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The Photos That Maddened The Mullahs

Iranian documentary photographer Milad Alaei, a former employee of the semiofficial Fars news agency, recently fled Iran and is now seeking asylum in Austria. Alaei told RFE/RL that he decided to leave after his editor assaulted him. He filed a complaint but was met with threats and legal charges, including “disrupting public opinion” and “ties with media opposed to the Islamic establishment.”

In an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari, Alaei said that photographers in Iran are accustomed to censorship of their work and know which subjects are considered off-limits. He said the Fars news agency is considered more restrictive than many media outlets because it is affiliated with the hard-line Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Alaei also noted that even formerly acceptable subjects can fall under a media blackout. For example, Iran's judiciary has banned all media from publishing photos of, or even mentioning, reformist former President Mohammad Khatami.

Here are some of Alaei's photos that have been barred from publication in Iran.

Alaei took this photo of a young Afghan working at a tailor's shop. “It was during summer, the weather was warm, and [the Afghan teenager] was not wearing a shirt while working," Alaei said. "Behind him there was a flag of Iran and a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini. I included this in a series of photos of workers and daily life. But I was told it would be removed. When I asked my editor why, he said that because of the [combination] of the picture of Khomeini, the Iranian flag, a shirtless worker, and the poverty shown, it couldn’t be published.”
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Alaei took this photo of a young Afghan working at a tailor's shop. “It was during summer, the weather was warm, and [the Afghan teenager] was not wearing a shirt while working," Alaei said. "Behind him there was a flag of Iran and a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini. I included this in a series of photos of workers and daily life. But I was told it would be removed. When I asked my editor why, he said that because of the [combination] of the picture of Khomeini, the Iranian flag, a shirtless worker, and the poverty shown, it couldn’t be published.”

“This picture of an image of [Islamic Republic founder] Ayatollah Khomeini stuck to a motorbike had artistic value for me, because of its atmosphere, the texture, the lines. It was attractive for me," Alaei said. "I tried to offer it for publication, but I was told that such pictures can never get published because there shouldn’t be any flaws in a photo of the Leader. Photos of the founder of the Islamic Republic should give the impression of glory and greatness. They objected to the decay next to the image of Khomeini."
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“This picture of an image of [Islamic Republic founder] Ayatollah Khomeini stuck to a motorbike had artistic value for me, because of its atmosphere, the texture, the lines. It was attractive for me," Alaei said. "I tried to offer it for publication, but I was told that such pictures can never get published because there shouldn’t be any flaws in a photo of the Leader. Photos of the founder of the Islamic Republic should give the impression of glory and greatness. They objected to the decay next to the image of Khomeini."

Alaei's series of photos of street musicians were published by the Fars news agency. But in this photo, the two women on the right side were considered to be insufficiently veiled. Alaei's editors said the photo could be published only if the women were cropped out of the image.
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Alaei's series of photos of street musicians were published by the Fars news agency. But in this photo, the two women on the right side were considered to be insufficiently veiled. Alaei's editors said the photo could be published only if the women were cropped out of the image.

A less controversial image from the series on street musicians
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A less controversial image from the series on street musicians

“Pictures of pets and domestic animals are banned to a certain extent, unless they deal with forest preservation, hunting, or wildlife. But showing affection to animals and bringing them home is prohibited -- especially dogs, which are considered dirty. [Pictures of pets] are censored and considered red flags," Alaei said. This picture was rejected from a series on daily life.
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“Pictures of pets and domestic animals are banned to a certain extent, unless they deal with forest preservation, hunting, or wildlife. But showing affection to animals and bringing them home is prohibited -- especially dogs, which are considered dirty. [Pictures of pets] are censored and considered red flags," Alaei said. This picture was rejected from a series on daily life.

Alaei took this picture of a woman with bare arms and no head scarf at a private party in Tehran. "This wasn’t a picture I could show to my editor," Alaei said. At the Fars news agency, he said, editors are reluctant to print images of women not wearing the chador, the long robe Iranian conservatives favor for women. "They try, in a way, to deny that there are [women who don’t wear the chador] in society. Pictures where women’s hair is visible are banned,” he said.
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Alaei took this picture of a woman with bare arms and no head scarf at a private party in Tehran. "This wasn’t a picture I could show to my editor," Alaei said. At the Fars news agency, he said, editors are reluctant to print images of women not wearing the chador, the long robe Iranian conservatives favor for women. "They try, in a way, to deny that there are [women who don’t wear the chador] in society. Pictures where women’s hair is visible are banned,” he said.

This photo was from a series about two heroin addicts and their newborn baby. Alaei said it was not published because the woman is not wearing the hijab.
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This photo was from a series about two heroin addicts and their newborn baby. Alaei said it was not published because the woman is not wearing the hijab.

“I went to the bazaar and took photos of women shopping for clothing they would wear at home, at parties, at weddings, and so on. But I wasn’t able to publish the photos because I was told the clothing in the shops was too revealing. They said it would make people think that these women would wear such dresses on some other occasion.”
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“I went to the bazaar and took photos of women shopping for clothing they would wear at home, at parties, at weddings, and so on. But I wasn’t able to publish the photos because I was told the clothing in the shops was too revealing. They said it would make people think that these women would wear such dresses on some other occasion.”

This photo of a beggar with her child was published by the Fars news agency, but it was quickly taken down, Alaei said. His editors said that the sanctity of the chador had been violated because of the obvious poverty in the photo.
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This photo of a beggar with her child was published by the Fars news agency, but it was quickly taken down, Alaei said. His editors said that the sanctity of the chador had been violated because of the obvious poverty in the photo.

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