Looking back: photographing the Iran hostage crisis

During six months in Iran covering the 1979 hostage crisis, photojournalist Peter Bregg was blindfolded and kidnapped, had his office ransacked, lost photos, had equipment confiscated and continued to transmit photos daily to The Canadian Press. Interviewed by Melissa Wilson.

Peter BreggPeter Bregg was a 31-year-old photojournalist working with the Canadian Press when he was shipped off to Iran to cover the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis. Though his six-month stay in Iran (on two separate trips) was punctuated with break-ins, kidnappings and interrogations, Bregg says he never feared for his safety, and was most distressed when he returned to his office to find that revolutionary guards had trashed two years’ worth of photos. Bregg was able to cover the story from beginning to end, and his photos from that time are currently being shown at the IX Gallery in Toronto. The exhibit closes Nov. 28, 2009. Bregg spoke with Melissa Wilson about his experiences.

Q: What were some of the biggest challenges of being a photojournalist in Iran during the hostage crisis?

P.B.:Well, it might have been boredom. The story did not move very fast. There were a bunch of people being held for 444 days and we had no access to the hostages, so the only story that we were really covering was the demonstrations outside the embassy, when there were some. There were press conferences once in a while, and visiting diplomats trying to negotiate with the students. One of the most difficult things was finding something fresh to report on a daily basis.

Q: Can you tell me about the time that you were kidnapped while there?

P.B.: This was during our second visit to Iran. We had come home for the summer, Doug Long, [Canadian Press] reporter, and I. We showed up in October and about a month after we arrived—it was Nov. 4; in fact, the first anniversary of the taking of the embassy— four revolutionary guards showed up at the house that we were renting for office space. At first I thought they were just inquiring about what we were doing there and that we’d just explain our way out of it all. But no. These fellows took us into a room, one by one, emptied our pockets, took everything and blindfolded us with towels they took from my darkroom. They marched us down to the basement, one by one. We sat on the floor with our hands crossed over our heads, which would have made an interesting picture, I think, but no one ever got the picture.

There were two Iranian freelance journalists working with us as interpreters, fixers, and there were a couple of Iranian freelance photographers. We had a French photographer, and there was a Telex office working out of the front of the house; there were about four or five people in there, so, all told, we were about 10 or 11.

About an hour after sitting on the floor, we were marched upstairs into a minivan, still blindfolded, and taken away to what felt like a warehouse. By midnight, they had taken all of the Iranians out of the hall—I’m assuming to interrogate them and then let them go—and there were just the three foreigners: myself, Doug Long and our French freelance photographer, Herve Merliac. From there, we were taken by car to a private residence, still blindfolded. The most I could see was through the bottom of my blindfold. We were then handed over to four guys with rifles—we assumed they were revolutionary guards as well—and marched up to a bedroom in this private apartment. [The guards] pointed at the bed; these guys couldn’t speak any English, so we assumed they wanted us to sleep. So the three of us went to bed and slept until seven in the morning, and then some fellow showed up with tea and bread and honey and then we just sat around for a couple of hours with nothing to do.

By noon, we were blindfolded again and taken back to our house and, of course, when we got there, the place had been ransacked and everything had been dumped on the floor of the living room: all the negatives and the prints that had been made during the previous two or three years of the revolution. The office had been occupied by the Associated Press before we took over, so the AP had been using freelance photographers and all those negatives had been left behind. I had been taking most of my negatives and prints back to my hotel room, so I did not lose very much on that day, but I was very disappointed.

I’ve always considered myself a historian, recording history on the run, and I was upset to see that two or three years of Iran’s history were going to be flushed down the garbage chute.

[Doug Long and I were later told] to appear at the Foreign Ministry the next day. So we went, and they told us that we were being expelled. We then left the next day or days later with some other journalists who were being expelled or whose visas had run out. At that point, Doug and I thought we would apply for visas in Istanbul. We did the tourist bit for a week there, did some shopping and visited mosques, and the Iranians gave us visas a week later so we had to go back to Iran.

Q: And what happened when you returned?

P.B.: So, we had this wire photo transmitter in the house and all of my cameras, so when they seized the property, they took everything, including the cameras. I had to leave Iran without any gear; it had been turned over to the Danish embassy [because the Canadian embassy had been shut down]. I was able to get my cameras back safely but the darkroom that had been set up in the house had been seized and so had the wire photo transmitter, and the transmitter had been set up at the Iranian news agency office. I was allowed to go there and present any pictures I wanted to transmit to a censor. Someone would look at them and then give them back to me [to transmit]. I never had any turned down.

They had their own, but it was an inferior make and I preferred to use ours, but I had to pay a dollar a minute to use it. I was transmitting two or three pictures a day and back then it was 15 minutes to transmit a black-and-white picture. I was spending about $600 a week transmitting pictures.

And of course the Iranians understood that I was there and I had to do this job, but they kept asking why I needed to keep the machine busy for so long. I came in one day and found one of my pictures that I had give to a technician at the news agency was being transmitted to UPI. I said, “You can’t do that. That’s my picture.”

And he said, “But it’s such a nice picture.” And he had transmitted it two or three times already, he told me.

And so, I have to admit, I did something that might be considered incorrect. I disabled my transmitter on a regular basis. Whenever I was finished with it, I reached around the back and turned a few dials and what that would do was cause the transmitter to transmit a very dark, grey picture, so that it wouldn’t be usable at the other end. Now, photographers don’t stand in each other’s way, but the morality of this machine belonged to us in the first place. It being seized by this group and then used against us bothered me, and so I felt OK about disabling it so that the others couldn’t use it. Maybe after 30 years somebody will be angry with me, but the secret’s out.

Q: And throughout all that, you never felt unsafe?

P.B.: Yeah, I was 31 years old and you don’t really feel . . . it’s not that I felt invincible, but I didn’t really feel that I would be in danger. I was told a long time ago that if you ever feel that you’re just not going to live by going out there today, then that’s the time to come home. But I never got to that point.

Q: In hindsight, do you think you were in danger?

P.B.: I think that today I would be in danger. Back then, journalists weren’t targets. I mean, you could be a political target. In other words, you’d be grabbed today so they could make headlines and they’d let you go the following week or month or whatever. But today, journalists are targets for bullets. I would be very concerned about going to Iran or Iraq or Afghanistan. Those are dangerous places where journalists are targets.

Q: So if the opportunity came up today to go cover Afghanistan or Iraq, you wouldn’t go?

P.B.: I don’t think so. I don’t think my wife would let me go, for one. I think I can afford to say I wouldn’t go back because nobody’s asking me to go back, but if the opportunity came tomorrow and somebody was willing to pay my way, I’d probably go and hope for the best. I don’t think I could help myself.

Peter Bregg has travelled to more than 70 countries capturing stories on film. He is the former photo editor at Hello! magazine and chief photographer and photo editor at Maclean’s. He currently teaches photojournalism at Ryerson University.