Caught and framed

Reza Deghati uses photography to highlight the lives of people in times of war and conflict, awakening the rest of the world to their plight, writes Lakshmi Palecanda, after a tete-e-tete with the Iranian-French photojournalist.

Haunting images: Reza’s photos chronicle 30 years of turmoil, hope and splendour.

A child with vivid green eyes looking out from a dirty face with running nose… two young boys carrying an empty TV that frames an unmoving group of people… an old woman wailing over her son and husband who have been killed after being tortured… another young girl on the streets of Sarajevo selling her toys, the ultimate loss of childhood…

These are just some of the images we see through the eyes of Reza, the Iranian-born photojournalist, whose pictures have graced the covers of Time, National Geographic, Geo and Newsweek. The images grip and haunt, making the mind receptive to the story behind the image, thus bringing a hitherto untold story into focus. This is what Reza Deghati does.

Reza, as he is known internationally, is at once a photographer, journalist and philosopher. Asked in an interview if each of these careers came sequentially, he says, “I’ve never moved from one field to the other.

I use photography as a tool to shine a light on the social injustices faced by the different peoples of the world.” He has used this medium to highlight the lives of the people of Afghanistan, Central Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa, in times of war and conflict, awakening the rest of the world to their plight.

A picture is worth a thousand words, and Reza realised the truth of this statement very early in life. When he was eight or nine years old, and in school, he observed a group of people, including school guards and other students, beating up a young beggar boy who just wanted to see what a school was like. Later, when Reza recounted this story to his family, he found that he just couldn’t convey the effect of what he’d seen, and wished he had a picture to show them.

When Reza was a 16-year-old high school student and living in Tabriz, he saw an old woman trying to make a little money selling leftover fish. He found that she also had to give about 50 per cent of the little she made to the policemen who patrolled the market. Hoping to help her, he took her picture and wrote her story in the high school magazine he started, called Parvaz.

However, what happened was that the Shah’s secret police confiscated his work and beat him up. When he went home dreading what his parents would say, his father said, “Reza, if you believe in what you do, do it.” Thus encouraged, Reza has since worked to bear witness to human suffering and injustice caused by war and oppression, wherever they occur.

Inherent power

At the time, Reza also realised the power that he had. The establishment was in fact afraid of him, a 16-year-old, for he had revealed the truth. He had the power to create awareness that could then change situations.

However, at the time, Reza was expected to go to university and get a degree, and so he became an architect. But that did not stop his quest for uncovering injustices, even though he was arrested and tortured several times.

To Reza, what he does is not a job. “The pictures that I have taken of victims of injustices have given me the power of touching people,” he says. “Now it is my responsibility to give back to them.” And he has given back in myriad ways.

In 1991, Reza served as a consultant to the United Nations in Afghanistan, helping to distribute food to people in war-hit parts of the country. In 1996, he participated in a joint project with UNICEF in Rwanda called Lost Children’s Portraits. In 2001, he founded Aina (The Mirror), a non-profit organisation dedicated to educating and empowering Afghan women and children through the media.

Now, he is in the process of documenting innovative methods of education for the WISE (World Innovation Summit for Education) Awards, an initiative of Qatar Foundation. This foundation offers awards to those people and agencies that come up with innovative methods of informal visual education for rural people.

International recognition

In the course of his journalistic and humanitarian work, Reza has won countless awards and accolades. For his humanitarian work, National Geographic has awarded him the title of National Geographic Fellow. He has also been recognised by international institutions and universities such as George Washington University, Stanford University, Beijing University and Sorbonne in Paris. He won the Hope Prize for his work in Rwanda.

He is also the winner of the World Press Photo award, the Lucie Award for Achievement in Documentary from the New York-based Lucie Foundation, and the Infinity Award by the International Centre of Photography in New York. He has been honoured with the Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Merite, France’s highest civilian honour for his philanthropic work in areas of children’s education and women’s welfare.

He has received the Honor Medal from the University of Missouri for distinguished service to journalism, and granted the title ‘Doctor Honoris Causa’ by the American University of Paris. He is also a senior fellow of the Ashoka Foundation.

Author of 23 books, Reza has had several exhibitions of his work such as ‘Crossing Destinies’ at Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, ‘One World, One Tribe’ exhibition in Bahrain, Washington D.C. and La Villette Park in Paris. Another major retrospective of his work was the ‘War + Peace’ exhibition, presented at the Caen Memorial Museum in Normandy, France.

In 2008, National Geographic released a DVD as part of its Exceptional Journeys series that follows Reza’s photographic career and travels, while highlighting his humanitarian work. Reza has also founded the web site, ‘Webistan’ (webistan.com) an agency for photographers from the Middle East, Central Asia, North Africa and the Indian subcontinent.

Optimistic

Looking at his pictures of war and strife, it is obvious that Reza has seen the depths to which humanity can sink. Yet he is optimistic. He says, “I’m not just optimistic, I’m filled with hope. We are still at the beginning of humanity.

Considering how long humans have been around in comparison to the age of the earth, we are like babies that are just five days old. Why, our first writings are only 5,000 years old. And like five-day-olds, we are unable to control our baser instincts. But maybe 500 years from now, people will say that 21st century people were barbarians.”

Reza is firmly convinced that the real key to the future is education. He recalls an Iranian saying that holds that the only measure of the degree of civilisation is the budget that has gone into education, be it in a family or a country. But the education of the future can’t be the way it is presently; in order to succeed, it has to be informal and visual, since about 50 per cent of our learning comes through images.

Asked what he thinks of India’s progress, Reza says, “I think India can be the next super power because of three main reasons. It has spirituality, democracy and family values that China has lost because of its one-child policy. However, corruption is the one thing that is standing in its way.”Anyone listening?

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