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Photojournalist Randy Goodman Captures Images Of Iranian Women

This 1983 photograph shows hundreds of Iranian women at prayer in Tehran, with female Revolutionary Guard members watching on.
Randy Goodman

In 1980, a colleague approached Randy Goodman with an opportunity: Would she like to travel to Iran as a photographer as part of a delegation?

Months earlier, Iranian university students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The incident sparked the Iran Hostage Crisis, in which 52 American diplomats and citizens were taken hostage for 444 days. Goodman’s delegation would meet the people who were holding the hostages.

“How phenomenal an opportunity is that? And what experience for on-the-job training,” Goodman said.

Goodman was 24 years old at the time, and many of the hostage takers were between 18 and 22. The other members of her delegations were all 10 to 20 years older than Goodman.

“I was the one maybe who could best relate to the students because of our proximity in age. So sometimes that facilitated more private conversations,” Goodman said. “So being young can sometimes have an advantage.”

Now a photojournalist, Goodman says Americans were very unfamiliar with Islam and revolution in 1979 and 1980. The purpose of the delegation was to have person-to-person interviews with the hostage takers, and to understand the context that led to the seizure of the U.S. Embassy.

Prior to the embassy takeover, the deposed pro-Western Shah of Iran was allowed into the United States to receive medical treatment. Goodman says Iranians wanted the Shah to return to their country for trial, and they feared a coup to reinstall him.

“As a 24-year-old that definitely, most definitely, is a very eye-opening experience to really understand the complexities of our foreign policy firsthand by the people who were the subjects of that,” Goodman said.

During her time in Iran, Goodman took photographs of Iranians, including many of women. Since that time, she has returned to Iran to see how the country has changed. Even though it wasn’t the original intention on her project, she decided to focus on photographs of women. The photos are now part of an exhibit called Iran: Women Only.

One 1983 black-and-white photograph shows hundreds of women in prayer, with female Revolutionary Guards standing by. The women’s faces are hidden, but children pop up here and there.

“This was outdoors at the University of Tehran, immediately in front of the staging where political and and religious speeches would go on every Friday,” Goodman said.

During her most recent trip to Iran in 2015, Goodman noticed changes, including how women dress.

“The women are just extraordinarily striking and modern in their dress and in their makeup and in their hair color and where they wear their head scarf. This was a tremendously obvious transformation,” Goodman said.

Cosmetic surgery is very popular, so it is a status symbol for women to be seen with a bandaged nose. In upper class neighborhoods, she says women allows their scarves to hang far toward the back of their heads, or just around their shoulders while they are driving.

“There are objections to those kinds of positioning of the scarf. But it seems as though women were feeling as time has gone on, that there's a push back and that maybe this represents for them saying ‘It's our time.'”

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Rebecca Cruise: Randy Goodman Welcome to World Views.

Randy Goodman: Thank you Rebecca.

Cruise: You came to international fame during the aftermath of the Iran hostage situation and took a number of wonderful pictures there. You have since had a full career, have returned to Boston and unfortunately or fortunately took a number of really striking pictures of the Boston Marathon bombing as well. So many historical events that you have been there and photographed. But I wanted to go back a little bit and talk about your initial interest in photography. Is this something that you were interested in from the very beginning? Do you recall being a child and looking at things and wanting to capture them?

Goodman: Nice way to start the conversation, Rebecca. Thank you. My interest in photography really stemmed from the training and therefore my passion of doing political work and being a political sociologist. I had always been involved in community organizing and used photography as a tool for teaching. So in 1980 when a colleague of mine was asked to go over to Iran to meet with the people holding the hostages, he said to me would you like to come along and be the photographer? Well how phenomenal an opportunity is that and what experience for on the job training. I said sure and I picked up my camera put on my hat is now an international photojournalist and launched what became you know an extraordinarily interesting career covering Iran, Cuba, Nicaragua. All as a freelancer. You know there are a lot of people out there for hire, but you know that's how sometimes things go.

Cruise: And when you're taking an amazing photograph, do you know as you're taking that shot that it's going to be just that that beautiful wonderful story or that it's going to speak volumes or do you have that sense?

Goodman: Oh I wish I could say yes a thousand times but we're only human beings sometimes. Yes I mean when you're covering something you just can't wait to get that picture out of your camera and show others and make sure that it does get kind of representation of what that event was. Other times you're taking so many so quickly that it's just an experience like no other and afterwards you have to go back and recap and see really which one stands out which one tells the story what composite of elements ends up being you know the the photograph and that can be a very complicated experience sometimes.

Cruise: I’m sure it's full of surprises too when you're going through the film and, oh that one was perfect, or that one didn't turn out as I suspected.

Goodman: Those are the ones you try to put away and not let your editors see.

Cruise: Well as you said you found yourself in Tehran in Iran really right after or during the hostage situation and it sounds like an interesting story that things just kind of happened and you found yourself there. You were not much older than the students involved in the hostage situation.

Goodman: Exactly. Yeah. I was 24 years old and the students who had taken over the embassy were from the local five universities in Tehran and they were aged 18 to 22. So while this delegation visit that I was covering where I'd say most everyone was at least 10 to 15 to 20 years older than me. I was the one maybe who could best relate to the students because of our proximity and age. So sometimes that facilitated more private conversations. So being young can sometimes have an advantage well.

Cruise: And being a woman did that play in at all either? I'm curious.

Goodman: Well it did with the female students because they were very curious that I had, you know, been there in that capacity in that professional position. Although interestingly during my visit, a lot of the interviews and tours and site visits and even visits by people to the conference area that we were holding these meetings there were all these Iranian women wearing headphones like we're wearing right here in the studio using, you know, directional mics to record people's opinions. So there I was with kind of this complimentary group of young Iranian women who were taking on a media function in that situation. But also there were those times, you know, the current vice president minister for the environment, Masoumeh Ebtekar, ended up being sort of the coordinator of this 10 day visit back in, 19 in, February 1980 and she rose to become the vice president as I just said but at that time she was just instrumental in helping us understand Iran and the events that led up to the U.S. embassy takeover.

Cruise: So perhaps some preconceived ideas of the role of women then and now that they have perhaps changed or you opened some eyes to that. What were some of your other experiences being there. It's is just such an important historical event and you're sitting there on the sidelines watching observing taking these pictures that would speak volumes.

Goodman: Right. Well you know you have to understand back in 1980 the idea of Islam and the idea of revolution was very alien to Americans and all of us, it was a delegation of 50 people plus a three person media team, were just very surprised at this exceptional opportunity to speak person-to-person. I mean, that was the purpose of this group to try and understand what led up to the takeover of the U.S. embassy Why was it even the U.S. Embassy why not the British or the Soviets. And in so doing, you know, we learned about what happened in the events leading up and during the revolution and why that happened and then why in particular was it the U.S. Embassy that was targeted. I mean, if you remember, just a few days prior to the takeover, the Shah was allowed entry into the United States for so-called medical treatment, and that was the, you know, that was the trigger. Tor the Iranians, they wanted, one, to have him, you know, return for trial too. They were fearful that there would be another coup reinstalling him like they did with Mosaddegh in ‘53. And they also just wanted the people around the world to understand this is an affront to their politic, an affront to their way of life, that someone who had repressed their population was now getting sanctuary in the very country that had supported him for so very long. So as a 24-year-old, that definitely, most definitely, is a very eye opening experience to really understand the complexities of our foreign policy firsthand by the people who were the subjects of that.

Goodman: But let me just elaborate a little more because I think this is an important insight. So we had gone after that first trip. Journalist Bill Worthy, who was from Boston, and I had decided to apply for visas to go back at a time where American journalists had been banned from Iran, mostly because of their lack of in-depth coverage of the Iran hostage crisis. So we supposedly were granted visas. CBS News jumped at the opportunity for us to be their crew in Iran. I'm frantically trying to learn how to use a broadcast video camera. Now, take on a super woman role and being, you know, crew at, you know, TV crew in Iran. But we spent approximately two months there interviewing high ranking military, political, religious leaders, going through the streets, going to demonstrations. But at the end of that visit we purchased at the University of Tehran, and also at the airport, a collection of books. There were like 12 in the volume at that time. And they were reprints of the very documents that had been taken when the U.S. Embassy was stormed, some of which were telex, some of which were more confidential and secret. Some had been reassembled from the shredded documents that were put through the shredder, meaning those were probably the most important ones to conceal. Well we returned to the United States, get through New York City's Kennedy Airport. Uneventful. But we had extra baggage that came through Logan Airport and in that baggage was this identical set of 10 books. So the customs officials at Logan flagged it, called in the FBI, called in the CIA.

Cruise: Wow.

Goodman: And decided to look through all our materials. They took it out of the air freight terminal, brought it back, had dogs sniffing around you know. Then when my colleague was called to pick up the materials, she was greeted by two FBI agents who said we were being investigated for having stolen U.S. government property and there was a possibility of indictment.

Goodman: Oh my goodness.

Goodman: Now I'm 26 now and I'm trying to look up the word ‘indictment’ really fast saying, ‘What does this mean?’ And we realize that we might be a test case for this new theft of government property statute. So quickly we notified CBS News that we had this identical set of books in the country and they said, oh, you know, when asked by other media who are these people we were a freelance crew and they didn't know much about us. They kind of wanted to separate themselves.

Goodman: But ultimately the Washington Post decided that this was a goldmine. They put together a research team and two months later they published a front page series of articles on the contents of the books. The very same day that their series started, we announced at the Nieman Foundation at Harvard that we were suing the CIA, FBI, State Department and customs officials for having violated our First and Fourth Amendment rights. Well, long story short, ultimately the government realized they didn't have a case. They returned our books. We then were advised by our ACLU lawyers to file suit for damages and we ultimately won.

Cruise: Wow.

Goodman: So we took a very small amount of money that we each gained independent of what we gave to the ACLU as a donation and got back into Iran pretty easily.

Cruise: Goodness what an interesting turn of events there. And as you said you did return to Iran. You returned again in the 80s during the war and got some wonderful pictures there and returned more recently and though it wasn't necessarily the original focus, you did take a lot of photographs throughout this period of women in Iran, as we mentioned. And you brought one to show me today and we're going to post it on our web site. But it's a beautiful black and white picture of what looks like hundreds, possibly thousands, of women in prayer and they are guarded by female guards. So it's in that 1979 I'm assuming.

Goodman: This is 1983.

Cruise: I'm sorry 1983. And it's wonderful because there's these little kids that are popping up between their mothers, so you don't see the mothers’ faces but just these little kids popping up here and there, and it's just such a striking photo. Maybe tell us a little bit about that, and what that image conjures up and then what more recent photos you've taken. What's the juxtaposition?

Goodman: Sure. Well this is a black and white image as you said and it is just a view, a lengthy distant view, of all these women at prayer. And as it was the wartime, the Revolutionary Guards were there to perhaps get the assembled out of the out of the area quickly. I mean missiles hadn't fallen on Iran and on Tehran in the south it had but but not in Tehran as much. But in the event of people were ready to kind of move out quickly.

Cruise: And this female guards and that that was par for the course. That was quite normal.

Goodman: Yes. Oh yeah they were female Revolutionary Guards when you went into any government building you'd be patted down, you know, privately in a tented area, you know, by the Revolutionary Guards to make sure you know there were security in a sense and privacy as well. But then so this was outdoors at the University of Tehran immediately in front of the staging where political and and religious speeches would go on every Friday were the men and the women were kind of cordoned off into the side areas going down like long corridors et cetera. But then when I went back going to see what had since transpired about attendance about location, it was one of those, I want to go back and revisit kind of themes in my 2015 trip. So I went to what is now this massive soon to be perhaps the largest mosque, when and if completed, in the future with a separate area for men and women I mean again the men in the thousands are in front of this new beautifully magnificently mosaic laden and staged area and the women are up above. And what's interesting is while you often think of women in the Middle East who are wearing a chador, wearing black chadors, this time there was such variation of color and design and fabrics and and lightness to it. And it was just kind of a magnificently beautiful sight to see. But, you know, things have really changed in Iran and this one little example might show that. So as I navigated through these the bodies of bodies and there was one time where the crowds were in vogue to chant you know something that is is a kind of an anti-Western phrase, "Marg bar Amrika," it's translated as Down with America, Death to America, whatever you know if you want to use on that one. But it was said you know kind of as a way to people to be joined in together politically. But at that time the young woman who had been assigned to me to kind of help me navigate through all this turned to me and she knew I was from the United States and she said, "I'm really sorry that you have to hear that. It's not what we mean. We don't mean death to America. We mean that we just don't we are against United States policy towards Iran at this time." And this was right in the approach to the nuclear the signing of the nuclear agreement. So to me that had even more meaning that she would you know identify that this is something that was important and meaningful to her.

Cruise: Well, perhaps you could describe a couple of the more recent photos. You said there's a lot of color. Are there any favorites?

Goodman: Yeah for sure. One thing that I was really striking to me when you go into the subways more prominently than anywhere else perhaps because the subways do have this gender segregation that's optional. If you want as a woman to stay in a car with only women you can go in the first or the last car. If it doesn't matter to you, you just go into any other car. So I decided to play kind of like hopscotch I'd go into the gender exclusive car of women and then go back into the other one. And then also on the buses you know women and men are in separate areas. But the women are just extraordinarily striking and modern in their dress and in their makeup and in their hair color and where they wear their head scarf. This was a tremendously obvious transformation. Number of women had done a surgically corrected, the shape of their noses that's very popular in Iran and also a lot of other Middle East countries. But I think the surgeons in Iran are kind of noted for it. So to walk around with a bandaged nose became a status symbol.

Cruise: Oh.

Goodman: Right. But women would wear, you know, make up. I never saw that as kind of being something that, you know, was totally rejected. Often when women were in the north of Tehran, which is the more upper class area their scarves would hang far towards the back of their head or sometimes just around their shoulders if they were driving. I mean you know there are, you know, things there are objections to those kinds of positioning of the scarf. But it seems as though women were feeling you know as as time has gone on that there's a push back and that, you know, maybe this represents for them saying you know it's our time. You know we've waited long enough. We really got to get back into the game and that there's a lot that we need to do.

Cruise: Thank you so much for sharing your amazing experiences with us and certainly for sharing your beautiful work.

Goodman: Thank you. Thanks Rebecca.

Copyright © 2016 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.

Jacob McCleland spent nine years as a reporter and host at public radio station KRCU in Cape Girardeau, Mo. His stories have appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, Here & Now, Harvest Public Media and PRI’s The World. Jacob has reported on floods, disappearing languages, crop duster pilots, anvil shooters, Manuel Noriega, mule jumps and more.
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