Abbas Photographs the Bullshit People Get Up to in the Name of God
The Iranian Magnum photographer on his first assignments, his own relationship with God and why he thinks tourists are savages.
This article originally appeared on VICE France
Abbas loves to tell people that he was born a photographer. It's easier than having to explain that it was growing up as an Iranian immigrant during the Algerian war that actually got him into it. Throughout that conflict, he felt that he witnessed history in the making and it was that revelation that made him want to become a journalist.
At the age of 18, he became the Sports Editor of his local daily newspaper Le Peuple but it didn't take long for him to realise that he felt far more comfortable showing off his pictures then he did struggling with writer's block. Before joining Magnum in 1981, he had already put together a rather impressive photographic CV: the Mexican Olympics, a multitude of wars and what very well may go down in history as the boxing match of the century – Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman.
I wouldn't be doing his career justice by simply painting his work into a corner, but the thing Abbas is probably best known for is his documentation of religion and its influence on society. Recently, I got the chance to sit down with him and discuss his first assignments, his own relationship with God and why he thinks tourists are savages.
VICE: When did you become a full time photographer?
Abbas: I started really honing my photo skills in 1968, while I was working for the Olympic Committee in Mexico. I spent an entire year being assigned to all sorts of weird projects – one day I'd be doing sports, the following I'd have to photograph an orchestra or maybe some African statues or something.
I guess it was around 1970 – when I travelled to Africa – that I became an actual photographer. Right after the Biafran war ended, I started working for Jeune Afrique. I remember covering the African Union and the Non-Aligned Movement's summits in Zambia. I was a long, long way away from home and I only had something like 1000 francs [£120] to my name. Younger photographers always tell me how lucky I am for having started with photography while things were still cheap. But, it wasn't like that – you always had to be resourceful as a photographer.
After Africa, you worked on the Iranian revolution – what you later called "your revolution". Is that right?
That's right. My family is from Iran, but it isn't as if I felt particularly Iranian back then. But I did feel that things had to change – you can't just have some Shah making all the important decisions for an entire country.
Initially, I wanted to document Iran through the lives of 12 of its citizens. For example, I found this one guy who was a refinery engineer in the city but he was also a land owner up North, where things were far more traditional. I was fascinated by the fact that he split his time between this modern society and a traditional one. For instance, he owned a calculator but when he needed to calculate something, he'd always use an abacus.
By the time the revolution came, I'd started to feel a lot more involved in the country. When I took to the streets, it was to photograph my people. It was my revolution – well, at least until the Mullahs hijacked it.
After that you voluntarily exiled yourself from Iran for 17 years.
Yeah, I stayed away because I knew people were angry about my book. My pictures displayed the violence of that era, and some people weren't too happy about that. I remember this one time a female Shah supporter was surrounded by a lynch mob. While I was trying to capture the scene, people began telling me not to take pictures. But when I told them I was doing it for historical purposes, I guess they stopped being frightened that the political police might hunt them down because they understood the photos wouldn't show up for years.
When I told my friends about what had happened, they urged me not to show the revolution's negative side to the world. The violence was supposed to come from the Shah, not the protestors. I told them that it was my revolution as well but I still needed to honour my duty as a journalist – or a historian, if you will. I'm certain that I made the right choice by doing so.
Have you ever kept photos to yourself because you were worried that they seemed too biased?
No. I've never censored my work. That said, sometimes I've stopped myself from taking pictures of a particular scene because I just don't want to meddle in the lives of people for the sake of it.
Isn't it hard to limit yourself like that when you want to document the impact of religion on people's lives?
I've never really tried to capture the relationship between believers and their God. I've been more into photographing all the bullshit – and the good things – that people get up to in the name of God.
I've also noticed you aren't the biggest fan of tourists. Or "the new babarians" as you've ever so politely dubbed them.
I must admit that that particular opinion of mine has been growing stronger over the years. Every time I'm out travelling, I see all these groups of tourists posing in front of historical landmarks. I know they aren't as bloodthirsty as the Huns or the Mongols or whatever, but still. They don't always do good things. Personally, I've never travelled as a tourist – why should I?
People sometimes accuse photojournalists of taking a shocking picture and then leaving without ever looking back. How do you feel about that?
That raises a huge question about the personal commitment of the particular photographer. There's some photographers that claim that the more we know about a given situation, the better the pictures will be. I think that's a myth. I tend to grasp the essence of a situation within an hour. I've also ended up spending days in a place without being able to photograph it properly. I definitely think that photo reporters should be concerned when they go somewhere but they don't need to be as committed or involved as I was when I was in Iran – that's the only time it happened to me, really.
Even photographers that spend a lot of time within a certain community have to leave eventually. You can't become part of whatever you're experiencing. I've had a lot of battles with [Sebastião] Salgado about just that. He genuinely believes that you need to become part of the subject's life. I spent a lot of time in a Mexican village but I didn't need to become a Mexican peasant. On the contrary, this place wasn't even close to paradise and I had a really tense relationship with the villagers. I was eternally having to negotiate to be allowed to take pictures.
I've heard you mention that you thought a few Magnum photographers have fallen victim to some sort of creative menopause. Are you worried that'll happen to you?
If that happens, I hope I just stop taking pictures immediately. That, or get eaten by a shark or something. Right now, I still feel like I'm pretty creative. I really hope I'll never end up feeling too old or too tired to be a photographer.