Read the original interview on CAMPUS magazines’ Jan-Feb online issue: http://issuu.com/oryxmags/docs/campus_jan-feb_2013
Photography: The Language of Humanity
World renowned photojournalist, Reza, finds a balance between being a journalist and a humanitarian and still holds on to objectivity.
Reza Deghati, popularly known just as Reza, is one of the best-known photojournalists in the world. Born in Iran in 1952, Franco-Iranian Reza currently lives in Paris but has been traveling the world for 30 years, criss-crossing more than 100 countries, photographing conflicts, revolutions and human catastrophes. Though he mainly photographed for National Geographic since 1991, his photographs have been distributed through international media such as Time, Stern, Newsweek, El Pais, Paris-Match, Gio, and in books, exhibitions and documentaries by his own agency, Webistan. Created in 1992, Webistan is a photo agency managing and distributing photo and video archives of Reza and several other photojournalists, with works covering Asia, Africa, Europe and America.
Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, Reza worked for Agence France Presse, served as Tehran correspondent for Newsweek, and was the Middle East correspondent for Time. In 1989-1990, Reza served as a consultant to the United Nations in Afghanistan, helping to distribute food to populations in war-torn parts of the country. At that time, he began photographing for UNICEF and going on assignment for National Geographic magazine, for which he has shot such articles as Abraham: Journey of Faith and Tracking the Ghost of bin Laden in the Land of the Pashtun. In the years since, he has also photographed for Figaro, Vanity Fair, and the New York Times Magazine.
Reza made his way to Qatar in December as part of the 2012 World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) to present an exhibition of 80 selected photographs that portray the hurts and the joys of those whom Reza had encountered in Asia, Africa, Middle East and Europe during his 30-year career. The exhibition, entitled HOPE, stood at the Sheraton Park on the Corniche of Doha from November 7 to December 15, 2012, attracting more than 25,000 people. Reza also held an exclusive workshop and a reading of portfolios with the Qatar Photographic Society. Three of the 80 photographs, presented in the HOPE exhibition, are included in the latest WISE Book, Learning a Living: Radical Innovation in Education for Work, which examines the relationship between education and the world of work.
Reza uses photography as a tool to educate, telling stories of the victims of conflict to international audiences in the eyes of the victims themselves. A promoter of citizen journalism, in 1983, Reza initiated photographic training programs in Pakistani refugee camps. This was the beginning of his personal voluntary involvement, leading him to establish the NGO, Aina in 2001.
“I started a foundation in Kabul but it extend to Sri Lanka, Uganda and many other countries, training mainly women to become media persons; training women in photography, video, radio and everything to help them become the peace bringer in their countries,” says Reza. Aina, Persian for ‘the mirror’, is 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. Also in 2001, along with Aina, Reza founded Aghan Media and Culture Center to bring free press in a Taliban- oppressed country.
“Children’s education is also important,” says Reza. “Much of my work goes into creating magazines and books for kids in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.” By offering educational opportunities in the field of communications and multimedia, Aina, Afghan Media and Culture Center have provided not only women but also children story-telling skills. “We trained refugee children to tell the story of refugee camps. You always read about refugee camps but we always have the same white male or female photographers, taking pictures and showing them to the world. But who can tell their stories better than the children in the refugee camps themselves,” says Reza.
Reza shares a story of a 16-year-old African refugee girl who was raped and later became pregnant with a baby of rape. As a result, she was shunned from society. When she heard of Reza’s Aina program, she tried to join but her classmates didn’t want her in the class. However, Reza threatened to cancel the program if they didn’t accept her, so they did. Soon after, “she became the best photographer between all of them,” he says. “She has now become very popular because she’s a good photographer, and she’s making a living out of it. She’s photographing people, weddings and other ceremonies. Now, she has a job and everybody accepts her.”
Through Aina, Reza empowers women who are victims of rape, war and poverty to tell their own stories instead of having parachute journalists – who are mainly men – tell the stories. “For many years, every journalist that comes [to Afghanistan] is a man and what they do is interview and photograph men,” says Reza. “So the whole world sees just 50% of the reality of the crisis. What happened to the other 50%? What happened to the Afghani women? They are the ones left behind in wars. Who tells their stories?” Reza asks rhetorically. “Themselves,” he answers.
Discussing Aina, Reza says, “We need a new type of humanitarian organization. We need an organization that could help people to be- come storytellers themselves. A lot of things come from what I believe in, that we really need to educate children for a peaceful world. We should start from now. Peace education is something we should start doing from the very early ages,” he says. To Reza, education is not building schools because, in the case of Af- ghanistan, schools will be targeted by insurgents, resulting in the killing of teachers and students. “Let’s bring education to the home,” he says.
Reza discovered his talent and passion for photography in 1968, at the age of 14. Three years later, the self-taught photographer joined the University of Tehran where he received a degree in architecture. “I was working as an architect and putting the money aside buying cameras and films but I had no time to go and take pictures so it was quite schizophrenic-like for me,” he says. “I had love and passion for photography but I could not do it.” In 1979, however, Reza was in Iran meet- ing with an architect when the protests against Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi broke out. Witnessing a major historic moment that caused Pahlevi to flee Iran – in a moment of epiphany – Reza dropped his career in architecture to follow one in photography.
Reza is also the author of seventeen books such as War and Peace, which shows some of Reza’s most dramatic photography con- veying torment, upheaval, art, culture and tradition in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern and Asian countries. Sindbad is Reza’s most recent photography book, which is an adaptation of the seven journeys of the sailor, Sindbad, from the classic tale, A Thousand and One Nights. In the book, Childhood Promise, Reza and his 15-year-old son, Delazad Deghati, travel the Silk Road by train from Beijing to Paris. Along the way, they document their experiences in photos and Delazad’s posts.
Using photography as a tool to tell stories, Reza’s photography is both for educational and humanitarian purposes. “Visual photog- raphy is the best solution for a lot of the world’s conflict,” says Reza. When he was in Rwanda, Reza, with the aid of UNICEF and Red Cross, created a photo stand-like project, which consisted of portrait pictures of the 12,000 Rwandan children who lost their parents as a result of Rwanda’s civil war. By posting pictures of each lost Rwandan child, at least 3,500 children were reunited with their parents and other family members. This project, entitled as Lost Children’s Portrait, earned Reza a Hope Prize in 1996.
In 2005, he was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mirite, France’s highest civilian honor, for his philanthropic work in the areas of children’s education and the empowerment of women in the media. For his humanitarian activism and his work with Aina in Afghanistan, National Geographic awarded him the title of National Geographic Fellow in 2006. In same year, Spain’s Crown Prince Felipe presented him with the Prince of Asturias Humanitarian Medal on behalf of National Geographic. Also in 2006, Reza received the Honor Medal from the University of Missouri – Columbia School of Journalism. He also received an award recognizing his humanitarian work from the University of Chicago. Through photography, Reza has found a way to tell stories without the use of words. He empowered the less fortunate to tell their own stories to the world so that the international audience gets a more accurate picture of the world they’re living in.
Through citizen journalism, “everybody has the possibility to be part of media,” says Reza. “Photography is a new language. It’s going to become more and more the language of humanity.”