Tavakolian had used the term “the burnt generation” to describe the men and women featured in her photography. It had become something of a working title before she settled on Blank Pages of an Iranian Photo Album. But when she travelled to Paris early that summer to show the work for the first time, Édouard Carmignac wasn’t happy. According to her account given to The Times, he angrily paced his office – two Andy Warhol pictures, one of Mao Zedong, another of Lenin, looking down upon them – as she showed him the work. “What is this? This is not what we want,” he said.
She responded with: “Mr Carmignac, I live in Iran, not you. This is my vision about the country I live in.”
After she returned to Iran, she heard from the publisher that he wanted to title the project The Lost Generation. Tavakolian fought her corner and a compromise was promised. When she next travelled to meet with the foundation in Paris, Édouard took it upon himself to do an edit of some 40 pictures, prioritising the more dramatic shots over her carefully orchestrated, semi-staged portraits.
Tavakolian’s reaction was remarkable. She published an essay on her Facebook page before giving interviews to the New York Times and British Journal of Photography. She was to give Carmignac’s money back, refuse the award and cut ties with the foundation.
“My acceptance of the terms of the award from the Carmignac Gestion Foundation was based on the understanding that I would have full artistic freedom as a photographer to create a work that is faithful to my vision as an established photojournalist and art photographer,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, however, from the moment I delivered the work, Mr Carmignac insisted on personally editing my photographs as well as altering the accompanying texts to the photographs. Mr Carmignac’s interference in the project culminated in choosing an entirely unacceptable title for my work that would undermine my project irredeemably.”
The proposed title, she said, “Changed the nature of my project from a subtle attempt to bring across the realities of life of my generation in Iran to a coarse and horrible clichéd view about Iran”.
In response, Édouard, via his foundation, released a statement accusing Tavakolian, in the language of care and concern, of allowing her work to be dictated by the Iranian government. It said: “The Carmignac Foundation was recently faced with an unprecedented situation, whereby the safety of the fifth winner of the Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism Award, Newsha Tavakolian, was threatened. Ms Tavakolian notified the foundation of specific and significant risks posed to her own safety, and that of her family, and expressed her intention to tone down and shift the focus of her proposed Burnt Generation project that had been selected by the jury.