Reza has been a war photographer for almost 40 years and has won the 2009 Lucie Award for Documentary Photography. He is the founder of Aina (The Mirror), an international non-profit organization dedicated to the education and empowerment of children and women through the use of media and communication. His aim is for them to develop skills that can contribute to the building of a free and open society by supporting sustainable development, promoting human rights, and strengthening national unity. His work and words speak for themselves. For more images from this series visit Visura Magazine.
In my travels in war zones, natural disaster areas, places of sorrow and beauty, I have often been reminded of the tale told by Rumi, the 13th-century Persian sage. It is a tale known to many cultures, the tale of villagers who had never seen an elephant and are frightened when one comes near their village. The three men who are sent to examine the beast in total darkness come back with three completely different explanations of what it is. This is because each has only touched one part of the creature – an ear, a leg, its trunk – and mistakenly believes the single part is the whole of the animal. The different viewpoints lead to deep divisions in the community.
As Rumi said, “What all three of them said was true, but not one grasped the Truth. If the light of even one small candle had been shed on the elephant, they would have been able to see.”
In the years since my exile from my native Iran, in the midst of wars, revolutions, and natural disasters, and also in moments of untold peace and beauty, I have always tried to shed the light of knowledge on the events of our time. It is my hope that with this light, we may see the whole and not just the parts, the truth and not the illusion.
Though the world I have seen and photographed is a story filled with war and tragedy, injustice and heartbreak, I have come to see the power of hope and the incredible resilience of the human spirit.
1983. Afghanistan. Fleeing the war, the old man had left his mountain village and his past behind. He had settled with his family not far from the border. They had stopped there, within sight of the Afghan mountains, when he had raised his hand and waved the caravan to a halt. He had said he would not go any farther. He told them that they would set up camp there, and that his decision was final. Although his decision was against all reason, since they were still within reach of the Russians, it was irrevocable. Nobody dared contradict him. He was the family elder, the wise man, so his relative followed his wishes. He spent his days reading the Koran or poetry. My own exile was still recent. He said to me, “Your house, your country, your history are within you, if you let them enter. Wherever you are, they follow you.” But then, with a sigh, he admitted, with his eyes fixed on he slopes of the Afghan mountains, that he would not be able to survive without seeing his land, each and every day that God granted him to live.
1980. Iran. Kurdistan. Mahabad. Torn apart by colonial ambitions and the regional regimes between four countries – Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria – the Kurdish people has long fought for its territorial independence, and the recognition of its language, its culture, its traditions, and its social and political entity. Right after its accession to power, the Mullah’s regime sparked off the Holy War against the Kurds. The Guardians of the Revolution put to fire and the sword dozens of villages in Iranian Kurdistan in order to stifle any desire for independence and enforcing the order dictated by the new Government. There were a few of us, photographers, in front of the city central hospital. The morgue was full, so were the hospital beds. The air raid launched by the Guardians of the Revolution had brutally hit the population. The man was carrying his child whose eye had been wounded by the shrapnel of a shell thrown at his house. He told us: “Take pictures. Show that injustice to the world.” However the injustic was even greater when one of the photographers who were there made a poster of this child and his father: the poster, hung across Iran, said, altering the man’s identity and reality: “Child wounded by the Iraqi Army in Southern Iran” instead of “Kurdish child wounded by the Guardians of the Revolution.”
1990. Afghanistan. Thoughts of an exile: The first blow is against your freedom. Being different, thinking differently, having a different skin color religious belief, or political opinion: All are pretexts for enslavement. Even if the government is not actively repressive, it may cause you to lose your freedom by not protecting you. Sometimes its passivity makes it a silent accomplice in your loss of liberty. Exodus then becomes your only option. The first step you take as an exile is to leave your country, often at the risk of your own life. After this difficult transition, you begin the subtler process of trying to rebuild. You have found a refuge though exile….where you are physically safe and have intellectual freedom. Now you have to adjust to the emotional displacement of being a stranger. Within you remains the memory of your lost country, and you may feel disappointment in the land where you are now living, the country you thought would be your promised land. And beyond the joy of being free, there remains, too, a feeling of mourning for your native land. This grief is always with you, below the surface. For the exile, the joys of the present are full of the memories of the past. As you build your life in this new elsewhere – the place where you are but that is never truly home – you carry on, while always struggling with the conflict between finding inner peace in your new country and still feeling at war within yourself because you are not in your own land.