Marnie Woodmeade

Writer  ~  Researcher  ~  Aspiring Educator

Photojournalist and Humanitarian - An Interview with Reza

23 August 2018

Originally written for Frontier


Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons | Ministerio de Cultura de la Nación Argentina

This week Into the Wild meets REZA, world-renowned photojournalist and humanitarian. His photography has taken him all over the world and his work has been featured in Time magazine, Natural Geographic and Newsweek to name a few!

Alongside his extraordinary photography career, REZA is also a committed volunteer setting up NGOs in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kurdistan to teach those affected by war and conflict to tell their own stories using photography and journalism. He took time out of his busy schedule to tell us more about his journey with photojournalism and volunteering. A huge thank you to Reza for agreeing to an interview!

1) The first part of your life was spent as an architecture student. What made you decide to transition from architecture to photojournalism?

I realised that photography has the power to bring social change and bring cultures and people together more so than any other art. This was the reason that in 1979 I decided to quit architecture and concentrate all my efforts on photo journalism. I have learned photography from the age of 13 and at this time there was no teacher, no classroom and no workshop. So over the years I learned how to photograph, print and develop pictures all the while studying architecture. At the time photography was not considered a job in Iran. In 1979 there was a demonstration in Iran and I decided to start photographing the changes. This was the turning point for me.

Photo Credit:

'The Afghan girl'
Afghanistan, Tora Bora village

It was in one of the most dangerous assignment for National Geographic magazine, ever. I have been in the mountains along the Pakistan border for a few months, roaming through villages on the front lines between the Taliban and U.S Special Forces. One day, after few hours of trekking in the mountains, I arrived in the village of Tora Bora. She was there, playing with the other children, and suddenly she turned to me. I had time for just a few frames. She was born and raised during the times of the heaviest bombardment ever in her land and the entire history of the Afghan war can be found in the depths of this innocent girl’s eyes.

2) Much of your work is in areas of conflict, was there any one experience you found particularly challenging?

The main challenge, especially these days, of photojournalism is to find a publication over the years while I spend much of my time in the conflict zones and the refugee camps. Certainly each day in the war zone or with the people that suffer is a challenging experience. Each photograph is challenging, each day is difficult. 10-15 years ago before all the satellite dishes and social media the people were much more friendly to photojournalists and journalists in general because they were believing that they would be their voice and we could tell their stories but when they start looking to different media and social media and all different types of media and the way that they are portrayed in certain medias giving a totally different view of their stories according to their countries and ideology. So now people are confused they don’t know which journalists to trust and the trust that we had, it is now almost lost. They believe that the media is part of the whole system and they are only talking about what the system wants.

3) Your photography has taken you to areas and militarised zones very few outside people get to see. Has there been anything that you’ve found particularly inspiring?

The whole concept of photography is coming from loving your stories and the observation comes after. So observation for me makes you understand deeply any subject any story you’re looking for and that is where inspiration comes from. Loving the subject.

Photo Credit:

4) Alongside photography you’ve also played a significant role in volunteering and humanitarian work in the Middle East, how did you become involved in volunteering?

Volunteering and photojournalism are often one for me; they are two sides of the same coin.

My struggle is to create empathy for humanity, to create empathy for the stories of the people who need to be understood. While working in the war zone and seeing the result of the destruction I realised that there are two different destructions that happen during conflict. The first is the destruction of infrastructure; the buildings, the roads, the human body. These are physical destructions. Then I realised most of the efforts of the international organisations or aid is to rebuild infrastructure. They rebuild houses, they make camps, they rebuild roads, hospitals, schools; but these are only buildings.

The second is much deeper and much more important; they are the invisible wounds, the trauma of war and conflict or disaster. The trauma could last all your life. With physical wounds you can somehow heal them and you could continue even if you have been wounded or if your house was destroyed you can get a new one. But the trauma remains and I realised if we do not find way to heal trauma of the people, the cycle of violence will continue. A little boy who has lost his parents or house or school in the bombardment, the aid organisations will come and they will build a house for him, bring him food and maybe even give him an education. If we don’t take care of trauma he will only be looking for a gun to get revenge for what has happened.

That’s how I came up with idea to heal a nation under bombardment, to heal a community that has lost so much during war and conflict. The only way is to find tools that could connect all communities all nations together. The media, photography, videos, journalism, radio, cinema and culture is the only way that could reach the whole nation and help them to heal. That was reason I started different NGOs, the first in Afghanistan in 1983, training refugees to tell their own stories and then train thousands of women to become writers, journalists and film-makers and then helping them to create their own media like TV, radio and newspapers. They developed the first magazine for women and children and these are the ways we could help communities and nations heal invisible wounds, otherwise story cycle of violence will continue. That’s how I started to use volunteering with my own idea, bringing my photography skills, the rights from my books, my salaries, to help these kinds of programmes and projects.

5) You founded Ainaworld in 2001, why do you think it is so important to train populations in information and communication?

The Ainaworld is one of the NGOs I have created in Afghanistan and it has shown that when the people tell their own stories the story has different meanings and angles. That’s why I’m emphasising more and more that people can use photography and tell their own story in their own backyard. Their stories are much more interesting and have deeper meaning for us to understand.

Photo Credit:

'The frame'
Turkey, Dogubayazit.

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.

Photo Credit:

'Exodus' Afghanistan. 1986.

The war against the Russian invaders had been raging for four years. Afghanistan was a scene of terror, from the towns to the countryside. I was covering it as a war correspondent. That day, it was chaos. Walking a short distance away, I came to an arid plain, where I saw this old man and his granddaughter. Destitute and vulnerable, but proud, they remained silent, huddled on the rock-strewn path of exodus.

Photo Credit: 'Sinbad: The Prince of Travelers' Egypt, When I first took up photography, I understood that, in order to attain "perfection," light and shadow needed to be in harmony, like the verses of a poem. However, beyond the harmony of the composition, I also seek it in the features of the people I photograph. The emotions that express themselves through the eyes help to create the harmony of a face. Here, I was on the Nile Delta, on assignment for National Geographic Magazine. He was a ferryman on a small boat and took me from one bank of the river to the other while I took pictures.

6) Does Ainaworld have any success stories that you’re most proud of?

In 2012 Masood Hosseini, who was one of the first Ainaworld students in photojournalism, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 and now he is head of Associated Press for Afghanistan. Farzana Wahidi, the first female Afghan photo journalist that we trained, works for the UN for universities and now she is teacher and teaching the new generation in photography. She has exhibited in Washington and she has won a lot of prizes.

In 2002 a group of young women that we trained to become videographers to tell stories of the Afghan women, started without even having any experience in journalism or working a camera but over the 9 months training, they made their first documentary called ‘Afghan Unveiled’ which was nominated for an Emmy award as one of the best framed documentaries. It was shown on more than 40 TV stations worldwide. On PBTV, National Geographic, French television and many, many others. Beside a lot of prizes that our students have won, Aina has been able to become one of most important job creation NGOs in Afghanistan. Almost 90% of the students that we have trained are employed in international media, government, communication, or they have created own TV stations or newspapers. So there are a lot of amazing success stories like this.

Photo Credit:

'A Window into the World'
Caucasus Mountains, Khinalig Village, Guba, Azerbaijan.

Behold the immensity before you, how its untrammeled diversity draws you to the horizon. Rejoice because you cannot embrace so much beauty in just one life. See yourself in the eyes of whomever mirrors your reflection.

7) Do you have any projects coming up that you're especially excited for?

Yes! I have created new organisation called the Reza Visual Academy. The main goal is to train refugee children in refugee camps to become story tellers and to show us what life is like in refugee camps as seen by the children.

The project Reza Visual Academy is acting in two different ways. The first is with the refugees, we call it ##### Exiled Voices the second ##### is called Urban Voices, a program which addresses programme in very poor neighbourhoods in cities like Buenos Aires but also in France in more than 10 poor neighbourhoods. We trained youth to become photographers who are then telling own stories, the stories of how they live. We then create a big exhibition in the city which shows the city’s people a different angle of what life is like and the situation of those in refugee camps or on the streets. We are now running the project in 3 refugee camps in Iraq and Kurdistan with Syrian and Yazidi refugee children.

Photo Credit:

'The Afghan Resistant'
Panjshir Province, 1985.

We trekked for weeks through snowstorms, evading Russian patrols, to reach the valley of Panjshir, and the man I had come in search of, sought by the whole Red Army, the head of the Afghan resistance, Ahmad Shah Massoud. May 23, 1985: dawn was breaking in a village square as we saw a group rapidly descending the mountain. I saw him, with the allure of a prophet and the warmth of a simple man. “I know what you have endured, and I am sorry to have made you wait,” he said as he embraced me. It was the beginning of sixteen years of close friendship, intense discussions, games of chess and verbal jousting over poetry until dawn. A man of rare intelligence, profound sensibility and a strong sense of justice, who loved and listened to the people, whose death leaves a profound void.

8) Do you have any advice for young people who would like to be more involved in photojournalism or volunteering?

Both of them, photojournalism and volunteering, are ways of creating empathy. My main advice is to understand the subject, love it, try and show a deeper understanding of the story and never give up. There are responsibilities; our way of life in the world is to put ourselves in a situation that will make us not only understand other people’s stories but to help them to tell their own stories. Photojournalism and volunteering are major possibilities that could change the world but it needs your heart. This is the most important thing to think about before starting any project. Keep moving whatever happens.

To see more of REZA's work head to his website, or follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.