It isn’t everyday that one gets to meet an eminent photojournalist whose work has been feted all around the world. Meet Mr.Reza, an eminent photojournalist who has won the World Press Photo, UNICEF Hope Prize, the Chevalier de l’Ordre national du Mérite of France and a host of other awards. Who has been an UN Peace Ambassador, a National Geographic Fellow and in addition to being a photojournalist, a philanthropist, idealist, humanist and peace activist. A picture is indeed worth a thousand words, and Reza has used this philosophy across the world, in mitigating human pain and suffering, from the killing fields of Rwanda to the bombhouse of Afghanistan.
It started by serendipity, as I had gone for the Times Literary Festival at Kolkata, and happened to chance across the event being planned with Reza, organized by the National Geographic Traveller India and Taschen, international publishers of design, art and photography books.
What do we feel when we look at the photo of a girl affected by the Afghan war , with haunting, questioning eyes, asking the world to find a solution to the madness that is war and mayhem? Or that of a young African victim of war, pained expression on his face, asking for relief from the bloodbath around him? Do we feel pity? Horror? Pain? Or revulsion upon a world which allows unspeakable human tragedies to unfold every passing day?Or do we feel all of these emotions? Reza, in a masterstroke, has used these emotions to drive about change, across the world , spanning an eminent career of three decades.
The photopresentation started with a haunting image of a girl affected by the Afghan war. Her haunting eyes were asking us all about the rationale for a fruitless war in a country where the basics of human survival are difficult to come by. We saw numerous images of Afghanistan ,a beautiful country that had never been occupied by foreign powers, and had pushed back invaders right from the tines of Alexander, but was finally devastated by the Russian invasion and the subsequent civil war. Proud, resilient people who suffered unspeakable tragedies every day because of a war that they had not asked for, and most certainly didn’t condone. There was this centenarian who had 141 (yes!) family members, from children to great great grandchildren, and there was Commander Ahmed Massoud, the iconic Mujahideen leader who was assassinated ten years back. All in the backdrop of a harsh yet beautiful landscape that mesmerized us all.
Reza has been at this work since 1983, and has spanned all the corners of the globe. But what is unique is that he has not limited himself to creating photographic masterpieces only, but has used them to drive about change. Trained as an architect who could have earned loads of money, he has chosen instead to tread the difficult path of a photojournalist, and going beyond this, associating himself with humanitarian issues. In 2001, he founded Aina (Persian for The Mirror), an international NGO, to equip Afgan women and children through the power of the media, to self- sufficiency and build a vibrant, democratic and unified country. Indeed, for this person, who counts Mahatma Gandhi as his ideal, the disadvantaged sections of society are the reason for whom he exists. In 1991, Reza served as a consultant to the United Nations in Afghanistan, helping to distribute food to people in the war-ravaged nation. And in recognition for his work, he was awarded the title of a National Geographic Fellow in 2006.
Interesting anecdotes flowed throughout. There was this young man whom he had taught photography in the initial days of the war in Afghanistan, who he later found during one of his visits to have become the mayor of a city. There was this young girl whom he chided for coming late to his Photography class in Iran, about who he later found that the cause for delay was that her only pair of shoes had frozen in the snow. There was this little girl at a underground station in Sarajevo, who he found was selling her dolls so that her grandmother, who was starving since the last three days, could have enough to eat.
Reza has spanned the globe portraying the human condition through his lens, and indeed using these images to bring about change and improvement in the lives of people. As the evening drew to an end, we were left moved by the magnitude of his work. And as the session came to an end, he received a standing ovation from the crowd. It was an honour and pleasure to meet such a personality, who has gone beyond the well-trodden path, and used his creativity and empathy to create better conditions for those around him.
More about Mr. Reza at : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reza_Deghati
With Mr.Reza at Kolkata Litfest
Photographs taken by Mr. Reza for the National Geographic (copyright Mr. Reza and courtesy Webistan and Mr. Reza )
Mr. Reza_Photo by Mark Thiessen_NG
Ahmed Shah Massoud, the valiant leader of Afghanistan
Afghanistan, Panjshir Province. 1985
Commander Massoud, leader of the Afghan resistance against the Russians until 1989 and later, the Taliban. It is, at first, a facetoface encounter in 1985, followed by a glimmer of mutual recognition, a game of chess in the Panjshir Valley, a handshake, an embrace, a discussion, and a promise to meet again. It is seventeen years of foiled attacks, observations, intense discussions, and poetic verbal jousting until dawn. It is access to the liberated city of Kabul and a visit to the only enclave yet to fall under Taliban control. It is the memory of these peaceful daydreams, a longing for freedom and yet a duty to resist. It is the emptiness of his disappearance. It is, above all, a promise to a friend.
I was exhausted, physically worn out by the harshness of the weather, the lack of food and rest and the constant tension of worrying of possible ambush. Nevertheless, I kept moving forward, motivated by my desire to reach the Panjshir Valley and meet Massoud, the young commander of the Afghan resistance. I arrived in a village. The children rushed up to me and surrounded me and they began to imitate me, playing at being photographers. Their laughter, and their spontaneous friendliness erased all of the discouragement I’d felt. It reminded me of a beautiful truth I had read in James Rumford’s book Traveling Man: The Journey of Ibn Battuta, 1325–1354: “Traveling offers you many a destiny and gives your heart wings.”
Turkey, Dogubayazit. 1993.
I wanted to gaze at the mountain of Mount Ararat close to the Iranian and Turkish border. As I reached the town of Dogubayazit, my heart began to pound. I saw it, towering above the plain. Its peaks and slopes looked like those I had seen from Iran. Something was missing that would put the finishing touch to my visual reunion with this mountain. Suddenly, two boys passed by, holding a hollow television set. In them, I saw my brother, Manoocher, and myself, when we were children, accomplices in our games just as we were in the dreams we had for our lives.
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 to feed her grandmother, 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.
Afghanistan, near Tora Bora in the Pashtoun tribal zone. 2004.
“My house is there, very close to the village. I run all day. I play with the earth. I talk to the flowers. When I see a stranger, I run as fast as I can until I get home. You know, one day, I saw them from a long way away. They were like the fingers on my hand. They walked very carefully. It was strange, the way they were dressed. It must be heavy for them, especially with those helmets on their heads. What impressed me most were their guns. They all seemed scared, like they were looking for something. You know, I’m brave because I stayed and watched them. I didn’t understand anything they said. The soldiers came into everyone’s homes. Everyone was angry. No one understood why they came, nor what they were doing here. Say, maybe you know… And what about them; where are their houses?”
Fleeing the war, the old man had left his village and his past behind. He had settled with his family not far from the border. They had stopped there when he had raised his hand and waved the caravan to come to a halt. His decision to set up camp there was against all reason, since they were still within reach of the Russians. He was the family elder, so his relatives followed his wishes. He spent his days reading the Koran or poetry. He said to me, “Your house, your country, your history are within you, if you let them enter. Wherever you are, they follow you.” But then, he admitted, with his eyes fixed on the slopes of the Afghan mountains that he would not be able to survive without seeing his land, each and every day that God granted him to live.
AFGHANISTAN – KABUL – 2009 : Afghan women are reading Malalai, an Afghan women’s magazine published in partnership with the NGO Ainaworld.
China, Ku Guch Lugh School. 1995.
Free under the Socialist regime of the People’s Republic of China, since 1990 schools have required payments as part of the economic liberalization reforms. At school, Chinese authorities force this young Tajik girl to learn in the language of the prevailing ethnic group, the Uigur. Although the Tajiks can still speak their dialect freely, since the Chinese invaded in 1950 the only authorized written languages in Eastern Turkestan are Chinese and Uigur. Both boys and girls can get an education but school remains a privilege for those who can afford to attend.
Rwanda, Kibuye. 1996.
“I named my son Placide in memory of the love we shared, his father and I. It was before 1994, before this land was covered with the blood of hatred. His father was a Hutu. I am a Tutsi. After the conflict between the Tutsi and the Hutu, I decided to leave with him, and we fled with the Hutus. We were happy together. Our child was born. Not long after, his father disappeared. I had lost my protector. I decided to return home. But in my native village, my people rejected us. Only my grandfather, who has become withdrawn and silent because of the horrors that have happened in our country, loves us and supports us unconditionally.” The old man had been listening. Only the pearls of despair in his eyes betrayed his emotion.