body trembles. I don’t know if God is trembling as well.

“Where is this place where nobody remembers us? Where is this place where we only have our own silence from which to raise our voices to the world? Where is this place where people’s homes are besieged and people pour into the streets to pray? Stand on rooftops to pray… Where is this place? Would you like me to tell you? This place is Iran. This place is my birthplace and yours. This place is Iran.”

Yesterday marked the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution and the chants rang out again across the Tehran rooftops, as powerfully as they did last June.

Back to Pietro Masturzo’s World Press Photo, the jury chair Ayperi Karabuda Ecer said the picture “shows the beginning of something, the beginning of a huge story.”