Photographer Speaks Using Picture

Sue Chehrenegar

© Copyright 2004 by Sue Chehrenegar

          In the late summer of 2005, as the elected Iraqi officials gathered to write a constitution, and as the world focused more closely on the religious differences in the Middle East, one man in Los Angles County, a former Iranian who had ended the 20th Century by becoming a United States’ citizen,  took to heart the call for vigilance. He kept watch for the sign of any local activity that might indicate the presence of an unfriendly outsider.

One time this gentleman noticed a tent on the grass next to a water channel.  He fantasized that the tent might contain one or more “terrorists” who were examining the structures in the area. This same gentleman frequently made reference to the long history of Islamic pressure on the people of Iran.  In order to highlight the deceit and treachery of his chosen country’s latest enemy, this Californian offered the following story.

          In the early years of the Twentieth Century, before the world had agreed to rename the territory then called Persia, an enterprising youth from that region visited the land of India.  While there, this same youth learned how to work in a darkroom. He discovered how to develop the pictures taken by the large, bulky cameras that were then in use. After he returned to Persia, then he introduced his newly-acquired craft into that country.

In the mid 1930s, soon after Persia took-on a new name, Iran, the world’s first Iranian photographer decided to document on film the people and culture of his city.  With this heavy camera in tow, that photographer traveled up and down the streets of Shiraz.  He shot pictures of the zookeeper, capturing the performances offered by that owner of the “King of Beasts.”  He shot pictures of local hunters returning from the hunt, pictures that focused on the long horns of the hunters’ kill.

For more than twenty years Iran’s first photographer concentrated on catching the flavor of one Iranian city.  Eventually he found himself taking pictures of his own grandchildren. One day he photographed his son’s youngest boy, showing that youth eyeing carefully the mechanics of weighing, as practiced by a local merchant.  Another time his big camera captured the youthful expression of a male descendant, one who later served in the Shah’s Savak.

Eventually, the photographer’s son watched the skilled talents of his father.  The son then decided that he too would become a “face painter,” a photographer.  Perhaps because the son had developed the eye of a photographer, he became acutely aware of the suspicious actions taken by certain members of the community.  These actions, he thought, threatened the land that was once called Persia; the land that was then called Iran.

Later this younger photographer foresaw the future fate of the country’s ruler.  One time he told a female student that he had a feeling that the reigning Shan would probably not be in power for much longer.  The young woman had said, “But I like this Shah.”   The younger photographer then just shrugged his shoulders, a sign that her feelings would have no bearing on the developing public sentiment.

Neither the young girl nor the insightful young photographer could have guessed the part that each would play in the events about to unfold within Iran.  The girl’s story is long and sad, and it needs to be presented in detail elsewhere.  The surprising tactic used by the worried, young photographer takes-up the remainder of this story.

 For weeks the photographer and business owner had sensed that he was being followed.  One or two men always stood outside his photography studio.  Whenever he stepped outside, they would watch to see where he was headed, and then they would follow him.

          Three years had passed since this non-Muslim shop owner had seen his son depart for the United States.  The photographer could not imagine what life was like in that country.  He had received work that his son had gone to school in Missouri, a state along the Mississippi River.  Another letter had spoken about his son’s new friend, John, a man who lived up by one of America’s Great Lakes.

The younger photographer himself had never traveled outside of the Middle East. Other than the nine years he had spent in Saudi Arabia, this gentleman had never lived anywhere except in the town where he had been born, Shiraz, Iran.

          One afternoon a member of the government’s secret police appeared in the doorway of the photography shop owned by the photographer named Nesrollah.  “Please come with me,” said the police officer.  Nesrollah, never one to openly defy the government, agreed to join this officer for a trip to the force’s main headquarters. During the journey to the police headquarters, Nesrollah thought long and hard about what might have happened.

          Nesrollah knew that he had not performed any illegal act.  Nesrollah sensed that the decision to call for his appearance had been made quickly, with slight regard to the reaction it would elicit from the police on the upper levels of the tiered hierarchy.  Had the government long-planned this appearance, then Nesrollah’s nephew, a member of the Shah’s Savak, would most certainly have forewarned his uncle.  Nesrollah began to theorize about what had happened.

          Someone, probably one of the “spies” who stood outside of the photography studio, had apparently told the police that Nesrollah posed a danger to the government.  The spies knew that Nesrollah did not accept all of the Islamic teachings.  While the “spies” and the other members of their secretive group waited expectantly for a 12th Imam, Nesrollah taught that the 12th Imam had already walked upon the earth.

          The “spies” and their companions perceived such teachings as a threat to their existence.  In order to alarm the authorities, the “spies” had apparently suggested that Nesrollah posed a threat to the existing government.   In fact, Nesrollah harbored no ill-will towards the Shah’s government.  The government that Nesrollah feared was the one that had not yet come to power.  That was the theocratic government desired by the “spies,” and by the Islamic group to which they belonged.

          How could this simple shop owner convince the police that the informer was the man that the Shah’s enforcers should fear the most?  He needed to demonstrate that an arrest of Nesrollah represented an attempt to topple the Shah’s government.

          Nesrollah allowed the officer to fire some false accusations at him.  Then he spoke softly but firmly to the officer.  He said, “If you want to arrest me, then why don’t you also do this?”  After presenting this question, Nesrollah stood on a chair and took-down the picture of the Shah that hung on the office wall.  The officers were so surprised that they remained speechless.

          Slowly, the message behind this simple act entered the minds of the officers in that room.  By the time that the old photographer had worked his way down from the chair, those officers had taken a different approach.  “Forgive us, Nesrollah, sir,” they said.  “We were apparently given some bad information.”

          “That’s all right,” said Nesrollah. He gave the Shah’s picture to the man who had been the inquisitor.  Nesrollah then returned to his photography shop.  He did not tell his wife about the events of the afternoon.  He did not want to alarm her.  Nesrollah, himself, however, needed to share his story with a listening ear.

           That night Nesrollah uttered a prayer of thanks.  He expressed gratitude for the fact that he had not yet had to witness the departure of the reigning Shah, and the arrival of a ruler who refused to recognize the importance of religious freedom.  The photographer, not normally one to ask God for favors, decided that night to appeal to the highest source.  The man who had dared to handle the Shah’s picture then asked that God not test him, by requiring him to live to see Iran’s next ruler.  God granted the request of the brave photographer, a man whom others had seen as being without the proper fear of God.  Nesrollah died three years before the Iranian revolution.

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