Sitting in the foyer of Webistan, you are surrounded by history. Meter-long National Geographic covers hang next to old exhibition catalogues and vibrant posters document events long since past.
The occasion for much of this history is one man—Reza. An award-winning photographer, a globally recognized ambassador of the power of the image, a member, even, of the National Geographic Society’s esteemed team of Explorers.
Yet for someone who has taken so many iconic images, witnessed so many historic moments, and been present for so much of our era’s pain and hope and change and tumult, it was with some surprise that I sat across from the beloved photographer and listened to him talk excitedly about a photograph taken by a child. More specifically, the winner of a children’s photo competition that Reza helped organize, focused on theme of the environment, under the theme I Love Nature, I Fear Pollution. “Look at that,” he marveled, pointing to a wonderfully simple yet strangely perfect frame of a bird flying in front of a smoke stack in Russia, “No one I know could make that photograph.”
The 8-year old Russian girl, Anastasya Vorobko, who took the picture had likely never heard of Reza’s colleagues and probably had little notion of all that Reza himself had witnessed. But as I talked with Reza over the course of an hour, I realized it was no accident he was so happy to talk about someone else’s work before his own—one of the great photographers of our time takes equal (if not greater) pleasure in helping others experience firsthand the expressive power of photography.
For over 30 years, Reza has given photographic workshops to refugees, spread all over the world. Children, adults, from survivors of war zones to the residents of the banlieues of Paris.
Across all of these situations, Reza has the same message to impart:
The camera is the most powerful tool ever invented—it is more powerful than any weapon. Its strength comes from empowering people and multiplying their potential. It is a tool that speaks all the languages and can connect its holder with everyone in the world. It is also a tool that enables each person to share their story and their unique point of view.
As you can imagine, these are not typical camera clubs’ workshops. Technique, depths of field, zone lighting—these are all secondary concerns when Reza is the teacher. Fundamental to his pedagogy is the importance of expression, the connective power of the image.
The idea of empowerment stands at the heart of his relationship to photography. After all, Reza’s photographic roots lie in Iran, his birthplace. Reza was first moved to pick up a camera when he was 14. At the age of 22, he was jailed for three years after he was caught placing his photographs on public walls around Teheran (a time which also contains the origin of his singular artist’s name: Reza, being a common name in Iran, was a useful pseudonym by which to hide the photographer’s true identity from the authorities. Thus, he signed his public installations with the name “REZA”—and continues to use the signature to this day). With the outbreak of the Iranian revolution in 1979, he gave up his career as an architect and decided to turn to the camera again.
During that experience, he saw how people who are living through history have their own, very distinctive experience of way seeing things. Each day, the famous photographers—from Magnum, from AFP—and countless freelancers were producing great work that was splashing the revolution’s story across the world’s newspapers. But as Reza knew first-hand, their view was necessarily different than how the Iranians themselves were viewing their own lives.
Thus, at the very start of his photographic career, Reza realized that even the most talented or well-known or sensitive photographers are necessarily outsiders. There will always be something missing in the way they relate to their subjects. As empathetic as they are, they are, fundamentally, an Other.
And so, from this foundational experience arises Reza’s unwavering belief in the power of teaching, and in the primacy of the camera as a tool for expression and connection. For three decades, Reza has committed himself to giving others the chance to learn the language of photography. His teachings have been conducted all over the world (and largely funded by his own photographic work). The current exhibition features work from his recent project with the children of Syrian refugee camps in Iraqi Kurdistan. Over the course of 18 months with his students, Reza has given them not only a means of expression but a medium to share their view with the world.
Reza’s hope is not just for individual enrichment but global engagement. With their cameras in hand, Reza believes that his students can become real “camp reporters.” If what they see through their cameras can be connected with international media, then outlets around the world will have sources and points of view from inside the camps, instead of only from the passing visitors. The world, for the first time, will be able to understand these camps from the eyes of the inhabitants themselves.
Idealistic as this might seem, Reza is speaking from experience. For example, Reza helped create Aina, the non-profit media center in Kabul (whose photographic trainings were subsequently run by his brother Manoocher Deghati) which educated the Pulitzer-prize winning Afghan photographer Massoud Hossaini—while also producing an entire generation of locally-grown storytellers. This success speaks to the connective power of photography and the potential it can release in people. Indeed, across the world, Reza has given hundreds of individuals the gift of becoming actors in their own lives and witnesses to their surrounding through the camera.
A quick story that Reza told me seemed to encapsulate the power of his teaching: Some years ago, Reza was giving a workshop on reportage at the photography school in Arles. He then left for Sudan, on an assignment. While there, he heard that the wall in Berlin was falling. Reza immediately recognized this was a key moment in history but he was stuck in the desert and had no way to make it.
A few days later, Reza heard the news from his students: As a group, they had been unable to resist themselves and had hopped on the plane to Berlin. Reza was immensely pleased. Though he himself had not been able to see the event, it was as if his camera had multiplied tenfold. While his own view would be absent, his students could capture more (and very different) perspectives than he would ever have been able to alone.
At the end of our conversation, Reza took out a copy of War + Peace, a book that contained photographs from across his career. At last flipping through the pages of his own work, Reza offered a surprising observation—in all the pictures that he chose to include in this book, there were only two dead bodies. I realized, then, how many horrors Reza must have witnessed across his long career as a photojournalist. I asked him how he remained so optimistic despite the tremendous pain and suffering he had seen?
Perhaps, Reza joked, it has to do with his roots as an analog photographer. After all, he had learned to take a negative and make it positive.
But more seriously, Reza went on to say that a long time ago he realized anyone can make a horrifying picture of corpses or of darkness or of suffering. But what does that add to the world? What does that bring to the viewer’s understanding? If anything, it creates a barrier between the viewer and the subject—causing the viewer to shy away rather than engage, to shut down instead of empathize.
Of course, Reza has seen and photographed terrible things. But his pictures—especially those that he chooses to represent him in a retrospective body of work—are the ones that convey the human element of suffering, the living individual amidst the destruction. For after all, as living witnesses ourselves, we must look past the dead and think of ways to engage and aid those who have remained.
Thus, to explain his ever-present optimism, Reza offered a different parable: A 90-year old man is walking down the road. He has a handful of apple seeds, which he is slowly depositing on his path, one by one. A young man comes up from behind and asks, incredulously, “But why are you planting apples? I’m sorry, but I can’t imagine you’ll be around to enjoy them!” The old man smiles and replied, “Well, of course not. But all the apples that I’ve ever eaten were planted by somebody else. So perhaps it’s my turn to plant for the next generation.”