Numbing Transition from Life to Death

After Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in Iran, the nation’s 4 million Sunni Muslim Kurds rejected his rules and his religious beliefs and demended independence. Khomeini sent in his Revolutionary Guards, who slaughtered thousands of Kurds using mock trials.

On August 27th, 1979, in Sanadaj, nine Kurdish rebels and two former police officers were tried and sentenced to death. Their execution by firing squad was documented in startling detail by the above photograph, published in Ettela’at, a Tehran newspaper. A United Press International staffer in Tehran saw the photo and went to Ettela’at to obtain the photo. He then transmitted it via wire to UPI’s European office. On August 29th, various international newspapers including the New York Times put the photo on their frontpages. For security reasons, the name of the staffer was never revealed.

The photographer’s name had also remained unknown. The editor of the Ettela’at was afraid of government reprisals and didn’t mention the name of the photographer. Predictably enough, the Revolutionary Guards later invaded the newspaper’s office and confiscated the photos. They didn’t shut the newspaper because it was the oldest paper in the country, and damage done by such a shut-down would’ve been much worse.

The photo, named Firing Squad in Iran or more poetically, “the Numbing Transition from Life to Death” was the only anonymous winner of a Pulitzer Prize in the 90-year history of the award. In 2006, an Iranian photographer Jahangir Razmi revealed that he was the photographer and claimed the award. The irony was that Razmi had been the official photographer of Iranian Presidents since 1997. See all the photos he took that fateful day here.

15 thoughts on “Numbing Transition from Life to Death

  1. awesome as always, though you might want to proofread this one a bit:

    demanded independence?
    tried not tired
    has remained unknown
    had been the official photographer

    and what’s supposed to be between the quotes for the name of the photo? Or is that the way it should be?

    • i guess i am more absentminded today than i usually am. (if that is even possible). thx for correcting tho.

      • Oh, we’ve all been there – that’s why we’ve got friends to correct us every now and then 🙂

        (Plugged your site on our This Week in Photography podcast, by the way – hopefully will push a few more people over to the awesomeness you dish out so consistently!)

  2. Agreed. I have noticed errors before but this is a shocker. It detracts from the image. That being said (Curb…) I appreciate this blog heaps so don’t take it too hard pal.

    • certainly wasn’t intended to be a slam or anything – just a little bit of auxiliary proofreading. God knows I’ve made plenty of typos in my lifetime. Nobody’s a bigger fan of this blog than me and I’d read it if he was explaining the photos using all caps and lolspeak 🙂


  3. Oh bummer. I see 6 comments, think – great, finally some discussion of content – and all I find you guys doing is nitpicking on spellcheck and grammar.

    TQ, thanks for your consistent effort to accompany the photo with a background (and your understanding of it).

    Helps to imagine you as a real person.

  4. Greeting from Iran,

    I actually consider myself a rather well informed person about mathers that conserns Kurds, and all Iranian oposition groups. I know about the mass executions and death rows, I thought I have heard it all. But this picture still managed to shake me.

  5. It’s a horrible but fascinating photo. The thing that strikes me immediately is the hairstyle of the soldier nearest the camera – most of the famous photos of people dying were taken decades ago, and look as if they belong to the past, but the soldier has a distinctly 80s-style haircut, and that strikes me because the 80s are “modern” in my mind.

    Ultimately the contrast between the generally smart appearance of the solder nearest the camera, and the execution, is the thing that strikes me. That and the composition, which looks too good, like a movie still. And the fact that the soldiers are crouching (why?). There’s a man in the far background with his hands against his face, but I can’t tell if he’s shocked or just trying to block out the sound.

    They’re all watching, though. Executions always draw a crowd. I’d probably watch too. In fact I am watching.

  6. … and the massive disparity between the firepower of the soldiers and the people being shot, who don’t look like much of a threat. The victim on the right is about as defiant as can be given the circumstances.

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