Exclusive interview with Reza, the photographer of just causes



© Tim Mantoani

We were lucky enough to meet Reza Deghati in Dubai during the HIPA 2015 awards ceremony.

Reza is a person with his light and one of the best-known photographers in the world, he has shot his camera capturing the beauty and war, for the National Geographic and other prestigious international media such as Time, Stern, Newsweek, El País, Paris-Match, Geo. Born in Iran in 1952 and of Franco-Iranian origin, Reza currently resides in Paris.

Author of 30 books and recipient of many prestigious photography awards over the course of his career, following his passion for photography,  he travelled more than hundred countries, during the last four decades witnessing and capturing through his camera the worst conflicts and catastrophes of humanity. Reza is a Philanthropist, an idealist and humanist, a photographer committed to the reality that surrounds him. Since 1983, Reza has been volunteered in several outstanding humanitarian projects creating the AINAWORLD in Afghanistan, a new generation NGO which trains people in information and communication through the development of educational tools..While pursuing his reportages for International Media, he continues to train and educate refugees, children and youths coming from difficult backgrounds on visual story telling through his organization “Reza Visual Academy”. [Official Website]

Did you discover the photography or the photography has found you? What was it that captivated you from the start? In short, what is photography for you?

I came to photography around twelve-thirteen years old. Not because of the photography, not because of the dream art worlds. Because I was looking for a way to express myself and, I could show to the people around me, in my town, of what I call social injustice, the poverty and the misery. That I was witnessing during my childhood; and I wanted people to know about it; and this was the reason I came to photography, because photography is the biggest revolution ever. We had to change the human mind and attitude, this is the first universal language that we have. We don’t have any other universal language but photography, and that’s why I believe that we are at the beginning of a new era of the humanity where image and photography will play an important role, and it’s already playing.

You have witnessed historical moments, you have witnessed pain, hope, peace, and war. How do you manage to stay whole and serene behind the camera? How is the level of empathy controlled in each situation?

The first thing that helps you is your belief, your faith. Faith in what you are doing, and profoundly you know what you are doing is for good; this is the first thing. The second is that when you go deep to the brutality of the humanity. If you stay long there, without finding something that could help you get out of it or understand it, then you may become one of them. For me, the best way to polishing my soul is poetry, reading poetry and loving flowers. Then, when you find out the impact of your images, the impact of your works on the people, this also give you a strength that will help you to go through the trauma of what you have lived and what you are going through now.

Your professional life must be full of extensive experience. Can you tell us a unique and unrepeatable experience for you?

One day I was in the Sarajevo city, while the snipers were shooting from everywhere and it was almost impossible, even for the photographers, for us that we always must be outside to going out from there. There, I got out on my own and went out for photography, looking for the safety away from the snipers. And suddenly, in the middle of this moment, I spotted a little girl; maybe she was nine-ten years old, standing against a wall, I photographed her immediately.  Then I went next to her, and  it  was at that moment when I realized she had some dolls sitting on a small chair near her, and when I asked: “What are you doing here?” She looked at me, and said: “I’m selling my dolls because my grandmother is hungry, haven’t eaten for four days.” And this was probably for me more heart-breaking than many other scenes which I have seen because this shows how the war makes drawing back the people. It is not the only destruction of the world, but it is also the creation of trauma and empathy. So, this was a terrible human moment, a humanity´s moment in those brutal times in which one of them  is still enduring. But you could imagine that each photo that I look back, each moment I look again, it is in its selves an unrepeatable moment.

You have travelled all over the world as a witness of history. What is the project that has left the most impression on you and your way of photographing it?

The Afghanistan project, which is an ongoing project for me, from nineteen eighty-three is the one which I have spent more time, more energy, and the overall this thirty some years going back there, maybe hundred times over there. And, the fact that what was happening in Afghanistan and what’s happening now. It is almost to bringing all of the world from the big Soviet Union, Russian Army until now, to the U.S. Army and more than thirty NATO militaries and Al-Qaeda and Taliban and Pakistan and India, I mean, this is a place that everybody the has been there, all of this power and any organization that you can imagine somehow build there, and one of the most complicated story also, and this is where I believe has more impact on me. But, I also believe that this story doesn’t matter how important or how small or how big is it, it always got something to impress you there is always one person, one picture, one thing that suddenly came out of nowhere and were impressive.

How do you know you’ve got a good photo? In your opinion, what ingredients do need a photograph to become an image that can transmit and communicate with it?

For me, there’s only one fact, and only one, that makes pictures good or not.  And this is when you look for photographing something happening in your heart before every other place in your body than your heart, if it’s touched your heart, then for me this is a good photo, and this can communicate and transmit what you want to say and what you want to show about it. But when you’re photographing, you don’t know the result because your eyes and your heart could see a good photo, but the technique and the camera and the timing may not be as good as what your eye sees to capture it.  That’s why usually most of the photographers we wait after when we look at the photos to find out if we also technically achieved what we wanted or not. I believe the most important that a picture could bring up is emotion, and the excitement is coming to the heart.

It is obvious each person looks at things differently and interacts with them in his particular way within the environment. But how do you learn to look at things? How to see a little beyond what is evident?

A photographer is always, and always having his eyes on every scene we are looking for, and by looking this, we are transmitting to our brain and our heart all the information we are getting of what we see. When I’m living the story, and when you’re living the story so, everything that you see around you, every unique story, every single picture, every single portrait, and the first thing comesto your mind is that; Is there any sense that matches my thoughts about the story?

Is there any sense in these pictures that could bring a light to the whole story? And that’s how I look one after other, the different situation and try to find the photo that matching best to my ideas first, so ideas come first.

Committed to teaching the photography language, you have conveyed your knowledge throughout the world, involving yourself in countless projects committed to the training of young people and women in societies in conflict, for example, the AINA project or the Reza Visual Academy association. Can you tell us about these projects? What common philosophy is behind them?

My very first observation: in conflict and war-zones, brought me to this reflection; that there are two different kinds of destructions occurring in all disasters from war and conflict areas. The first is the material destruction, collapsed buildings, the human body that is mutilated or wounded, the things that we can see, and we can photograph them. These are all physical destruction, and it’s possible to show them, but then you realize that there is deeper destruction which you cannot see, which is invisible, and this is the trauma, the people wounded souls, the torn human relation also occurring in the war and conflict zones. But when you look back to the principal UN works, or other NGOs, especially thirty years ago, I find that most of the work, which is done through these organizations, is only for reconstruction of destroyed material, and nothing is done to help people to get out of trauma. While in Europe, in western countries, every time there is a disaster, we always send a group of the psychotherapists to help people to get out of trauma.  Then my question is: What about the entire Afghan nation, or Cambodia, or Rwanda, or other Middle East people that have passed all their lives under threats, under bombardment, under destruction? How can we help them to find their way? How can we help them to heal their trauma? The answer for me is that the best tool is creating media and communication tools for them, that could touch everybody, and then train, educate local people, who are suffering wars, who are themselves been part of the whole process, who has lost their families, who has seen their houses and families disappeared. So, those people, especially the women, when they are provided with tools of media and communication, they will be able to participate in the healings of their people. Moving on to other issues, when we are talking about bringing democracy to some countries like Afghanistan or Iraq, we must have in mind democracy does not come through guns and bombardment, democracy comes through the independent media, through the freedom of speech, and especially in a country like Afghanistan, that has lost the meaning all this words in two thousand one. For me if you want to help the Afghanistan, you must help train hundreds of the Afghan men and women to become photographers, videographers, writers,  and help them to create their own media, that’s how is working AINA  since two thousand one till now; we have trained more than a thousand of the Afghan women and men,  helping them to create newspapers, magazines, they have a radio station for women, creative TVs, and the true there is a Visual Academy. I am mainly concentrating on giving voice to the refugee camps people, mainly children, so they could become what is called the camp reporters who show the daily life and everything in the camps. This is the first time that we see the life in the camps through the eyes of children. This is part of the project called Exiled Voices. Exiled Voices is mainly concentrating on refugee camps and children trainings, through its work, we are doing a lot of publications, exhibitions all around the world and they became the main vectors for conveying their messages to the world.

Besides Exiled Voices that teaches and works with refugee children, we already have another project called Urban Voices. Urban Voices is teaching and training youths in truly poor neighborhoods, in favelas, we were doing it in more than eight of these slums in France, one in Italy, and two in Buenos Aires. The situation there is like that of refugee camps, but we are training youths to photograph the daily life in those marginal areas, where usually professional photographers never go, or never do this because it’s very difficult or dangerous for them to go there. Or even if they go there, they are not really welcomed where you have fifty children in one poor neighborhood that photographing for months their daily life, according to the different themes and projects which I am asking them to do. In the end, you have the most comprehensive visual story of those people. And this is how by exhibiting the worse in city’s prestigious places around our organization, you’ve given them a voice. The whole concept is, what I am doing as his mentoring, is giving the voice, and the tool to the people that don’t have them, but they need them badly.

Photography is undoubtedly a powerful tool of language, what is your opinion on the current photography and how do you see its evolution in the medium term?

Photography is the most powerful tool we’ve ever had. This is having a common language for all humanity. A common language that almost everybody could understand and information on it, emotion on it, and when you have emotion and reflection then, people act. So, that’s why, for me, we are in the beginning of the totally new era of using photography, as a common language for humanity and bringing the change, because the photography Itself, will not change the world, but the photography change the mind of the people, and those people that their mind was changed, they are going to change the world. We do not still know the impact of the photography in each individual and each culture in this community and that’s why all my humanitarian works also what I call is under my theory of informal, visual education, because thanks to photography and images we could bring a lot of human knowledge, almost fifty percent of the human knowledge, through the image and photography and to teach other people.

What project or impossible dream would you like to achieve with your photos?

Well, my impossible dream, which I don’t think it’s impossible, but it will not happen in my lifetime it may take few centuries, it’s ending the wars. I believe that somehow, the humanity will come up in a way to end the wars and destruction and killing each other. Now, I’m mainly concentrating in teaching, and training, and using the internet to teach and to train as much as possible, its use in the world to understand the photography and the language of photography, and then use it in a different way than only taking selfies.

I don’t think you’re going ever to retire. What plans do you have in mind for the future?

What is meaning retirement for a creative person? It doesn’t exist this, even the concept of retirement doesn’t exist, retirement is when they stop creating, and this is even worse than retirement. So, I’m continuously looking for my best pictures. I have not got them till now, but I hope that by continuing doing this to the end of my life, I will be able to get my best shot, my best photograph.

Finally and the obligatory question, what is your opinion on our magazine?

I went to your website, and I found you have a quite nice way of showing pictures and explaining them in a short text with the one photographs this helped a lot of people to understand them. I wish that there was more variety on your website, this is what I saw. And I’ve seen the magazine printed, but if I have to say something about I wish that you would have more variety and, try to bring photographs from other countries. Not only intend to publish the Western photographers’ works, but also looking for African photographers, Asian photographers, and Central America ones. And some of those children, if you have seen their quality works coming from Buenos Aires, from the Favelas, or from the refugee camps, you will see that there are incredible talents, and your magazine will be the best way to show them. And that’s what I think, and I wish you successful days and years coming

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