Award-winning Photographer Reza Looks Back on a Prolific Career

Reza Deghati is one of the world’s most famous photojournalists – so famous that he goes by his first name alone.

An awardwinning National Geographic photographer, he has for the past three decades captured countless images in countries and conflict zones around the world. His photographs have appeared in Time, Newsweek, and Paris Match, and in more than 30 books. Reza is the recipient of numerous international awards, including France’s Légion d’honneur, the Lucie Award for Achievement in Documentary, and the ICP Infinity Award in Photojournalism.

Reza Deghati (Crop)Not a month goes by without he or his photographs appearing in a festival or exhibition somewhere around the world. His images of coffee plantations are currently on display at the MUCEM museum in Marseille as part of the exhibition “Cafe In,” which is all about coffee. Earlier this year, Reza was the guest of honor at the photography festival in Moncoutant, France.

Reza’s images reach far beyond war photography, his initial calling. They show war and peace, pain and pleasure, hope and despair, life and death. As he explains himself, he has lived in a world of profound contradictions.

Reza began taking pictures at the age of 13 or 14, and completely by chance. A subscriber to the Scientist monthly, he stumbled across a headline that claimed that in the future, anyone unable to take photographs would be considered illiterate. It gave him the impetus to pick up the camera and start taking pictures.

Later, as a student of architecture at Tehran University, Reza set out to photograph architectural subjects. After the Revolution, he found himself drawn to news photography, and began documenting events happening all over the country, such as tensions between the Turkmens and Kurds.

The Islamic Republic, displeased with his images, prevented him from covering subjects that he previously had the freedom to explore. Reza found himself unable to pursue his passion outside the confines of his home. So he left Iran.

In the course of his 30-year career, Reza has covered more than 100 countries – from Afghanistan to Lebanon and Turkey, from Pakistan to China, from Egypt to the former Yugoslavia. One of his most beautiful and moving photographs was taken at the height of the Bosnian War, in Sarajevo.

The city had been surrounded by the Serbs, and conditions were dire: residents suffered desperately from poverty and hunger. Dead bodies lay on the streets for days, with people too afraid of snipers to remove them.

One day, Reza noticed a little girl leaning against a wall with a few dolls placed on a stool beside her. Reza began by taking her picture. He then asked what she was doing there. The little girl said that her grandmother had not eaten for four days, so she was selling her dolls to buy her some food. It was an encounter that Reza would never forget – the heart-breaking simplicity of the little girl, the impossible tragedy of the situation. His photograph captures the pain in her eyes, and her extraordinary humanity.

Understandably, the country he feels most connected to is Iran. Though he was not there to document the rise of the Green Movement and the mass uprisings that followed the 2009 presidential elections, he was deeply moved by the outcome, and by the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, a bystander shot in the chest during the protests.

Following the tragedy, Reza helped produce a picture of Neda that was used as a mask and worn by thousands of people in demonstrations in cities around the world, including on Trafalgar Square in London, at the Eiffel Tower in Paris and in front of the White House in Washington DC.

Reza’s more recent projects have centered around Paris, where he lives. In 2015, Reza displayed photographs of Syrian refugees on a towering wall along the banks of the Seine river. The show included photographs taken by 12- to 17-year-old Syrian refugees living in a camp in Iraqi Kurdistan who had been coached by Reza and a team of volunteers.

Also in 2015, Reza and six co-authors published a book titled “Talent for Humanity.” It’s the story of seven people who made contributions to humanitarian causes while exercising their everyday professions. The idea for the book came up when Thierry V. Sanchez (founder of the charitable organization Talent for Humanity) approached Reza to discuss the publication of a book about him.

Reza replied that he was not alone in doing humanitarian work. As a result, the publication recognizes seven people who have had a positive impact on humanity and who serve as an inspiration to others.

One country with a very special place in Reza’s heart is Afghanistan. Some 14 years ago, he established the Mirror Cultural Foundation there. The foundation has trained thousands of Afghans in photography, journalism, and film — including the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Afghan photographer Massoud Hoseyni.

Despite a rich international career, however, Reza has never lost sight of his Iranian origins. He cites an old Persian saying: “So long as the root is in water, there is hope.”
Asked what he would like to do next, Reza jokes that the list of his future projects is longer than that of his past accomplishments. Still, there is one dream that he is particularly keen to realize: that of returning to a democratic Iran, where he could once again be free to take pictures.