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Exclusive interview with world-renowned photojournalist REZA: a witness to history
još 25 min. čitanja
petak
28. Juli 2017.

Exclusive interview with world-renowned photojournalist REZA: a witness to history

Photojournalist Reza Deghati, simply known as REZA, was in Washington D.C. for a few days and sat down with Oslobodjenje to talk about his photography, his humanitarian projects, and why he will never retire.
Exclusive interview with world-renowned photojournalist REZA: a witness to history
REZA: To me, retirement is dying, so I never think about it.

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.
Born in Tabriz, Iran from Azerbaijani descent, Reza settled in Paris – even though he spends nine months per year on the road for his projects. Trained as an architect, his passion for photography eventually prevailed. He has received numerous recognitions for his work, such as the World Press Photo Award and the Infinity Award, the Medal of Honor from the University of Missouri and the Medal of Chevalier de l'ordre national du Merit by the French State, among many others. He received an Emmy Award in 2002 for Frontline Diaries, and was a creative director for National Geographic's most viewed documentary, Inside Mecca.

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.

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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./REZA/WEBISTAN

 

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. 

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A photojournalist is a witness to suffering, to joy, to life.

 

Your most recent book was about Kurdistan. What has drawn you there?

My latest book is called “Kurdistan Renaissance.” I’ve been working with the Kurds and Kurdistan issues since the 1980s in the mountains between Iran and Kurdistan during the fighting against Saddam Hussein. I was hiding with the soldiers in the mountains. Then, I did a film “In the Shadow of Saddam” and a piece for National Geographic Magazine about Turkey and the Kurds. In the past hundred years, these people have suffered more than any other nation in the region, maybe even in the world. They are a very noble and ancient ethnicity and nation. The Kurds have valuable principles, among them a great tolerance for other religions – which is why you can see so many minorities living there in peace. Muslims, Christians, Yezidis, and many other groups living together in peace and harmony in the Kurdistan region. There are also several Jewish pilgrimage sites that you can visit, and the Jews are returning to the region. They have all aspects of being an independent country, and they are taking back their destiny in their own hands.

The referendum on Kurdistan Region independence in on September 25th. Do you support independence?

I support the decision made by the Kurdish people, whatever their decision will be. Personally, I believe that the Kurdistan Regional Government should be on its own, because we have to acknowledge that the maps of the Middle East have created many wars and conflict. These are artificial maps that were drawn only hundred years ago by two officers. Many of the places where they have drawn these lines to create smaller countries that were easier to govern. Many of the places where they have put the borders, that’s where the tensions are. Maybe this is the time to rethink these maps and these borders.

Your photographs often depict wars, political struggles, and dire conditions. Have you ever experienced any negative reactions from governments or pushback from companies because of your portrayals?

When you tell the truth, you are hurting someone. Usually that someone are governments, multinationals, political groups. So, especially in the way that I have worked – looking for the truth – has been very difficult for many. I have been in prison, living in exile, arrested, tortured many times. It is not only “on the field” that this has happened, it has also happened in offices of magazines or publishing houses that you are rejected because your ideas do not align with theirs– whether it is because they are supporting their governments, or are paid by multinationals. So, it is a constant struggle with forces who are trying to keep their own interests above people’s interests – economically, strategically, or geopolitically. It is not easy, and often times they try to harm you also financially. They stop your works and prevent others from working for you. I have experienced these setbacks many times, and unfortunately, I am still exposed to the bad behavior of those who are supporting the dark side of humanity.

What’s next for you? Do you ever see yourself retiring?

I have many projects scheduled for the next two to three years. But I always like to work freelance, so that I am flexible in case new projects come along. Retirement is not for people like me, we cannot “afford” to retire. What we do is our life – it is our daily life. For us, retirement is dying, so I never think about retiring. My dreams go on for hundreds of years, and I hope people after me will continue with this line of work.