I started photography at the age of 13. The reason why I started photography was mainly to be able to communicate to people around me, to express my thoughts; especially when I saw any social injustice. As a child I have always been eager to find the reason for social injustice and I thought that photography could be a way to explain this; and most importantly, to raise questions.
I learned photography totally on my own. I had no teacher. It happened in 1964 and had been going ever since. I studied architecture and became an architect. But photography had always been my passion. And one day I decided to quit architecture and go for full time in photography. From this time on, I started getting assignments from News Week, Time Magazine, Life, etc. For the all of 80s I worked for them. From 1991, I started working as a freelancer for National Geographic Magazine.
The reason why I chose photojournalism was, I saw that the media could give a very wide spread and there was possibility of spreading the story that I was interested to do. But my main interest was not on the medium but on the spread; in the possibility to spread the words in all places. So beside media, I published books. I have published more than 30 books. I do a lot of art installation and exhibition all around the world. I have done more than 450 exhibitions. I have also done documentary films, which is important, for National Geographic Television and other TV channels in the world. Other than documentaries, I work on creating short films, multimedia works and everything that makes it possible for me to spread the words.
Well, photojournalism, like any other field has been through a total evolution. And the new informative revolution has totally changed the way that the concept of photojournalism was working. It now gives much more scope to express ourselves. Before the internet era, we had, maybe, only a couple of thousand newspapers and magazines; but now we have hundreds of millions of pages on the internet that spread our voices, our words.
I think that all the words that you mentioned – philanthropist, idealist, humanist, photojournalist – for me all these make for only one thing and that is, how I can become a human being and impact my environment and people around me and the community around me with what I can do for them. So photography and photojournalism is one of the ways like all the other works. Especially philanthropy is also another way of connecting the whole world together.
Photo taken by Reza - Innocence. 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?”
AINA is a continuation of all the different humanitarian activities which I have been pursuing parallel to my photography. It happened in 1983 when I thought that the people who are actually living the story, if they got the chance of photographing and filming their own tales, they could show us different aspects. The people who are living in the situation are much more in number than the professionals who could go there.
Also I realized that all wars and conflicts created two different destructions. One is physical and material destruction like the buildings, like roads, like infrastructure – that are destroyed in the war and disasters. But the main destruction is invisible. The main destruction is the destruction of soul. It’s the wounded soul – the invisible wounds that come with the trauma of living in the war zones, of being in the conflicts. And then I realized that most of the NGO and UN works are mainly concentrated in physical reconstruction. They build houses, they build refugee camps, they build schools; but the people who have suffered, keep the trauma on themselves. And if we do not deal with this trauma, then the cycle of violence will continue. My thought brought me the idea that why not create a new NGO that will train people in everything related to media – from photography, video, writing, journalism, investigative journalism, publishing newspaper, magazines; and it will make sure that all their expressions through media will work for healing the wounded souls. This idea, this thought was the beginning of AINA and the whole lot of other organizations which, from 1983, I have put together to give voice to the people who do not have voices. So AINA is a continuation of what I started in 1983 and is a specific Afghan project that works mainly to help Afghan women by training them and teaching them to become voice; to become journalists, writers, filmmakers.
I met Massoud first time in 1985 in the Panjshir valley during the time when Afghanistan was invaded by the Russian military. The young man, the civil engineer, Massoud was also an idealist who wanted to bring peace to his country, who wanted to fight against occupancy of his own country. We two had immediately found that there are a lot of common thoughts, common philosophy we have about life though working in different ways. So, that is how my friendship started with Massoud and it’s going on. Even though he was assassinated on the 9th of September in 2001, I keep his memories and also his thoughts that wanted to have a better world.
One of the very touching moments for me was during the huge bombardment on the Panjshir valley by the Russian aeroplanes. We were stuck in a very small hole in the mountain, in a cave. We were talking about the future, when I asked him what you plan to do after you defeat Russian army and Afghanistan becomes a stable country. And he said that only thing I would love to do is become a teacher in a village. And he showed me the direction of a small village that was on the other side of the hill.
Most of the projects, which I am working on, get benefited through my photographic works. My photographs, my book royalties, my print sales help to pursue my humanitarian projects.
You have to put the camera in your heart. Not on the brain and not in any other part of your body. The heart is the one part of your body that could hold your camera on it. That means you really have to love and have this passion about what you are doing. The second thing is that you really need to research on your project and on what you are going to do. Just don’t go blind eyes to any subject and start shooting. You will only touch the surface if you do this. But if you do a lot of research before, if you get to know people, if you live with them, if you stay with them, then you will see the major difference between the photographers who have come for few hours and photographers that are involved in the story. Don’t consider photojournalism as a job. Do it as a way of life; as your life; and connecting different lives together. Do not do any compromise to get your photographs or tell a story. Integrity is important part of photojournalism; and remember, everything we are doing is for dignity of humanity. Do not trespass the human dignity.
The Reza Visual Academy is the continuation of all my humanitarian works which I started from 1983 and have been pursuing under different names like AINA in Afghanistan. Reza Visual Academy is now a worldwide humanitarian project that mainly concentrates on training children.
It works in two different categories. One is called Exile Voices that relates refugee stories. This works on training children in refugee camps, making them camp reporters so they can express themselves and tell the stories of refugee living from inside.
The second category is called Urban Voices. This also does the same work of training children but mainly in Europe, America, South America and Africa, in the different and poor neighbourhood; all the neighbourhoods that surround the big cities and children living here in different and poor condition. It works by training them to become the reporters of their own stories, of the stories of their community and then doing exhibitions and creating huge web presence like through social media.
Thanks to the work of these children, in refugee camps and in the under-privileged neighbourhood, we are creating a connection and relation between all viewers. They can now see the truth through the eyes of these children.
Photo taken by Arwen Goasempis, in Châtellerault, France, 2014. Through the Booster project, launched in partnership with « Unis-Cites », Reza Visual Academy covered and conducted trainings to the language of image in six French cities. This training project aimed at helping high-school dropout minors or young adults to reintegrate the educational or professional system.
Photo taken by Micaela Podesta, 17 years old.Buenos Aires, 2017.My life in a reflection. Reza teaches the language of image to youths living in damaged civil societies; he gives them subjects and train to the use of photography as a tool to express themselves, inviting them to share their own vision of their life. With the project UrbanVoices, around 50 youths from favelas of Buenos Aires (Ejercito de los Andes and Villa 21-24) benefited from this training.
Photo taken by Solin Qasem, 14 years old when the photography workshop was launched in the Syrian Refugee Camp, Kawergosk, Iraqi Kurdistan. Pride and hope are the two emotions which young photographer SolinQasem wished to express when she took this picture among the makeshift tents of the camp. Photograph part of the five-year project Exile Voices, launched in December 2013 by Reza to offer children living in refugee camps photography training.
Photo taken by Tiemoko Koné, 20 years old, student of Reza Visual Academy in Bamako, displaced by the war in North Mali. In December 2016, around twenty youths of the Children’s House of Bamako (hosting between others young internally displaced persons, refugees in their own countries), benefited from this training, during the pilot session of the project “Nomadic Equations”.