Photos | Demetrius Freeman and Reza (Courtesy of National Geographic Museum)
Photographer Reza’s work displayed throughout grounds
Rebecca McKinsey | Staff Writer
Just yards from the Hall of Philosophy, a young girl with tousled curls and a maroon-colored robe sits huddled on a stark gray rock. Her father has died in a war, and her last family connection — her home — has been destroyed in a bomb raid.
A stone’s throw from the tennis courts, a man with one leg doubles over and presses his forehead against that of a small child — a reunion has just taken place between family members who have lost their home and, for several months, had lost each other.
More than 40 photographs across the grounds of Chautauqua Institution tell stories like these, which were captured years ago and continue to speak today from stanchions, or large outdoor photo frame. The photos are part of the “One World, One Tribe” exhibit by National Geographic photographer Reza.
A partnership between Chautauqua and National Geographic that began in 2008 resulted in not only several themed weeks but also several large outdoor displays of National Geographic photographers’ work. This is the second season Reza’s work has been featured at Chautauqua, said Susan Norton, director of the National Geographic Museum. The museum donated the stanchions, which were designed for outdoor use, in 2008.
Photo 1, in a National Geographic photo taken in Cambodia in 1996, peasants ride the top of a train car into Thailand, risking danger from the mines placed along the tracks, to try to sell their harvest. Photo 2, in 1994, this Hutu Burundian woman hugs her child who, along with many of the babies in the Rwandan refugee camp, suffers from malnutrition. Photo 3, in 1997 in Azerbaijan, former engineers, technicians and teachers who have been displaced fish early in the morning — their new manner of supporting themselves. These Daily photographs of the stanchions were made using a process called “painting with light.” This requires any type of controlled, focused light sources — a flashlight or a strobe, a camera with a bulb setting — and is possible only in a low-light to dark situation. The light source is used to paint the scene with light, slowly revealing details. To create these photographs, photographer Freeman used two flashlights, two strobes, a tripod, color gels, a cable release and a second set of hands. Photoshop was not used in creating these images.
Photo 4, a man who has lost his leg to a mine and was separated from his wife and children for several months after they lost their home reunites with his child in Cambodia in 1996. Photo 5, in 1984 in Guinea, a child draws over a photo of former dictator Ahmed Sekou Touré, sending a message around the world — “Look, you can erase dictatorship.” Photo 6, a man holds his child, who was injured in an air raid by the Guardians of the Revolution in Iran in 1980. Photo 7, a girl living in Sarajevo in 1993 sells her toys to have money for food.
The photos are a selection of Reza’s works from many different countries and times; the ones currently featured on the grounds were taken between 1980 and 2003.
The stories they tell are diverse.
A woman who recently lost her husband to AIDS prepares herself for the same painful death.
A young girl sells her toys so she can buy food.
A father holds his child, whose face is half covered with a wound from an air raid.
A crowd of people rides atop a train car — facing possible death from the mines placed on the rails — so that they can peddle their crops.
A child paints over a picture of Guinea’s former dictator, Ahmed Sekou Touré, in a symbolic message that “you can erase dictatorship.”
The common thread running through the images is “One World, One Tribe.” The goal of the photographer and the display, Norton said, is to outline the similarities between people of all types.
“Beyond borders, cultural diversity, and bloody wars, my images do not only give a sad report of shattered lives, they also testify to smiles behind tears, beauty behind tragedy, and life stronger than death,” Reza wrote in a description of the exhibition displayed on one of the stanchions. “This exhibition gives me the opportunity to tell the story of the human family, our family.”
Every one of the 42 photos displayed on the grounds features people. Young and old faces stare at or beyond the viewer through tears, blood or smiles, and a description from Reza at the side of each provides added depth to the visual story.
The descriptions add a personal touch to the already intensely intimate photos and communicate Reza’s reaction to each photo and its circumstances — one speaks frankly about how photographing children makes him miss his kids, while another details the horror of witnessing people die just moments after he has photographed them.
The photos displayed this season speak especially to three of the 2011 weekly themes — Global Health and Development, 21st Century Women and Iran, said Sherra Babcock, director of Chautauqua’s Department of Education.
“We think they are stunning photos, each of which tells a story,” Babcock said in an email.
A lifelong, compassionate photographer
Reza taught himself how to take photos when he was a teenager growing up in Iran, Norton said. He is a National Geographic fellow and has participated in projects for the National Geographic society for years.
Reza since has been exiled from Iran and currently lives in Paris with his wife and children.
“You never want to forget that as someone who really loves Iran, he can never go back. He was just always too much of a troublemaker for whoever was in power,” said Elizabeth Krist, senior photo editor at National Geographic, who has worked with Reza on several photo stories. “He has a yearning for his homeland, and he can never go back. That gives him insight into people who are less fortunate. It helps him see that side and understand when people are sad or happy.”
Reza’s work most often depicts war zones and conflict, but he seeks not only to portray violence and grief but everyday life and endurance.
“His work is both hard-hitting and also very hopeful,” Norton said. “He definitely covers war and he covers turmoil, but then he likes to show the human factor and the people who live in these areas that are in great turmoil or war zones. He wants to put a human face on it so we can understand they’re trying to get through their lives during these times.
“His whole life is devoted to trying to help people, which is pretty admirable,” she added. “He’s a very compassionate photographer.”
Reza has done about 15 photo stories for National Geographic over the years, Krist said.
Each photo story can take more than a year to complete after factoring in months of shooting, sorting, editing and researching tens of thousands of photos on one subject, she said.
When shooting in Pakistan for a recent National Geographic photo story, Reza took a photo of a mother holding her young daughter. The daughter had just been raped by the landlord who had been trying to run them off his land.
“One thing I appreciate is that he’s incredibly moved by injustices,” Krist said. “He can’t help it. He’s constantly trying to right all the wrongs of the world. He’s trying to expose these injustices so these people can try to find some sort of recourse.”
Reaching out through photography
Reza’s twin loves of photography and outreach have prompted him to move away from the tripod at times.
He founded AINA, an Afghanistan-based media and culture center. The word “aina” means “mirror,” and the organization promotes free press, information and communication, especially through the education of women and children.
Reza also assists with several National Geographic outreach and missions programs.
One of these, All Roads, provides a platform and resources for budding filmmakers and photographers in other countries who have stories to tell but may lack the resources or freedom to tell them.
“This is one of National Geographic’s core projects that addresses the human element, the human story of what we do,” said Alexander Moen, vice president of Strategic Initiatives and Explorer Programs for the National Geographic Society’s Mission Programs.
“Reza’s background as a news photographer has given him this passion for people,” Moen said. “He’s always been very big in terms of cultivation of talent.”
Reza also works with photo camp programs National Geographic offers to teenagers who are interested in photography.
“In many cases with these programs, we’re putting a camera in their hands for the first time,” Moen said. “We’re giving a platform for voices and perspectives to be heard that you otherwise would not hear from.
“You wouldn’t necessarily listen to the voice of a young person in the Ukraine or Jordan living in a non-media type of environment, dealing with survival on a day-to-day basis, but we’re giving a voice and an opportunity to create art as well as news content.”
Furthering the mission
The aim of National Geographic’s work is to inspire people to care about the planet, Norton said. Reza’s work, by outlining in stark relief the lives, stories, pain and joy of people from all around the world, inspires concern for the planet at the most fundamental level, she said.
As the large photos sprinkle the grounds of Chautauqua and remind passersby of the connections between all people, Reza’s goal — and that of National Geographic — is realized each time someone stops to scrutinize a photo and read the accompanying story, Norton said.
“Reza cares about the planet,” she said, “and his images make us care about it, too.”