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Reza's One World,
He lost his last name in the flames of the collapse of the Shah's regime in Iran in the late 1970s. Reza Deghati was a high school student in Tabriz, and a frustrated painter, when he started to take pictures. On a visit to a market he saw an old woman selling pitiful leftover fish. He took her picture, and then, curious, asked her to tell him her story. He was astonished when she told him that every day she came to the market and collected fish that had been thrown away by the sellers in the market, and then tried to sell them for a few pennies. But she also told him that she had to give 50 percent of whatever small sums she made to the policemen who patrolled the market.
Reza felt that people should know about her plight. He was sure that if word leaked out to the authorities, they would reprimand the policemen. As a 16-year-old, using his school's old stencil machine, he started a magazine that contained poetry, writing, and the story of the old woman in the fish market. What he did not expect was that the Shah's secret police, the Savak, would arrive at the school, confiscate copies of the magazine, beat him and tell him that if he published another magazine he would be killed, as would his parents. The magazine's name was "Parvaz," meaning to soar or to fly.
Terrified, he told his parents what had happened. His father bent forward and said, "Reza, do you believe in what your are doing? If you do, do it."
If the visit by the Savak was the end of childhood innocence, his father's words were the start of a lifetime of documenting social injustice. Later, he studied architecture in Teheran University while continuing the photography.
He began to work late into the night printing photographs he had taken of the poor and socially abused and putting them on walls around the university. Hundreds of them. Eventually, he was arrested and held in solitary confinement for six months, and tortured as the authorities tried to learn what organization he was connected with. Finally, they understood it was just one kid doing all this. He was transferred to prison, where he was interned with many of the mullahs who would later rule Iran after the fall of the Shah.
After three years in prison, and the establishment of the Khomeini regime, he was released, but soon discovered that the new Iran had even less regard for freedoms, especially for the press, than the previous one. It was at this point he dropped his last name.
In 1979, he began to help as a translator and fixer for the press covering the rise of Khomeini. Among them were such famous photographers as Marc Riboud, Don McCullin, Olivier Rebbot and David Burnett. He showed them some of his pictures; they were astonished and urged him to go to Paris and meet with agency people. Within a few weeks, he had been given a contract with Sipa and was back in Iran, this time as a photojournalist.
Over the next three decades he would become one of the most famous visual storytellers in the world, contributing to magazines such as Newsweek, Time, Geo and producing many essays for National Geographic, mainly covering war, conflicts and social turmoil in Asia, Africa and Europe.
For his extensive work over the years in Afghanistan, he was commissioned by the United Nations in North Afghanistan, after the defeat of the Russian army, to be a consultant for distribution of food and reconstruction projects.
An ardent teacher, he started from 1983 to train local photojournalists in many places to which he travelled, from Afghan refugee camps to South Africa, Bangladesh, and Beijing University. Finally, in 2001, he founded a nonprofit organization to train local journalists and create independent media. "Aïna" – 'mirror' – ainaworld.org has established in Afghanistan all-media-related training courses and produces documentaries, photography, radio for women and many publications, including a children's magazine that he named after his first magazine in Iran, "Parvaz." He is also the founder of the Web site "Webistan," [webistan.com], an agency for photographers from the Middle East, Central Asia, North Africa and Indian Subcontinent.
Meanwhile, his brother Manoucher, who had taken over Reza's mission to photograph social injustice while Reza was in prison, in 2003 became the founder of Afghanistan's first photojournalism institute and first independent photo agency, ainaphoto.org. He is now working with the United Nations in Kenya to launch a U.N. photo agency, "irinphoto."
In covering conflicts around the world, Reza remembered a Persian poem: "All human beings are part of one soul and body – if one part is suffering, the whole body suffers." In 2003, his first outdoor exhibition, "Crossing Destinies," in Paris on the fences of the Jardin du Luxembourg, was seen by more than a million visitors.
In assembling his new show, One World, One Tribe, which was the biggest show ever mounted by National Geographic, not only filling the exhibit halls, by literally surrounding the building in Washington, D.C., Reza wanted to tell the human story from birth to death, but using people from all races, ethnic groups and nations to demonstrate the commonality of the human race.
Reza has received countless awards for his compassionate work, including the prestigious French medal of Chevalier de l'Ordre National de Mérité in 2005, and the 2006 Missouri Honor Medal, the preeminent journalism award from the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Words from Reza:
"When people suffer in Africa, without knowing it we suffer in the United States too. But we don't know why we are suffering. Why we are having this distress. Why we have to use Prozac or Valium all day long or to sleep.
"The message is we all have the same blood all over the world. The blood is the same color. When American mothers lose their children in a disaster they cry the same way as a mother crying in Palestine or a Vietnamese mother. I realized when a plane is bombing in South Africa or the Philippines, those people have the same fear.
"How could I explain this as a photographer who has been through all these things? This concept that we are all the same? We may have different colors, different languages, but the essence of humanity is the same for everybody.
"This is the message that photographers should convey to everybody: 'Hey! Wake Up!'
"The image that I have is that the rich countries in the world are like a big Titanic where everything is regulated inside. You have different rooms – First-Class, Second-Class – you have a place to sleep and everything is working. There is a fantastic chef and all kinds of restaurants, a concert hall, and entertainment, all in this boat. Everything is fine and people are having fun.
"We, the photojournalists, are also living on this boat. Sometimes we jump out to go and see what is happening outside. What we find is that…My God, this boat is sailing in an ocean of fire and blood, everywhere. People are dying. Living in horrible conditions. Just holding onto some broken piece of wood with a family in the ocean, while the Titanic is just moving around them, sometimes even destroying them. So what we do is talk to these people and take some pictures, then we go back to the Titanic and we try to show our pictures, saying, 'Wait a minute! Stop! Stop! Look what's going on!' But the chef goes on serving the food and the passengers look at us and say 'give us a break – I'm eating my food. I'm opening the champagne.'
"The reason why we are doing this is to save both of these [groups of] people – [those] down in the ocean of fire and blood and also the people on the Titanic. If the people on the Titanic don't care about those people suffering in the ocean, the Titanic will be hit. It will be hit. There are too many people in fire and blood all over the world. There are too many suffering.
"That's what I try to do with my show and my images, and my writing, and the foundation of Aïna. It's a continuation of what I have done in the field, my observations and thinking about what is going on in the world.
"Now, all traditional media in the world is corrupted. But we can create a new way of talking to people. Now we can explain to the people on the Titanic that they have to wake up. That's why I think the Internet and the digital world is the beginning of the new journalism. We are not corrupted.
"This is the whole message of One World, One Tribe."
[NOTE: An interactive DVD of Reza's "One World, One Tribe" photographic exhibition at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., in 2006 is available – along with various Reza books and posters – via Webistan's online store at: www.webistan.com .]
© Dirck Halstead
Editor and Publisher of The Digital Journalist
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