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Q&A | To Shoot, 'with Love': Photojournalist Majid Saeedi

by NOAH ARJOMAND

27 Jun 2012 23:26Comments
majidsaeedi+boylashing.jpg "We photographers need to in a sense lay our lives down in order to inform."

[ interview ] On June 19 at the Robert F. Kennedy Center at Florence, Italy's Le Murate cultural institution, photojournalist Majid Saeedi was presented with the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, which honors "those who report on issues that reflect Robert F. Kennedy's concerns including human rights, social justice, and the power of individual action." Founded in the United States in 1968, this is the first year that European versions of the award have been given.

Born and raised in Tehran, Saeedi became seriously involved in photography at the age of 16. Two years later, during the Persian Gulf War, he went to the Iran-Iraq border to take photos of Iraqi refugees. For the succeeding two decades, he has photographed the Middle East with a focus on humanitarian issues and social injustice. He also portrays the everyday life of the region through street photography. Recent work of his has concentrated on the Libyan people's fight for democracy and land-mine victims in Afghanistan.

Saeedi has managed the photography departments of various Iranian news agencies and newspapers and his work has been published internationally in publications such as the Times, Der Spiegel, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time, and Life. Named seven times as Iran's Photographer of the Year, his other honors include the Lucie Award for his work in Afghanistan and the UNICEF Photography Prize. He also teaches and mentors young photographers.

Via Skype, Saeedi recently spoke with Tehran Bureau about his career, what it's like to cover human rights issues in the Middle East, and his advice for those just entering the field of photography. The interview is translated from the original Farsi.

***

How did you become a photographer?

I was a teenager and a theater actor when the war of America and Kuwait [versus Iraq] started and many Iraqi refugees came to Iran, and I went and took photos and felt that I was very interested in war photography and documentary photography. I've been a photographer from then on, maybe 22 years now.

How many years have you been working in Afghanistan? And why Afghanistan?

In 2000, at the time of the Taliban and war in Afghanistan, Time magazine gave me an assignment to photograph the Afghan civil war. So I went to Afghanistan and Pakistan and got to know Afghanistan for the first time in 2000 and 2001. After that, I went to Afghanistan two more times before the 2009 presidential election in Iran, when I was arrested by the Iranian authorities. And after that, I was advised by the agency I work for, Getty Images, to choose a country other than Iran to work in. The countries they suggested were Iraq, Lebanon, Dubai, and Afghanistan, and I chose Afghanistan for the reason that their culture is close to ours -- they speak Persian, they like us Iranians, and all in all because we're comfortable in Afghanistan.

It seems that in recent years you've been taking more black-and-white than color photos. Why is that?

I work for and receive my salary from a photo agency. They get assignments for color photos, since maybe 98 percent of all publications in the world are printed in color, and so business revolves around color images. But photos that I take for myself and for my own heart are black-and-white, because black-and-white photos have perhaps a greater impact on the viewer. Black-and-white photos accentuate sadness; they accentuate sorrow. A black-and-white photo is closer to reality.

A collection of your photos depict amputees in Afghanistan. When did you take these photos, and to what end?

I put together a collection last year called Afghanistan's Land-Mine Victims. When I came to Afghanistan I saw that there were many people -- women and children and even more men -- who were missing legs and used prosthetic limbs. One day I went to the office of the Red Cross where there was a place for people to be fitted for and receive artificial legs.... I decided that that I would devote myself to working on the lives of these people who were defenseless victims of violence and oppression. I put up a black curtain on the street and when people who had lost limbs walked I would convince them to stop for a few minutes so that I could take photos of them. I chose a black curtain because of the blackness and hardship of their lives and so that the eye of the viewer would immediately be drawn to their plastic legs....

In another of your photos, a man is striking the hands of a little boy. Where did this take place, and how did you feel when taking that picture?

In that photo a teacher, actually a mullah, a religious cleric, is lashing a child.... In Afghanistan, unfortunately, things like this are done very casually and routinely, more than in other parts of the world. In the one day that I was there, perhaps more than 40 children, both little girls and little boys, were violently punished and it was very painful for me to watch. I even asked the mullah to hit me once so I could feel how much it hurt. It was extremely painful and I was astonished that the children could bear that pain and I implored him not to do it and to come up to with a different kind of punishment, but he refused. When I went back to the school a month later it was closed due to the complaints of parents and others. But unfortunately in Afghanistan, corporal punishment is routine and very painful.

Many of your photographs are images of war and violence. How does it affect you to be a witness to these events?

War photographers have to have a kind of selflessness and to some extent to set aside their feelings about the violence that they see. For example, during the Libyan civil war, in Benghazi I saw atrocities; it was horrific what people were doing to each other. When I got back, I was hospitalized for psychological reasons for a week; I was really a mess. We see that lives are taken so freely in certain countries, that basic human rights are ignored. I'm a photographer and it's my responsibility as a human to show the other people of the world, for instance in America and Europe, that these atrocities are taking place in Afghanistan and in Libya. The way I see it, my life is worth no more than theirs, and I think we photographers need to in a sense lay our lives down in order to inform, in order to affect other people.

How would you compare the conditions of working as a news and documentary photographer in Iran and in Afghanistan, in terms of both your interactions with people and of the dangers you face?

The people of Afghanistan and Iran are more or less like one another. Across the region people are very similar...the people don't have a problem with photographers; only the government has a problem with photographers and our work.... By comparison, in the West people are very sensitive about their rights and about being photographed without permission. In the West, the governments are very tolerant but the people are very strict about what you can photograph; in the East, the people aren't strict but the governments are. As for the danger to me in Afghanistan, well there's danger everywhere. Maybe there's a little bit more in Afghanistan [but] I don't think it matters much whether it's Afghanistan or somewhere else, because danger is inherent in my line of work.

Do you have any advice for young photographers?

Well first of all, I'm still young. But I'll say that photography isn't easy work. One has to study photography and read about theory, but photography is developed through experience and effort. It's true that academic study and creativity and theory is very good, but you can only become a photographer by taking photos. So my advice to youths is, in short, take photos and take photos and take photos.... Look at the work of great photographers but don't copy their work. This is a very important point. The perspective of every photographer is different from others.... I think you shouldn't just walk in the footsteps of others.... Before you become a photographer, you have to be able to take criticism, constructive criticism.... I recommend that every young photographer have a personal project, for themselves and for their own enjoyment. That project might last years, but you learn how to put together a personalized project. And the most important thing is that you not look down on the people whom you are photographing. Show them respect and work with love. That's it, work with love.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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