Revolution through the lenses of Magnum photographers

Student protest in Tiananmen Square, China, 26 May 1989 Student protest in Tiananmen Square, China, 1989

Almost since the birth of photography, political unrest and conflict have drawn photographers to capture the drama of the moment, and in some cases to offer comment through their work.

Magnum Photos was brought to life in the aftermath of World War II by photographers Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David "Chim" Seymour, each of whom was well acquainted with covering a changing world, where borders and allegiances were shifting as players set themselves for what was to become the Cold War.

So it is no surprise that the many photographers who have followed in their footsteps continued to do the same, throwing themselves at the heart of revolutions around the globe, from the uprisings in Europe as countries attempted to free themselves from Soviet rule to the more recent Arab Spring.

This work by a select band of photojournalists captures the intensity of the struggle for change and in many cases the tragedy and suffering on both sides of the divide. Yet through the decades the pictures show that at the heart of all revolutions are the people, human voices seeking to change their lot in life. As always, the story is what matters.

Here's a selection from the archives of Magnum Photos; see what you make of them.

Burt Glinn - Cuba

One of the most famous revolutions was the one in Cuba that saw Fidel Castro rise to power, fighting alongside Ernesto "Che" Guevara against the regime led by Gen Batista, finally seizing power when the dictator fled on New Year's Day in 1959.

The pictures from that time show figures who seem larger than life and this one by Burt Glinn depicts Castro delivering a long speech in Santa Clara, the town having been liberated earlier by Che.

Fidel Castro delivers a speech on 1 January 1959

Josef Koudelka - Czechoslovakia

1968 became known as the year of revolution, and Koudelka was on hand that August to record the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact troops' invasion of Czechoslovakia following Alexander Dubcek's Prague Spring.

Koudelka did not see himself as a photojournalist: "What was happening in Czechoslovakia concerned my life directly," he said. "It was my country. That's what made the difference between me and other photographers who came here from abroad. I took these photos for myself, not for a magazine. It was only by chance that they were published."

Confrontation near the Radio headquarters in Prague, August 1968

Abbas - Iran

Abbas was born in Iranian Balichistan but left the country with his family when he was eight years old, returning in 1978 to cover the uprising and staying to be on hand when the Shah was removed from power in 1979. "When the revolution started, it was democratic," says Abbas. "It was my country, my people and my revolution. Then, slowly, it was being hijacked."

Abbas photographed the corpses of four of the Shah's commanders and realised at this point that these executions followed a secret trial. "Something we learned is that the extremists always win. That was my main lesson from the revolution. The extremists were prepared to kill, imprison, torture - everything. So they won."

In this picture a militia woman armed with an Uzi sub-machine gun controls a demonstration against Iraq in Tehran, 1979.

A militia woman armed with an Uzi sub-machine gun controls a demonstration against Iraq, Tehran, 1979

Susan Meiselas - Nicaragua

Susan Meiselas covered the conflict in Nicaragua from the late 1970s which saw the rise to power of the Sandinistas, having overthrown the Somoza regime, swiftly followed by the covert war by US-backed Contra rebels. Meiselas' use of colour adds a powerful punch to her pictures and she is a photographer anyone interested in the field should study. For those who are interested in a previous post, Behind the contact sheet, I look briefly at her working methods alongside other Magnum photographers.

Muchachos await the counterattack by the National Guard, Matagaloa, Nicaragua, 1981

Ian Berry - South Africa

The long struggle for freedom from apartheid in South Africa was documented by Ian Berry, who had joined Magnum in 1962. Like many Magnum photographers he dedicated much of his working life to the story, capturing the deaths of 70 black demonstrators at Sharpeville in 1960 through to the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 - apart from the eight years when he was banned from the country.

Here, Archbishop Desmond Tutu conducts a funeral service in a tent for a schoolgirl shot by police in 1985. This is what photography is all about. Aesthetically it's a gorgeous picture, yet behind Tutu, look at the faces. Here you see a new generation who will help to finally break the hold of apartheid; decades of struggle are summed up in one frame.


Jean Gaumy - Poland

Poland was the birthplace of the former Soviet bloc's first officially recognised independent mass political movement when strikes at the Gdansk shipyard in August 1980 led to agreement with the authorities on the establishment of the Solidarity trade union.

Here we see relatives of the strikers waiting outside the headquarters of the Gdansk shipyards in 1980. Once again, the photographer has turned the camera on the faces in the crowd, and the use of the barrier adds to the isolation and uncertainty of those pictured, as well as the feeling of being prisoners in their own country.

Yet as with all photographs, all may not be as it seems and Gaumy notes that the mood inside the shipyard, "Solidarity's fortress", was more optimistic.

Relatives of the strikers wait outside the headquarters of the Gdansk shipyards

Leonard Freed - Romania

Freed is probably best known for his work on the American civil rights movement yet his coverage of the Romanian revolution of 1989 generated many memorable frames, one of which is this one that depicts a couple sheltering from sniper fire on Christmas Eve in Bucharest. It's an incredibly powerful picture with the fear almost flowing from the frame.

The revolution culminated in the execution of Romania's dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, and his wife, by a firing squad the next day.

People shelter in streets near Republic Square in Bucharest as sniper fire scatters the crowd, 24 December 1989

Thomas Dworzak - Chechnya

In 2000, Dworzak photographed Chechen fighters dragging a fallen comrade during a mass escape from Grozny through a minefield, following years of conflict with Russian forces, the roots of which were formed when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Dworzak covered the conflict from 1994, noting that "the intensity of the first war was almost unimaginable. It was crazy, the air war, the flattening of Grozny, the 'filtration camps' - the whole thing."

Chechen fighters drag a fallen comrade in Alkhan-Kala, 2000

Moises Saman - Arab Spring

Saman is a recent member of Magnum Photos, joining as a nominee in 2010 and becoming an associate this year. He is a regular contributor to the New York Times, Newsweek and Time magazine, among others. He has spent much of the past year or so covering the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and now Syria.

He works at the heart of the action, freezing the exact moment where events have maximum impact and drawing us into the frame. Here a protester with a wound to the head is evacuated on a motorcycle from clashes in Tahrir Square in Cairo, in November 2011. Each figure in the frame is separated from the others creating the perfect composition - and no doubt each one has a story to tell.

A protester with a wound to the head is evacuated on a motorcycle from clashes in Tahrir Square in Cairo, 22 November 2011

Magnum Revolution: 65 Years of Fighting for Freedom, with an introduction by Jon Lee Anderson and text and interviews by Paul Watson, is published by Prestel.

You can see more work by Magnum Photos on their website or you can follow them on Twitter.

Phil Coomes Article written by Phil Coomes Phil Coomes Picture editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    These are great photographs and Magnum have helped bear witness to the world's suffering for half a century. Its a worthy thing to bring the photographers and their work to a wider audience, but you have missed out on one of the greatest. Why wasn't Phillip Jones Griffiths included, 'Vietnam Inc.' probably did more to undermine an unjust war and its suffering than any other single photographer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    The photograph gives the viewer a glimpse - silent, yet filled with voices - into a moment that they could not have otherwise peered. Yet with all its poignancy, the experience is abstract: the outsider has no true idea of that moment - the adrenaline rush of exultation or fear. Yet we must struggle always to show that we live.

    Brilliant work by the photographers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    The ine that hits me quite hard here is that of Iran. There is a worrying parralel between the their revolution being hyjacked and the current issues in Eygpt and Syria

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    >> #23. conspicuous by its absence …Tiananmen square massacre. Chinese internet censorship curtain reaching the BBC?

    Er, first picture on the page: 'Student protest in Tiananmen Square, China, 1989'

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    conspicuous by its absence …Tiananmen square massacre.
    Chinese internet censorship curtain reaching the BBC?

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    21. AdelC
    Thanks, I was going by the turret shape, but the ventilator dome is more characteristic.

    Owe you one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    #5, T55.
    Turret is lacking the T54 ventilation dome.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Pictures are powerful. But not as powerful as some people would have you believe. All art is quite useless someone once said. True but useless in surprising ways.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Similarly, people behind bars have been used many times. Concentration camp victims to prisoners in their cells have been pictured throughout history.
    None of this reduces the power of each image; indeed it takes knowledge by the photographer of visual imagery including that of art to recognize such compositions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    The more images I see over the years the more I feel that I have seen so many of them before. In some cases that is true but for most it is the reoccurring shapes and compositions that are similar. The first with the semi naked figure with his arms outstretched is similar to a Goya painting of an execution from another revolution, which itself had religious overtones.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Let's not get carried away here; of course the pictures are stunning and do present a frozen moment in time, but are often the end of complex and tortuous processes. Our image-based age often seeks to simplify complexity; why bother to gather intelligence over an age when a single image can say it all. Not so.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Neat pictures, but lets not get the wrong idea and compare our problems here with the problems that are causing these revolutions overseas. We have issues with fair taxation on the wealthy and music downloads, these people are fighting for basic human rights.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Magnum Photos, a cooperative is owned by its members. The pictures always express extraordinary vision, an insight into the world, its peoples, its issues & events. The pictures speak to us, as words never could, about passion, fear, breaking news, old news seen in new ways...The foregoing are amazing examples of photographers doing what they do best.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Magnum photographs were an inspiration to me in wanting to become a photographer. Especially the work of Sebastiao Salgado. Thanks Magnum. I did it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    #9 DefencePhotography has obviously never been to a war zone and been under fire and yet still expected to take a photograph; of those fatally wounded, at the height of their emotions and armed to the teeth, or of the victims of a suicide bombing just seconds after the explosion, or faced with uncertainty about where the next shell will fall, if the combatants you are with can be trusted…

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    colliwobbles, I do not know the exact story of the photo but after doing a reverse image search I found it was by Stuart Franklin and is from Tianenmen Square. It can be seen in Franklin's portfolio at Magnum.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Back in the day this was slow technology as opposed to now where the questions are not used to edit as shown by image from New York subway.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    The first picture _ appears to be Tianenmen Square is not commented on , are there associated comments on this photo?

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Great's almost impossible not to get a great photograph in these circumstances.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Magnums work has always been powerful, and the greatest of them all was Robert Capa. many of his Photo's have iconic status, especially those from the Spanish Civil War. he was a man who lived and died for his work, stepping on a landmine in Indochina in 1956, trying to get "that picture"


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