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Iran: Complicated Relations

My time in Iran happened to include the anniversary of the takeover of the U.S. Embassy — the event that started the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979.  There were anti-American signs all over Tehran.  My new Iranian-American friend mentioned that there’d be a government-organized event commemorating the anniversary.  Always willing to get my camera into the middle of unusual spectacles, I said: “Can I go see it?” “Sure, we can go,” he said.   I asked what it would look like. “Just a bunch of signs and chanting.” “Oh. What will they be chanting?,” I said.  His response: “Uh… like ‘Death to America’ and stuff like that.  But they don’t mean it! They’ll be very nice to you!”  Having spent the previous two weeks in Iran, this actually made perfect sense to me.  I tried to go, but by the time we got over to Taleqani Street there was barely a trace of it.  Instead, I got a very weird tour of the former U.S. Embassy.


A sign at the exit of the Taleqani subway station, on the walls of the former U.S. Embassy. The facility is still controlled by the same group that took it over in 1979.


The site of the rally. This was all that was left when we arrived. Notice the U.S. flag painted on the street and labeled “Down With The USA.” (I think that may be a permanent fixture.) The middle banner says “We will Crush American Hegemony”, with a picture of the US sailors they held captive briefly in 2016.


The next day’s newspaper, showing Taleqani street an hour or so before I’d arrived.


You’ll see plenty of friendly faces in the pictures I took in Iran. The hundreds of people I met were almost all enthusiastically welcoming. When they asked where I was from (“What country?” they’d say) and heard “America” I could see their eyes widen a little in surprise. Then they smiled — excited to see an American visiting their country.  As often as not, the older ones would offer tea; the younger ones would ask me to join them in a “selfy” (photo).   Even from those who knew very little English, I’d almost always hear “Welcome” and “Thank you.” The Iranians I met were warm, kind and friendly people who were especially welcoming of American visitors.


Meanwhile, the government of the “Islamic Republic of Iran” is led by a powerful Supreme Leader (successor to the Ayatollah Khomeini) who repeatedly announces that America is Iran’s biggest enemy. While I was in Tehran, there were billboards up all around town (erected by the government) denouncing America, and the government staged its annual “Death to America” rally on the anniversary of the 1979 embassy takeover. The headline of the next day’s paper read, “Outburst of Hatred Toward U.S.” 


Their government often defines its very identity in anti-American terms. The Republic was born of a 1979 revolution against a controversial Shah ( king) whom they viewed as a U.S. puppet. The biggest event in its subsequent history is the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and they blame the U.S. for that, too.  This was on page one of the state-run Tehran Times while I was there:   “’Death to America’ is the spirit of the Islamic Republic [of Iran] and its body can go no far [sic] without this slogan. Of course, America is the symbol of all satanic deeds, not letting the inhabitants of the planet earth progress and experience a free life.”  

It’s worth noting that in all the anti-American propaganda put up by the Iranian government, I don’t recall any of it being about religion (except for metaphorical references to the U.S. as the devil).  Their complaint is not that they think we’re infidels — it’s that they think we’re imperialists.  (Never mind that since the 6th Century B.C., the Persians have been some of the planet’s most prolific Empire-builders whenever they were able).  Without delving too deeply in the connection between religion and terrorism, I should also point out that Iranians are almost all Shi’a Muslims.  On the other hand, ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Osama Bin-Laden and Saddam Hussein are (were) all Sunnis, who often don’t get along with Shias much better than they do with other religions (or infidels).  Americans’ concerns about Islamic terrorism often fail to separate these groups.

America isn’t nearly as obsessed with Iran as the Iranian government is with America, but we do list it – along with just Sudan and Syria – on our formal short-list of nations who consistently sponsor terrorism.   The same month I was in Iran, President Trump declined to make a major certification in the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran, and the U.S. Congress had a near-unanimous bipartisan vote to impose additional sanctions on Iran over its ballistic missile program.  Iranian people believe that most Americans think they are all terrorists. It’s an obvious exaggeration, but of course the Iranians are partly right about Americans’ perceptions. The worried reactions I’d heard from American friends about my Iranian trip bear this out. 


Iranians make a clear distinction between governments and people. They consistently volunteered that they “love” American people but they don’t like American government. (The latter is not a new “Trump” thing: the same sentiment has prevailed since the revolution.) And they seem to assume that we can or should love Iranian people, even as we might sensibly be wary of their antagonistic government. If it seems tough to reconcile, perhaps it shouldn’t be. Most adult Iranians have lived through the transition from an unpopular monarch (the last Shah) to a revolutionary government in which an unelected Supreme Leader is the ultimate authority. There’s never been much reason or expectation that the sentiments of the Iranian people are well-represented by their government, so the mental separation of a country’s people from that country’s government’s acts and policies probably comes rather easily to Iranians.


We could probably learn a lesson or two from the Iranian people on this front, though it might also be easy to learn the wrong ones.  It would be an obvious mistake to confuse the Iranian government’s belligerence with the mindset of Iranian people, or to presume that the Iranian people are a bunch of terrorists who would attack or abduct Americans given half a chance. They’re not. They’re mostly nice and decent people, just like most Americans are. It’s natural to want to demonize the citizens of your country’s political foes.  (In time of real war, it’s probably both necessary and inevitable.)  But of course it’s mostly a psychological fiction: most likely, they’re just ordinary, decent folks. In this vein, I can remember Sting singing to us in in the Cold War 1980s about his hope that “the Russians love their children, too.”


At the same time, though, governments necessarily do what governments have to do — whether the citizens of their political adversaries are generally nice people or not. This may include saber-rattling, sanctioning, or worse. For example, our appropriate responses to North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un can’t be much affected by whether the typical North Korean citizen is a nice guy or not. Similarly, the sincere warmth of Iranian people is probably of little relevance to our government policies toward Iran.


Iranians may be unrealistic in their desire to wholly separate friendliness for benevolent individuals from wariness of belligerent governments.  Who can blame America for being wary of the acts of a country that stages “Death to America” rallies? Given that Iran’s leaders openly call for bringing about America’s demise, it’s little wonder that we’d impose sanctions or immigration restrictions aimed at reducing Iran’s ability to do so — even though our policies will surely affect lots of friendly and blameless individuals. Given the billboards and the state-run newspaper propaganda and the rallies, there’s little reason to believe that the Iranian government has any desire to improve its relations with the United States.  That’s too bad, because I suspect our government would be as pleased as I am to have friends in the region.  

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Signs mocking President Obama have recently been replaced by signs mocking President Trump.

Several of the signs repeated the mantra that the US Embassy was a “Den of Espionage”

There was a famous quote from the late Ayatollah Khomeini that said something like “The US can’t do shit” or “The US can’t do a damn thing” against Iran.  On this series of billboards, that line is applied to the modern U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf.

This sign is about the U.S.’s accidental downing of an Iranian commercial airliner in 1988 in the midst of military clashes in the Persian Gulf. The Iranians insist that it was intentional. This is a 2017 sign complaining and propagandizing about a 1988 event.  Note that the plane is Iran Air Flight #655, while the U.S. missile is labeled 666.  


The defaced Seal of the United States of America. This was the main entrance of the U.S. Embassy, which is still controlled by the group that took it over in 1979. It now includes a very odd “museum.”

This guy showed us around the former Embassy. His entire pitch was to justify the 1979 hostage-taking by convincing visitors that the place was a CIA spy headquarters rather than a proper embassy.  Most of what they showed were the embassy’s efforts to prevent being spied UPON, like encryption technology, paper-shredders, and an electronic-surveilance-proof room.

Part of their argument that the Embassy was a “Den of Spies” was this area, labeled the “Forgery Room.” It’s the part of the Embassy where they routinely made and issued U.S. passports (as all our embassies do). The Iranians insist that the Americans were making fraudulent, forged passports for spies to use. Besides those manual typewriters, their key evidence included a shelf full of “chemicals” they’d found on the premises, which they insisted were the kinds of potions you’d use to manufacture those fake foreign passports.  Look closely: 2 gallons of automotive anti-freeze, some floor wax, 3 bottles of carpet shampoo, lighter fluid (it was the 1970s!), Krylon cleaner and lube, and a couple of cans of Glade air freshener.  


Hauling Ass In Leadville

A preliminary shout-out and photo credit to MIKE SHORT, photographer for all these pictures.  Also: For the record, I’ve limited myself to just one “ass” pun per paragraph.


Me with Beethoven just after the start, in downtown Leadville, Colorado

You’ve probably heard the phrase about a “rented mule.” Well, my new buddy Beethoven was actually a rented burro (a.k.a. donkey; a.k.a. “ass”). They don’t allow any of those half-ass mules in the Leadville Boom Days Pack Burro Race.



I was a rookie to the event, so I didn’t exactly get first pick of available teammates. The ass I got handed to me was named Beethoven. He was once a wild burro running free on federal land, and his track record as a racing burro wasn’t good: last place in Leadville a year ago; second-to-last in a similar event just week ago (each time in a field of a few dozen racers). His 2015 Leadville results got him the dubious Last Ass Over the Pass award, and resulted in a 2016 rule change limiting the time allowed. Pessimistic, I opted for the shorter course and steeled myself for a long day. Even the “short” course is 15 miles, and it climbs up to 12,000 feet elevation. It didn’t surprise me a bit that our assigned race number was 13.



I’d done some homework – even a couple of hours of donkey-whisperer lessons from Bill Lee (the Santa Claus looking guy in one of the pictures). The trick to burro racing with an ass like Beethoven is to remember that donkeys are herd animals. Try to head off by yourself and things will go poorly. Group up with a handful of other burro teams going at a decent pace and you might – might – have some success.   So I put my ass on the line for a fast start, and tried to coax him into the thick of the action.


The rules say you can lead, push, pull or even carry your burro – but he can’t carry you. As the pictures reflect, the humans run along on their own power. Sometimes you lead the burro from the front, sometimes you “drive” from behind, and sometimes you just find yourself in a tug-of-war battle-of-wills. I covered my ass (as the rules require) with a 33-pound packsaddle equipped with a shovel, pick and prospector’s pan as a fun tribute to the traditional roots of the sport and the Colorado mining region.

An amusing part of the rental agreement was that I would have to split any prize money with Beethoven’s owners. Unsurprisingly, that provision was of no relevance, but Beethoven and I actually did okay. The little ass only kicked me once; we had a prompt come-to-donkey-Jesus discussion about that and seemed to get along mostly fine for the rest of the day.  There was a lot of slow trudging, but occasionally I’d get my ass in gear and we’d run like a well-oiled machine. Brad Wann (Beethoven’s owner) has an email tagline that says that once you’ve tried burro racing, it’s “hard to walk away.” Several of the other racers I spoke to actually talked about being “hooked” on the sport. I guess it’s a little like golf – hours of frustration punctuated by a few brief moments when everything comes together perfectly.


The race starts and ends in downtown Leadville, and loops up into the mountains east of town.  There were 30 human/burro teams at the start for the 15-mile short-course race, though a couple of them apparently never got past the first couple of blocks. Beethoven and I spent most of the day running and herding alongside a guy (in sandals) named Pat Sweeney and his burro Mr. Ziffer. (It turns out that Pat is sort of famous in the ultra trail running world).  After helping one another all day, we had a final, awkward “drag race” up Leadville’s main street, Harrison Avenue. Beethoven and I finished about # 16 out 30 teams.  Next year we’ll do better.



The burros’ skittishness about the crowd and noise made for an awkward, slow-motion finish back in downtown Leadville.



My mom and dad, Joyce and JB Cotner, with me after the race. I’m sure they’ve never been prouder.

Help and Health in Capayque, Bolivia

This is post #4 in an ongoing series that started here.  This is what the trip was really all about.


Carolyn Williams — my aunt — screening a patient outside the new Capayque medical clinic


The First United Methodist Church of Stillwater, Oklahoma has – for many years – sent mission teams to South America to provide healthcare in remote, rural areas of Bolivia.  My aunt, Carolyn Williams – an R.N. (blond hair, visor and scrubs in these pictures) — has been a hero and mainstay of those teams for sixteen years.  This year, she invited me to come along to take pictures.  There were 14 of us from the U.S., assisted by a handful of Bolivians from La Paz and from Capayque itself.


Dr. Don Crawley of Stillwater examines a patient in Capayque


Over the course of five days, Carolyn and the two American doctors (Don Crawley and Doug Wilsey, both of Stillwater) saw about 300 patients from Capayque and surrounding communities.  It was surely the first time many had seen a doctor in their lives.  The doctors dealt with an array of conditions ranging from pregnancy to worms to earwax to virtual blindness, all the while trying to share preventive health tips like handwashing, tooth brushing, nutrition and water safety.


Linda Allen (center) was the group’s acting lead pharmacist


Dr. Don Wilsey


The challenges of interacting and helping the Capayque people were heightened by the fact that many of the locals speak only the indigenous people’s language of Aymara – not Spanish like they speak in La Paz.  So often a single doctor and a single patient required two translations – Aymara to Spanish, then Spanish to English.


Meanwhile, team members put some of the finishing touches on the medical clinic the Methodist group started 3 years ago.  They did lots of shoveling and wheel barrow-ing, and they recruited help from dozens of townspeople.  Though my primary role was as the group’s photographer, I spent some time with a pick or shovel in my hands, too.  Even some of the little local ladies with the wacky hats joined in.  The new clinic will look pretty basic by U.S. standards, but it is far and away the nicest building in the town.  It will be staffed (funds permitting) year-round by a local Bolivian nurse (a great guy named Basilio), which will make it the finest healthcare facility for miles around.


Doug Valley has overseen the construction of the new clinic since its inception in 2012.



Ray Kinnunen recruited a small army of Capayque townspeople to help with a big construction project at the new clinic.


There were activities for local kids, too.  Some were just for fun and some — like the hand washing lessons — aimed to teach some basic, helpful lessons we Gringos tend to take for granted.  These pictures were taken with a smaller group, but attendance hit about 75 by the last day.


The team and its mission were one of several such mission teams coordinated by the Methodist Church in Bolivia.  I’m no Methodist — and my views on religion surely varied from the rest of the group — but that made little difference.  Perhaps the most basic belief underlying these efforts was simply that the folks of Capayque needed help  — and that good and decent Americans ought to try to do something for people whose typical standard of living is essentially unheard of in the U.S. (except perhaps among the homeless).  You don’t need any particular religious faith to have profound respect for what these teams are doing for fellow humans who need it badly.  It should restore your faith in humanity.


The Team met daily to eat, coordinate activities, and for some religious songs and talks. Above, Ken Morris of Stillwater sings a hymn in the dimly-lit dining and meeting room.



I need to give a big thanks to a Houston-based charity that was a huge help.  Medical Bridges accumulates surplus and donated medical equipment and supplies, warehouses them, and distributes them to worthy international healthcare relief missions just like the Methodist teams in Bolivia.  Capayque got a generous load of supplies far better than anything it had had before.  Thanks to George and Dorothy and all the folks at Medical Bridges, and to my friend and Medical Bridges board member, Jeff Thomas, for making the connection.

And thanks again to my Aunt Carolyn, for suggesting that I come along.  The U.S. team consisted of Rev. Mike and Leanne Chaffin, Linda Allen, Carolyn Williams, me, Doug Valley, Dr. Don Crawley, Dr. Doug Wilsey, Ken Morris, Ray Kinnenun, and four Oklahoma sisters whose family played a big role in sponsoring the clinic:  Allyn Bigelow, Karen McKinney, Ora Morgan and Becky Szlichta.  Our heroic La Paz based translators/coordinators — Wilson Saucedo and Lauren — were untiring, unflappable and invaluable.




The Stillwater mission team poses with the crowd who showed up for church on Sunday.



This “Boxer” shot from Cuba in 2012 seemed to be a favorite from among the images I showed at Fotofest 2014.

Every other year, my adopted hometown  — Houston, Texas — hosts “Fotofest,” one of the biggest photography gatherings in the world.  This was my first time to participate.  I was part of the Meeting Place portfolio reviews – eight days of meeting photographers, photography gallery owners and museum curators, magazine and blog editors, collectors, and more — carrying a stack of my prints to show and discuss.

This is a crowd where the folks who operate cameras are called “artists” — not merely “photographers.”  A crowd where I was asked (repeated) what the “message” was of my work.  Uh…. pretty pictures?   A typical review of my work:  “Jeff, you’ve got some really stunning visual images here; you’ve got a great eye.  But so what?”   Hmmmm.

It’s hard to know what you’ve learned at an event like this.  There’s surely a lot of eye-of-the-beholdering:  it was not uncommon for one reviewer to pick a particular image as a prime favorite, then have the very next person identify the exact same image as one I should edit out of my portfolio entirely.  Or vice versa.

The experience certainly got me out of my comfort zone, out of my element, and in some sense maybe out of my league.  The goals of the contemporary art crowd are very different from mine.  I’ve been knee-deep in camera equipment for nearly three years now.  So far, my goals have been mostly to make interesting photographs of the very interesting things I’ve been able to go see and take part in so that I can share at least a part of that experience.  Fotofest 2014 can now go on my list of interesting experiences.

The images I showed at Fotofest were taken from those at THIS LINK (Click here).

Fotofest rolls back into Houston in 2016.  Maybe by then I’ll have a some message.  Until then, I hope I can mostly have some fun with all this.  Thanks for looking.


This image got some attention because it seems to make a bit of a political statement — though I’m not sure what statement people thought it was making.


“Postcard”-like landscapes are of almost no interest at Fotofest!


This was a love-it-or-hate-it image. The backlighting and the light reflected from the deep red dirt makes the color balance unusual, and the image looks a little painting-like. Some folks picked it as their favorite; others hated it and encouraged me to remove it from my portfolio entirely.




New Zealand’s Moeraki Boulders


Here’s something strange.   On a small stretch of Koekohe Beach — about halfway up the Pacific Coast of New Zealand’s South Island — there’s a group of a few dozen spherical rocks.  The biggest are about six feet in diameter.  Stranger still:  a few are broken open, revealing that the inside is hollow, and lined with crystals.  It’s Land of the Lost meets Mork from Ork.

The Moeraki Boulders are a New Zealand landmark.  They’re similar to the softball-sized geodes that are common in North America,  except they’re so big you can crawl inside the hollow middle of a broken one.  There are lots of legends about where they come from, but the most plausible one is pretty boring (something about geological “concretion” of calcite sediment) and doesn’t involve aliens or sleestaks (or even crop circles).