By: Joe Strupp
In 2002, Joshua Prager of The Wall Street Journal was sitting in a Cape Cod home, thumbing through a book of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs when a dramatic shot of men being executed by an Iranian firing squad caught his eye. Even more noticeable was the credit to “anonymous.”
“It was a glaring word, ‘anonymous,'” he recalls about the 1979 image. “I could tell this photograph was relevant and important. It made the world see what was going on in Iran.”
For the next three years, as he worked on a book, Prager also researched who had taken the photo. That investigation eventually led to a 2006 Journal story that revealed the photographer’s identity as one Jahangir Razmi, who agreed to come forward — and will collect his long-awaited Pulitzer on Monday in New York.
Razmi’s shot of 11 men being executed under Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary regime was so startling, Razmi’s editors at the Iranian paper, Ettela’at, knew his life would be endangered if he was listed as the photographer. When United Press International eventually distributed the photo, it also labeled it without a name, an anonymity that continued months later when The Pulitzer Prize Board picked it to win Best Spot News Photography, and for years thereafter.
Prager, who is playing tour guide for Razmi this weekend as he visits New York prior to receiving his award at the annual Pulitzer luncheon, said late Thursday that Razmi truly wanted to reveal his secret, adding that he “felt so unburdened about coming forward.”
But the discovery of Razmi did not happen quickly. Prager said after he saw the photograph nearly five years ago, he began his search by contacting a veteran AP photographer, Scott Dine. He said he had known Dine through research on another secret he unveiled, the story of the 1951 pennant-winning Giants’ sign-stealing scam that was featured in a 2001 Journal story, and eventual book.
“I asked him if he knew any photographers around the Middle East in 1979,” Prager said.
Dine led him to a former UPI Brussels bureau photo editor, Charles McCarty, who had distributed the photo at the time on the wires. McCarty, who died several years ago, led Prager to a UPI photographer who knew an Iranian freelancer, Reza Deghati, whom he said had often claimed credit for the photos.
“He didn’t really tell me straightforward what his role was,” Prager said of his first meeting with Deghati. “In time, I came to learn he had sent the photo to Paris Match magazine,” which published it in September 1979.
But still, the search continued. Prager did not find enough evidence to believe Deghati was the photographer and eventually found a former AP shooter, Alfred Yaghobzadeh, who had worked in Iran during the 1970’s. He mentioned Razmi.
“Once I had that name, I got to Iran in 2005 and spent 11 days looking for him and talking to him,” Prager says. “I wanted to get the story right because so many people had laid claim to this photograph.” He said, as he finished the Giants book, he researched the photos, reviewing contact sheets from Razmi and, essentially, earning his trust.
“At first, we spent time discussing his life since the photo,” Prager said about Razmi, who later lost part of his hearing covering the Iran-Iraq war and quit the news business in 1987 to open a studio. “I think he was genuinely surprised and moved that a stranger had spent so much time on this photograph.” He added that “the fact that other people had taken credit for this photograph gnawed at him. He was ready to come forward, come what may.”
Prager said it took until the last day of his 11-day visit for Razmi to actually show him the contact sheet of images.
Since the story ran in December, Prager said he and Pulitzer Administrator Sig Gissler worked to obtain a visa for Razmi so he could attend the award luncheon, where he will receive a certificate and a $10,000 cash prize, well more than the $1,000 he would have received in 1980, but what today’s prize-winners earn. He said UPI has also agreed to give Razmi the $1,000 it received for the Pulitzer in 1980.
Prager also is hosting the photographer, bringing him and his wife to his parents’ home in New Jersey on Thursday, as well as providing interpreters for Razmi and accompanying him today on visits to Magnum Photo of Manhattan, which is planning to distribute his work in the United States, as well as a taping for the ‘Today’ show to run Monday.
Weekend sightseeing will follow with a special dinner Sunday night that will include two relatives of two of the men executed in the 1979 killing, along with former Pulitzer juror Robert Duffy, who chaired the 1980 jury that made Razmi’s photo a finalist.
Razmi plans to return to Iran after a month in the United States, Prager said. He believes Razmi is out of danger, despite continued turmoil in that country and its tensions with the United States. “I think if there was anything they were going to do, they would have done it,” Prager said.