Sarajevo. 1993 Time of war, The air was chilly. Sarajevo, besieged, had only occasional respites from the bombing. Then the city could breathe again. Every once in a while, the deserted streets would come alive as somebody would run wildly down the street, risking his or her life for a little water or a loaf of bread, racing to avoid snipers. A touch of color amid the cold dreariness of war, she stood without moving or speaking. She was selling her toys, the testimony of a ruined life. I felt quite helpless in the face of such human injustice, which had forced a little girl to sell her dearest possessions, the companions of her childhood.
In 2001, he founded Aina (Persian for “mirror”), an international non-profit organization dedicated to educating and empowering Afghan women and children. By providing educational opportunities in the field of communications and multimedia, Aina aims to equip Afghans with the skills required to build a self-sufficient, democratic, and unified country. In 1991, Reza served as a consultant to the United Nations in Afghanistan, distributing food to people in war-torn parts of the country. Then, Reza Visual Academy was expanded to cities around the world, helping “damaged civil societies” (as Reza calls them) from Kabul to Buenos Aires.
Reza's photographs have been exhibited in major cities around the world. War+Peace, an exhibit featuring thirty years’ worth of photojournalistic adventures, was held at the Caen Memorial (Peace Museum) in Normandy, France. One World, One Tribe (2006), was the National Geographic Museum's first outdoor exhibition in Washington D.C, and Reza's landmark exhibition in Paris drew more than a million visitors.
He is the author of twenty-seven books, including War+Peace, the first in a series entitled Masters of Photography by National Geographic, and most recently, “Kurdistan Renaissance,” a book on the history and lives of Kurds and minorities living in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.
People have described you as “living to photograph another day.” Your work also has an important humanitarian component. How would you describe yourself: a photojournalist, a humanitarian, a storyteller, …?The reality is that I am all of them, and maybe none of them at the same time. I believe that whoever has the capacity and possibility should look around to help his community – those around him. And all these three professions have that component. A photojournalist is a witness to suffering, to joy, to life. A photojournalist brings attention to a subject – helping it to gain recognition. People are impacted by storytelling, and so being a storyteller is helping others.
At 22, you were arrested for documenting the (political) struggles in Iran. You spent three years in prison before being forced into exile in 1981. How did this experience change you?The reason I was put in prison was not for documenting political struggles, as everything was under control by the regime. As a young student of architecture and fine arts, I was using images and photography to bring attention to injustice, and I was in fact doing political work without really stating it. I photographed poverty and inequality, hiding them under my shirt and hanging them around Tehran during the night for everyone to see. I did this for many years, and that made the secret police very angry at me. They tortured me for five months and put me in prison for three years. When the revolution happened, I didn’t change. I was still documenting poverty and people’s struggles, but this time I was no longer the young 22-year-old student, I was an architect working for Newsweek and more than 2,000 newspapers and magazines around the world. That’s why I had to leave Iran as soon as possible in 1981.
You took pictures in war-torn Sarajevo in the 1990s. There is a famous picture you took of a little girl in a red coat selling her dolls on the street to buy food for her family. Could you tell our readers a bit more about your experience in Sarajevo and Bosnia?I was working with Reporters Without Borders, and our main goal was to have Oslobodjenje reach their readers every day. Psychologically, it was very important for the people in Sarajevo to know that despite the war, the killings, the lack of food and basic necessities, they were still able to read the news every morning.
Your initiative, Reza Visual Academy, works with communities of “damaged civil societies” (as you call them) around the world - from Kabul to Buenos Aires. Why did you start it and what is its connection to photography?Parallel to my professional photography, almost immediately, I started what I call my human duties – what some may call humanitarian work. I have gone to refugee camps all around the world – in the former Soviet Union, the Philippines, and many other places. I realized that wars and conflict create two different destructions. One is physical and material, the destruction of buildings, roads, and human bodies. For all these destructions we have the UN, the World Bank, and various international organizations and NGOs that help bring shelter, food, and doctors. They are taking care of this immediate destruction – the visible suffering. But, by being in contact with people who have suffered destruction, I realized that the most important destruction is invisible – what I call the wounding of people’s souls. These are the main wounds that come about in a warzone, and if we do not heal those wounds, the cycle of violence will continue.
In Western countries, when there is a problem in a community – like a school shooting or a big accident – on scene there are always psychologists who come and make sure that there is no lasting trauma for the victims. And so, I found myself questioning – what about Afghanistan, Cambodia, or other places around the world where there has been war for decades? For many of these people, their lives have passed in wars. Who is bringing psychologists over to those countries? There are none, so we have to find alternatives. As women have a better instinct for life and the ability heal other members of the family, I decided to focus on women and children in these war-torn communities. I asked myself – what is the most important tool to help a nation overcome their traumas? The answer was media, and storytelling. In Afghanistan, my non-profit is called “Aina,” in France it is called “Les Ateliers Reza,” and in Iraqi Kurdistan it is called “Reza Visual Academy,” as it is in Buenos Aires. We focus on helping people who are suffering during times of war and conflict, and specifically on what I call “damaged civil societies” – poor and though neighborhoods around the world. Soon, my NGO will also go to American-Indian reserves in New Mexico to train native American children. The goal is to have passive victims become active citizens who tell their own destinies as stories. They are becoming the storytellers of their own stories.
How do you choose the location of your humanitarian work, and do you have plans to expand to other communities?Many of these places are related either by wars or conflicts going on – for example Mali or Kurdistan Iraq – or in terms of poverty, like in Buenos Aires or poor neighborhoods in Italy or France. There are many young people that want training to become storytellers. Sometimes I find these places after writing a story, other times I’m invited to do an exhibition, a story, or a book on that region. Either way, teaching photography is not the only thing that is important. We start off teaching photography, but the most important thing is that each individual gets help and gains self-confidence. This in turn helps each community, which benefits from these children having their works recognized internationally – shown in books and exhibits around the world. That is an important layer – our work goes beyond photography. I have always believed that photography is an important tool in the 21st century, and it is going to change this millennium.