Photograph by Mark Thiessen
Reza, one of the best-known photojournalists in the world, has captured the beauty and turmoil of the Middle and Far East for National Geographic, Newsweek, and Time.
In 2001, he founded AINA, Afghan Media and Culture Center, to bring a free press to Afghanistan. AINA trains people, especially women and children to use media tools such as radio, photography, video, and journalism to bring their own local stories to the world. They publish a children’s magazine, Parvaz.
NG Kids: What were you like as a child?
Reza: I wanted to change the whole world—to make everything beautiful, to have every child laughing, and no poor in the country. I had a Utopian idea—it came to me even when I was a small kid—a place where everyone had something to eat, to be dressed correctly, to have shelter, and no need for money to buy things but just get the things you need. I was…looking around me and being touched very deeply by, not social injustice, because when you are a kid you don’t know about injustice, but inequality. I didn’t understand how someone could sleep at night if he had seen some poor people or some beggars, because I wasn’t able to sleep, even as a kid. I was always touched by those things. And it’s still the same for me.
Many children, given the conditions of their life, they became adult very soon. If you go to Africa and Asia today and you talk to the kids, they don’t have kids’ dreams that you find in the U.S. or Europe.
NG Kids: How are kids in war-torn countries different from kids in wealthy nations around the world?
Reza: The main difference is that they have touched the burning reality almost from the womb—they have heard explosions, guns, their mothers’ crying, people having nothing to eat. So all those things have influenced them. When you look into their eyes, you don’t see the eyes of a child. You see the eyes of a 60-year-old person, maybe even more. The main difference is the hard reality, it’s not only about developed or undeveloped countries—it’s about the poor and rich.
Only the proportion is different in the world. In the U.S., you have maybe 80 percent of the people who have comfort, but you have 20 percent poor. So the children of the 20 percent poor in America, is equal for me to the children of the poor nations. In poor countries you always find some very rich families, whose children are sometimes more spoiled than the rich children [in the U.S.]. It’s a matter of the proportion. It’s all over the world, you just have to look for it.
NG Kids: Do you have a hero?
Reza: In reality my heroes have no names. My heroes are the tens of thousands of people that I meet every day that I admire—that even with all the difficulties that they continue. One of my heroes was a little girl in Sarajevo who was selling dolls during the war. She set up a table and was selling her dolls to help her family. Or the little boy who was growing one of those little plants that was grown in school. He was carrying it carefully and he said he wanted to grow this small plant into a big tree.
NG Kids: What is a normal day like for you?
Reza: I have very different days, actually. When I am in the field in photography, it is totally different from when I am [in Washington]. If I am in Kabul working with AINA, it’s a totally different day. When I am really involved in work, I try to forget everything else. What I am doing now is the most important thing I have to do in my life.
So a normal day for me if I am in the field, always starts before sunrise. Whatever happens if I am photographing nature, or cities, even if I have only slept for one hour or two hours, it doesn’t matter, I have to get out before sunrise. It gives you a very nice feeling and understanding of the people and of the place, if you are up very early. And you see little by little how everything is waking up—everything is blooming, people are coming to work, so you feel a little bit that you know them. You have seen them growing. It is a very strange feeling, but you get immediately a grasp on the culture, civilization even if it’s very different than yours. It’s very important.
So that is how I start—especially in the work of photography. It’s amazing. The other day I was thinking about one day, in Cairo, that I started before sunrise. I had a meeting with fisherman’s family that was living on a boat on the Nile, on the small fisherman boats—just the ones that you row. A man, wife, and two children, this is their home, this is their kitchen, their work, their bathroom. Everything is there. And there are thousands of those people, not only one family.
They told me if you come early morning you can have breakfast with us. So I said of course, yes. So I ate a small fish for breakfast, which I don’t like to eat fish, especially for breakfast, but obviously for them this was the best thing that they were offering to a guest, so I ate it. Then about one hour afterward I went to a fish market with this man.
Then I had a meeting about the planning of the opening of the opera house and I had to go and see the architect of the opera house. Then there was a demonstration at the market, and I ran to photograph the demonstration. Then there was a fashion show in one of the hotels that was going on.
Then in the afternoon I was in the places where people make pottery, and they use garbage—garbage collectors—and I photographed that. Then I had to go around to my hotel to change, because of all this garbage, to go and participate in the opening of the opera house with the minister of culture, and the FIFA president and have dinner with them. This is every day! [He laughs.]
NG Kids: What kind of camera do you use? Digital?
Reza: The camera is less important than the eye. The type of camera is not important—it is only a tool.
NG Kids: What is the best place that you have ever visited?
Reza: When people ask me how many countries I have been to I say 110 and then they always ask me what is the best place. And I say my best place, today now is here. This is the best place exactly where I am sitting here, and the people around me are the best people in the world.
NG Kids: What do you do for fun or to be silly, and is that important for everyone to have fun and be silly?
Reza: I think that sometimes you need to relax and to joke. I joke a lot. And even sometimes the worst situation I make a joke out of it and make people laugh out of it. And say don’t take it too serious.
I always tell funny stories that have philosophical meaning at the end and not just a regular normal joke. Here is one: There was a man and he believes that his wife is deaf and she doesn’t hear anymore, so he is upset about it. He doesn’t want to say it to his wife—he’s shy.
So he goes to the doctor and says, ‘Doctor, my wife has lost her hearing, and I don’t know how to tell her she needs a hearing aid, so how can I do that?’ And he says, ‘Go home and you make a little test. Go four meters behind her when is doing something with her back to you so she doesn’t see that you are talking. And then you ask a question and if she doesn’t answer you, move to three meters and then to two meters.’
So the man goes back home and his wife is in the kitchen preparing the food, and he thinks this is a fantastic moment, so he measures four meters and asks her, ‘Honey, what are we having for dinner?’ And no answer, so he goes to three meters and asks, ‘Honey what are we having for dinner?’ No answer. Two meters, no answer. One meter, no answer so he thought, she is really deaf.
So he goes up to her and asks, ‘Honey, what are we having for dinner?’ and she turns around and she says, ‘Honey it’s four times that you have asked me and I have told you it’s chicken.’ So the whole thing changes, and it’s important to think about it.
NG Kids: What is the best piece of advice that anyone has given you?
Reza: The one that changed my life was when I was 16. I did this kids magazine, Parvaz, but I was arrested by [Iranian] security, because I didn’t know at the time that it is forbidden to do any thing like this [during the time of the Shah]. They were beating me and suddenly at 16 you realize that the whole world is different.
And I came back home very afraid about what was going to happen. That was when my father was able to change the whole thing. He could have said, why did you publish this magazine, you are putting us in trouble. But instead of doing this, he said if you are doing something that you really believe that is right, you do it, but before you do it you look around and make it in a way that you will not be arrested. When you believe in what you say, continue to say it, but make sure that you will be able to continue without being arrested. This was so important and changed the way I grew up after that.
NG Kids: Do you think that the children who grow up around war will be affected their whole life?
Reza: I believe if you go even one hour, one minute, one second in a trauma, you need psychotherapy to get out of it otherwise it will remain for your whole life. And that is why sometimes the cycle of the violence continues. We need to find a way that we can stop the wheel, you know put a stick in a wheel to stop it from turning—we need to find the right time and the right place to put the stick in the wheel. It’s possible.
NG Kids: What is Parvaz?
Reza: Parvaz is a magazine for kids. We have a group of the best writers and photographers that we train for two years. We don’t have funds to publish regularly. [Governments] would rather pay for bombs and airplanes than magazines for the children. So when we have funds we bring them together in the office, they create the magazine and go back to their work. One of the most things that they have learned, everybody that we train they get a fantastic job outside. So instead of keeping them in the office for months without anything to offer, they have their jobs and do their own work and have their own income. And whenever we have money to make Parvaz they come back, work on it, and put it together.
The only Parvaz employee that we keep on a regular basis is one of the boys. He was 11 years old when we met him in 2001. He was one of the street children and we helped him to sell newspapers. And we realized that he is a fantastic calligrapher. We helped him to go to school and because we needed a calligrapher for Parvaz, we brought him in as a calligrapher. He is in charge of the 11 members of his family and he has become one of the best calligraphers in Afghanistan. And he is from a very poor family. His name is Momen.
By Anne A. McCormack