Rebecca McKinsey | Staff Writer
When he was a child, Reza watched as a bedraggled, barefoot boy of 8 or 9 years — his own age — was refused entrance to a school. With tears in his eyes, the boy said, “They won’t let me come in. I just want to see what a school is like.”
The world-famous photographer said 50 years later that this event was what first sparked his interest in pictures. With an image, he said, he could more easily explain what he had seen.
He tried painting for several years before realizing the images he wanted to portray would not be created with a paintbrush.
So he turned to photography.
Today, Chautauquans see his photos in the large outdoor frames around the grounds. They depict the lives of people living in war zones and conflict areas.
However, 45 years ago, Reza attempted to snap his first shot — a bird in his yard.
“With all my ability, I tried to approach with the camera, but by the time I pushed the button, the bird was going,” Reza said. “So I got the branch of the tree.”
Born in 1952 in Tabriz, Iran, Reza was trained first as an architect. Photography was an interest that grew into a passion, but for years, it remained only a hobby. Reza taught himself to take photos by going out in his world and shooting what he saw. He continued to do so when the Iranian Revolution began in 1979.
His photos of the conflict captured the attention of Newsweek, but it also drew negative attention from the Islamic Republic and led to his eventual exile.
“The Islamic Republic came and started shooting and killing people, started attacking their own people. As a photographer, I took my camera out and I used the power of the images,” Reza said. “I was probably one of the first people in the world to do that. When everyone else was clapping their hands for the Islamic Republic, the regime, I was one of the first to denounce them with my pictures.
“That’s why they got mad at me. They wanted to charge and kill me. … For 30 years now, I’ve been living in exile.”
Reza now lives in Paris with his family. He has worked for Newsweek, Time and most recently National Geographic after a brief break from photography during which he worked for the U.N.
Reza is known for his photos of places rife with war and conflict, and he said he has several goals he hopes to accomplish through his photography in these areas. He seeks to highlight the daily struggles and triumphs of people who live their daily lives in these zones, and he also tries to draw connections between all people for those viewing his photos.
Reza’s observations over the years led him to believe that something else was necessary, something even beyond the power of images. He created AINA, a humanitarian organization in Afghanistan, South Africa, the Philippines, Africa and central Asia, according to its website. AINA, which means “mirror,” provides education and training, especially for women and children.
“I realized … we need to train them to help themselves,” Reza said. “Training them to become a reporter, a writer, a filmmaker, a photographer, a videographer, a radio speaker — people who could change their society better than everyone else.”
One of the results of AINA’s efforts is “Afghanistan Unveiled,” the first documentary film created by Afghan women, Reza said.
“Having educational programs in a war-zone country, for people who cannot go to school — I can bring the education into the home,” he said.
Through his humanitarian work and his photography, Reza said, he hopes to spur people to action. He said the best response he can hope to receive from people viewing his photos is that they understand what is happening and what needs to be done because they have looked into the eyes of the person depicted in an image. These are the best images, Reza said — those that “shake the hearts of people.”
The events and people he sees when he is taking photos — both on assignment and in his everyday life — sometimes cause Reza to act as well, he said. Especially in war-torn areas, he sometimes makes the choice between capturing an image and helping someone in need.
“There are situations when I’m going to photograph a person, and if I feel like the person needs more my hands and my heart and my personal assistance … then I drop the camera and I go to help them,” Reza said. “If someone is on a land mine, I know that if I took a picture, it could be a fantastic, prize-winning picture, but I say, ‘No, I need to take the guy’s hand and help him.’ If people are calling for help, it could be a great picture, but if I took the picture and didn’t help, I wouldn’t be the same person for all of my life. I drop the camera and run to them.”
Susan Norton, director of the National Geographic Museum, helped to facilitate the partnership between Chautauqua and National Geographic that made it possible to display the photos. She said Reza’s compassion is what makes him memorable.
“That’s just how he is,” she said. “He’s just such an incredible person.”
This is the second time Reza’s photos have been displayed on the grounds, said Sherra Babcock, director of Chautauqua’s Department of Education. After the end of this season, the photos will be returned to the National Geographic Museum.
Although Reza’s photos may disappear from the grounds, he won’t stop taking them — he said the story he has to tell is too important.
He illustrated with a comment he received years ago from a Time editor who said that if every other photographer were running to photograph an explosion, Reza would stay behind to photograph the person who had survived.
This mindset, Reza said, is what drives his work.
“The horror of war is not in the dead body or the broken bones,” Reza said. “It’s in the eye of the survivor.”