The power of pictures to change the worldShaking his head and sipping ginseng tea in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel cafe, Reza Deghati speaks respectfully of a constant companion. “I have never feared death; I see death the way I see life,” the Iranian-born photographer says. “More than once I have stood with guns to my head at point-blank range and thought this would be the last moment of my life.
“But I could not give in,” he says. “The gun represents control and power for the soldier. If I show fear they would know just like a dog scents fear in a man, but if I don’t, the soldiers lose that control.”
A small man, Mr. Deghati, 51, appears gentle and unassuming. But looks, in this case, are deceiving: He is a veteran photojournalist, who has covered nearly every war in the Middle East, including the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Israel’s excursion into southern Lebanon. He has had numerous close calls, with bullets whizzing past his head and bombs exploding within a radius of only several feet. But war and its victims have not been his only subjects. Mr. Deghati has brought the horrors of famine into sharp focus, his photos peering deeply into the hollow eyes of its young victims. He has introduced to millions the abuse and exploitation of women.
His prizewinning photographs have appeared on the cover of major publications, including Newsweek, Time and National Geographic.
“Once an assistant of mine at my studio in Paris tried to count all of my photographs that have appeared on the cover of magazines,” Mr. Deghati says. “The assistant said he lost count after 3,000, and I told him that I didn’t hire him to count pictures.”
His other constant companion is his camera, which is never out of his sight. Mr. Deghati’s weapon of choice includes a small film camera that fits snugly into his hand. He is always ready to lock, load and shoot.
Mr. Deghati, who says that he has traveled to more than 110 countries, was in Seoul this week, his first visit ever to Korea.
“Somehow Korea is a special place for me,” Mr. Deghati says.
He says he is surprised to find that so many Koreans he has met during his visit here are so intelligent. However, he also notes that Korea is Westernized and Americanized.
Mr. Deghati’s trip to Korea is sponsored by GEO magazine-Korea and Olympus. His mission is to judge 80 portfolios submitted by Koreans in the first GEO-Olympus photo competition to be held in this country. “Eighty portfolios! That is a lot of photographs,” Mr. Deghati says with a smile, wiping imaginary sweat from his brow. According to GEO magazine, the contest included amateur and professional photographers, with most submitting several photographs to be judged.
Mr. Deghati says that when evaluating photographs, he looks for “reality, composition and understanding of the situation,” which are the essence of photojournalism. He says offering the world a view of life through the lens can help improve humanity.
“There’s a difference between a photographer and a photojournalist,” Mr. Deghati says. “A photographer may simply takes pictures of a landscape and beautiful objects or people that he sees in front of him.
“A photojournalist is a person who preserves and represents what he believes and cares for,” Mr. Deghati says.
Mr. Deghati says a photograph is a visual memory of humanity and that photojournalism is a record of history. The camera, in his view, is very much like a pen used to chronicle human activity.
“A camera is a very powerful tool that can improve humanity,” Mr. Deghati says, describing the mission of a photojournalist. Mr. Deghati says that when taking a picture a photojournalist must keep in mind that the lens reflects the soul of the subject and the soul of the photographer.
“You have to show your subject that you care,” he says.
“That’s why in a country run by dictators there are no photojournalists.”
But what about the dangers posed by photographic manipulation and fabrication achieved with new technologies?
“Film manipulation has been around since the camera was invented,” Mr. Deghati says. “Reality is much stronger than any situation you can devise. I have seen many war movies, but none of them has even come close to 10 percent of the reality of battle.”
Mr. Deghati, however, is much more than a photojournalist; he preaches about the responsibility to improve humanity. Although exiled from his native land for the last 22 years, Mr. Deghati says where he lives does not matter, because the world is one and borders are just political instruments.
“In reality we all are citizens of the world,” Mr. Deghati says.
Mr. Deghati condemns the war in Iraq and all wars, for that matter, stressing that the victims are not only men dying in the line of fire but also the women and children left behind.
He says once when traveling to Somalia to photograph famine victims, he ate nothing for three days before entering the country so that he could feel what it was like to go hungry.
Mr. Deghati, a consultant to the United Nations in Afghanistan, says he tries to show the world through his pictures that children are exploited and manipulated.
Displaying photographs of several young Chinese girls dressed in military uniforms, several children playing with toy tanks and a Cambodian teenager hoisting a gun on his shoulder, he says, “We are raising children with the wrong messages.”
Is he a photojournalist inside a humanitarian or a humanitarian inside a photojournalist? Mr. Deghati says he became a photojournalist than turned into an activist for humanity. He says that as a child ― he does not clearly remember when ― he wanted to express himself.
“I tried to become a painter, but I turned out to be a lousy painter,” he says.
At the age of 14, Mr. Deghati pushed the button of a camera, his father’s Kodak, for the first time.
“I took pictures of everything that interested me from families to people around me,” Mr. Deghati recalls.
His first photojournalist exercise involved the owner of a fish shop in a local market in Iran. “I wanted to talk to her and she told me she had a hard life.
“I asked her, ‘Why?’ And she said the policemen took money from her,” Mr. Deghati says.
According to Mr. Deghati, there was no publications in the neighborhood, so to bring the issue to people’s attention, he personally published a four-page magazine, using equipment at his high school.
“I wanted people to notice and help this person out,” he says.
But his little act of charity backfired. Three days after the publication of news of the woman’s plight, the secret police arrested Mr. Deghati. He was warned that he would never publish again. “I was really shocked, and at that moment understood the meaning of dictatorship,” Mr. Deghati says.
Instead of stamping out his enthusiasm, the secret police sparked the young photojournalist’s spirit, pushing him further in pursuit of a goal that has become a lifetime ambition.
Mr. Deghati’s first job as a professional was with AFP, the French press agency, during the Iranian revolution in 1979. Taking pictures of poverty and the poor, the young photojournalist raised the ire of the authorities, spending three years in prison. Mr. Deghati later became the Newsweek correspondent in Iran at the age of 26 and also worked with Time magazine.
His first full assignment with National Geographic was, “Cairo: Clamorous Heart of Egypt,” in the magazine’s April 1993 issue.
Although Mr. Deghati continues to pursue photojournalism around the world, he has given up shooting in Afghanistan. Instead he started a cultural and media center, AINA, in May last year. In Dari, the primary Afghan language, “aina” means mirror.
AINA has branches in eight Afghan cities, including Kabul, and is an educational center for leading scholars in the country.
“There are two kinds of destruction,” Mr. Deghati says. “Physical destruction, which the United Nations pays a lot of attention to, and the destruction of the soul of a nation and its culture.”
Mr. Deghati says physical destruction can be repaired but the latter is hard to deal with. He says he hopes that AINA will help restore the soul and culture of Afghanistan and improve the life of its women and children. “We have a magazine that is completely published by women,” Mr. Deghati says, noting that AINA provides educational movies and publications to the poor children of that nation.
Mr. Deghati has witnessed the worst as he traveled to the worst parts of the world, but he says he has never given up hope.
“By educating the children we’re educating humanity,” Mr. Deghati says, emphasizing his point with a tightly clenched fist.
by Lee Ho-jeong