Death Observers | Photographing the Grim Spectacle of Public Executions in Iran

WARNING: Some people may find these images disturbing

by Ebrahim Noroozi; as told to Kieran Morris
Jan 24 2020, 11:44am

In this series, Ebrahim Noroozi: Snapshots of Iran, we’re publishing some of the acclaimed Iranian photographer’s most powerful images.

Ebrahim Noroozi has made a career out of pointing his camera towards the sights that others shy from. Since starting out as a photographer in 2004, Noroozi has enjoyed spectacular success. He’s picked up numerous awards (including three World Press Photo Awards), exhibited at prestigious shows like Paris Photo, and had his photos published by the likes of Time Magazine and the New York Times.

Working primarily around the fringes of Iranian society, Noroozi explores both human and environmental stories with a deft touch; coaxing out the innate beauty in all of his subjects - regardless of darkness, grime, or grotesquerie. He does this in a country that few Westerners even attempt to understand: a nation of unimaginably vast and varied natural wonder; one that’s often still characterised using crude stereotypes. It’s a country where ancient history is a force in contemporary life; a place where memories of war and trauma persist in the public psyche, looming large, threatening to return once again with every rattle of The Great Satan’s sabre.

"The crowd were so excited that they entered into a trance state. They were not in this world, they were somewhere else"

Amuse has teamed up with Noroozi to publish some of the most affecting photo series’ from throughout his career - shots which shine a light on various aspects of a society and a country that remains a complete mystery to many in the West. The first of these series, Death Observers, zooms in on the spectacle of public executions in Iran, documenting how crowds bear witness to the demonstration of ‘justice’ meted out for heinous crimes.

The crowds in the images we’re featuring are watching the hanging of two men, convicted for the rape of four women, and for trafficking close to three tons of drugs. Noroozi, in turning the camera on the crowds rather than the convicts, displays the human experience at its most instinctive, while capturing how this age-old phenomenon intersects with modern technology, and the brand-new set of impulses that come with it. Here he talks us through his photos, and his working processes.


For this series, I shot different crowds in different places, of differing sizes. Sometimes it was easy to do so; sometimes it was difficult; sometimes I was told to leave. Everyone knows that public executions are part of the law here - I didn’t need to document that fact, it’s obvious. But the scale of the crowds interested me. Some would have around 400 people there, some were closer to 1,000, and some even exceeded 1,000. So many men and women of different classes and ages coming together in the early morning, in residential areas, just to witness them.


Sometimes, the crowds were so busy that I went by without people even noticing. Some had absolutely no problem with me being there. I think the shock of it all completely absorbed them. They were so excited - not in a positive sense, but a literal sense - that they had entered into a trance state. They were not in this world, they were somewhere else. At some points, people actually collapsed and needed carrying away. Other times, they were compelled to take out their phones and film the spectacle. I think when people see things that they don't regard as normal nowadays, they start recording and shooting.


I wanted to display these images in the hope that these events happen less often. It was a very terrible, painful experience to bear witness to. Witnessing the death of a living being is always a terrible event, especially if that living being is a human being. Even though it has occurred for centuries, it is so abnormal and unusual an event to see that it strikes at the heart of human nature - it shocks you, but it doesn’t dull you. You become full of shock, it consumes you. I think we’re having less public executions now because of this effect on people, and to my mind, that’s a good thing.

We’ll be publishing more of Ebrahim Noroozi’s photos in the coming weeks, as part of our Snapshots of Iran series. Keep up with Ebrahim on Instagram.

Snapshots of Iran