Photographer Tells of Iraqi Kurds "In Agony"

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
Updated March 21, 2003

National Geographic photographer Reza has devoted his life to documenting the impact of war and poverty with poignant images that illustrate the suffering and the strength of oppressed peoples. Reza recently spoke with National Geographic News while on assignment in Saudi Arabia. He talked of his three-year imprisonment in Iran and his recent assignment documenting the lives of Kurds in northern Iraq.

What inspired you to become a photographer?

When I was 16 years old, I used to live in Iran. At that time there were two social classes: rich people and poor. The middle class was quite nonexistent. The rich were acting as if they were kings of the world. Sometimes, in small remote villages, you could see some women with short skirts and jewelry visiting the place. There was no respect for tradition, no respect for people who were hungry. I was a teenager, and I used to travel a lot in my country. I just wanted to act for a better world—as everyone wants to do at that age. I received my first camera when I was 14. So, taking pictures of the scenes in front of my eyes was certainly, in my mind, the best way to tell the stories. At that time, I couldn't imagine that one day I would be a photographer. It was not considered "real work".

A few years later, after my experience in prison, I was even more convinced that the world had to change. I was working as an architect. It was the time for revolution in Iran. People were demonstrating in the streets against [the] Shah's government. I was looking from the window when suddenly, I saw soldiers shooting on students. Three hours later, I had made my decision. I gave back the keys of the architecture studio I was working for. I took my camera and went to the streets. I had decided to be a photographer, to tell the stories happening in front of my eyes.

As a young man in Iran you were imprisoned and tortured because your photography illustrated abuses of the Shah's government. How did that experience affect you?

I was 22 years old when I was arrested by Savak [the Shah's governmental secret police]. I was detained for three years and tortured for five months. The prisoners who were detained with me were intellectuals. They were arrested because they were thinking and acting against the abuses of the Shah's government. Well, I think that it was like being in an incredible university. Torture had shown me the power of my mind on my body. To be able to escape the pain of my body, I used to concentrate my mind on the nicest thing I could imagine. On the other side, I was happy to listen and learn from other prisoners who were often older than me, who were famous poets, writers or politicians. I consider that time as a university of life.

While you were in Kurdistan, Iraqi intelligence services had a bounty on the heads of foreign journalists. How did you work under such a threat?

Doing your work as a journalist, going after the truth, going after the "why?" is always a dangerous act—even in so-called democracies. You may end up jobless, if not homeless, if you start digging into some big affairs. But it is evident that you never get close to the truth and spread it without paying a price—remember Prometheus. I thought that U.S. $10,000—the Iraqi bounty—was offensive. Journalists are worth more than this.

The Kurds in northern Iraq have been resisting Saddam Hussein's government for two decades. Had most Kurds you met suffered personally in this struggle?

The Kurd people have been looking to get their own land for decades and decades. Divided in four countries, they fight against central powers [Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey] to become a nation, a country. Those central powers use the Kurds in every civil conflict by making promises. The first time I discovered this situation was in Iran, after the fall of Shah in the first months of the Islamic Republic. The Islamic government used [the Kurds], and they were starting to kill them once they got the power. I remember one day, I was having a tea with a man and his two grandchildren, a girl and a boy. We were in the small garden of their tiny house. He was an old and wise man who had fought during his life for a free land. I left them to take pictures. A few minutes after, I heard a bomb falling and then shouts and cries. The old man was badly hurt while his two grandchildren were killed. How many stories like this one I can tell? So many. Yes, wherever you go—Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Iran—you can hear that every family has suffered and still suffers in that struggle.

You visited Halabja, a city that Saddam Hussein attacked with chemical weapons in 1988. Some 5,000 men, women, and children were killed. Years later the effects of this event are still visible—fractured families, disease, birth defects, and hospitals still treating victims. Were you shocked by what you found there?

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