Through independence and strange fortune, photographers are sometimes at the heart of world events as they emerge. In Telex Iran, a troubled and disoriented Gilles Perres, makes one of the most honest and dynamic visual diaries as a reaction to civil unrest. Conveying his position as an outsider in an Iran becoming increasingly unstable by the hour, his work complements the native, the Czech Josef Koudelka who moved through the Prague streets in 1968 as Russian tanks swept forward to quell unrest with terrible force. Twelve years earlier, a mass rally in Budapest was the spark that created the Hungarian Revolution. After nearly a fortnight of protest, Hungarian police and Soviet tanks managed to regain control, though casualties by then were heavy on both sides, and an estimated quarter of a million people had consequently fled the country.
Erich Lessing arrived in Budapest a day after the uprising began, negotiated his way past the blockades and began to photograph, witnessing the summary executions and surreal happenings that pace the streets of revolution. In scenes consistent with times of such polarity, women stepped around chalk-dusted Soviet bodies and shoppers queued for food as tanks lay idle or destroyed. For the photographer, it was to be the most affecting of a number of trips to the region. After working on a photo-essay for Life magazine about four European communist countries, his account of the early days of conflict is set against photographs that draw together some of the more regular aspects of Hungarian life and customs. A factory series contextualises the faces of labour with the daunting scale of the work spaces; generations mix with different preoccupations at a Danube tea dance. Amid evocative and beautifully made photographs of families at rest, devotional services and cultural processions, other photographs allude to the contested nature of territory and politics within the region, and a sense of what might come. Lessing relates a sense of the landscape with exceptional reserve, and such quiet observations at the edges of sovereignty have a resonance that is less marked in the later street pictures. He photographs a railway-track, crossed by modest wires that mark the edge of the Iron Curtain, and on All Souls Day, a solemn line of visitors weaves around the Schattendorf graveyard, which sits across the border of Austria and Hungary. These are gentle and precise pictures.
While Lessing’s street pictures are in some ways less lyrical than the earlier work he made in the service of Life, their significance, as a historical document, lies in how they relate the uncertainty, suspicion and animation of a people under duress – and in that, they are compelling.