by Renay Elle Morris
© Reprinted from 08 April 1999 / Picture magazine_ Abbas. A State of Grace / Renay Elle Morris
From the country of a thousand and one nights, one journalist’s ambitious reportage covering twenty nine countries in four continents.
It was the brilliance of Allah O Akbar: A Journey Through Militant Islam (Phaidon 1994) that took my breath away. Its author, Abbas, has been described as one of the few photographers “who can raise photojournalism to an art form.” I met Abbas one rainy March afternoon in Magnum Photo’s Paris bureau. We spoke briefly; he was guarded and I was somewhat intimidated. I sipped black coffee while he questioned me, thinking that you’d have to be an armadillo to engage him in conversation–his dark piercing eyes, almost blinding if you are in his line of vision. Then in an instant, relief. He flashes a smile, and everything softens, a gentler Abbas appears. He cracks a joke, something about a journalist, a paparazzi, a tiger and a rat. I take in the humor, albeit dry and biting, but humor, nonetheless.
_I have to improve my tactics so that every villager is flattered at being photographed.
While Abbas is carefully scrutinizing images for his new book on Christianity, I am making notes for a possible interview at a later date. This proved not to be an easy task, with countless phone calls to Paris and London from New York. Laughing, he accused me of harassment. “Not at all,” I said, explaining that he was so illusive–moving quickly, ever so quickly. True, he was not an easy target, but then he was a master of that game having been trained so well in the killing fields of the third world. To Abbas, there is no time to waste. He is as fleeting as the images he seeks to document. I asked him, “Who is Abbas, really?” To which he replied, modestly, “Just a photographer.” Too simple an answer for me. No, he’s not just a photographer. He is a journalist who has covered major political and social events–Biafra, Bangladesh, Vietnam, South Africa, The Middle East. A journalist who, in 1987, made an ambitious study–a seven year project photographing the resurgence of Islam throughout the world with some of the most chilling and haunting essays ever recorded and captured in Iran: La Revolution Confisquee (Editions Cletrat 1980) and Return To Mexico-Journey’s Beyond the Mask (Norton, 1992), photographs of the same intensity and consistency. Images that dare to speak to us of outrage and courage. Images of fear, of war, of burdens so heavy they are almost unbearable to look at. A journalist who wears sensible shoes, who plays the game–moving and shooting his subjects with such fervor that at the end of the day, there is nothing left but to succumb to exhaustion.
_My relationship with God is purely professional.
That is the brilliance of Abbas. He is a man of contradictions who cites Rembrandt as a mentor, walks the paths of great novelists and chronicles his photographs with pages and pages of poetic script so compelling they breath a life of their own.
Renay Morris: You are revered by your colleagues, to some you are considered a hero. Who is Abbas and do you believe in heroes?
Abbas: (Laughing.) I am simply a photographer. C’est tout. Be careful, heroes are something else. I can’t talk about heroes, but I can talk about the people that influenced me as a photographer. Rembrandt. I learned a lot from Rembrandt. And from Velazquez.
RM: From painters more so than photographers?
Abbas: Oh yes, much more. I was visiting a museum in Amsterdam, and room after room I saw portraits of the bourgeois–the well-to-do people of Amsterdam by Rembrandt and other painters as well. I was struck by how Rembrandt did not just freeze his characters like other painters, he suspended them. Freezing means you stop them in their action. They are literally posing. Suspending means that after you have photographed or painted your subjects they keep on doing what they were doing before. When I started in 1970 I realized that this was exactly what I was doing or what I was trying to do–not to freeze people in my photos, but to suspend them. What I learned from Velazquez was his amazing composition, his sense of proportion and the way he uses light.
RM: Your subject matter is very dark–a mass of darkness. No smiles, it’s all very macabre.
Abbas: You are asking me to explain my work. It is hard for a photographer to critique his own work. It is for critics to tell me what is there. Perhaps this intensity has something do with my background as an Iranian. I am, of course, the product of my culture–my education, my past. I left Iran as a small boy, but I went back for the revolution which I covered for two years. This was a very intense time because I was not only a photographer, but I was an involved photographer. You see, when I go to Zaire or I go to Vietnam or Cuba, I am concerned, but not involved. Iran was my country, my people, and my revolution–in the beginning at least. Therefore, photography wasn’t just recording other people’s lives, it was also recording my own life or my own wishes.
_When I am working I am not in a normal state, I am in a state of grace.
RM: The little Mexican boy before his funeral…the prostitute’s cadaver…you’re tough. Photo after photo of death and violence and suffering. In Allah o Akbar you start out with death and you end with death. You write: “Will violence always hold a fascination for me.”
Abbas: I’m glad you mentioned that. Death is part of life. Perhaps, because of my background and the life I led in Iran and Mexico, there is all sorts of reasons I have this fascination with death and violence. Death is eternity. Violence is life. In 1997, after 17 years I went back to Iran. I remember a time when I was literally in the middle of this crowd of Iranians celebrating the martyrdom of Hassan and Hussein–the prophet’s grandsons. They were beating their chests and singing at the same time–the songs of mourning. Suddenly, I was taken by the whole mood of the situation. I was no longer an observer. Whether I liked it or not, it was part of my culture and I became acutely aware of the fact that I was heir to 3,000 years of this culture-a culture with violent rituals.
RM: And the religious imagery that appears in the majority of your work…
Abbas: My relationship with God is purely professional. After photographing all these years I don’t understand why people believe, so I am still fascinated by religion.
RM: And the contractions. The surprise element, a non-violent Abbas photo or phrase…like when you refer to the beauty of the flowers and the Rose of Kabul.
Abbas: Every man is a contradiction. I hope you are a contradiction yourself. Again, this all so subjective. When I look at my contact sheets I see contractions I don’t see when I am shooting, because shooting is very intuitive and editing is intellectual. There are many levels of contractions; like the two women on the beach in Morocco–one in a bikini , one covered in traditional dress. That is a simple one. There are other levels of contractions and complexity. I seek that. I think that photography is not just recording an event. For me it is also interpreting an event and giving you feeling about this event.
RM: You write: “One of the best way to get to know a country or a place is always through its novelists.”
Abbas: That’s true. That’s what I normally do when I am travelling. I read the heavy stuff beforehand; the sociology, the economics, the politics. Then I find English or French books by the prominent writers of that particular country I am exploring. They guide me. Actually, very much so, because maybe in a way this is what I’m trying to do as a photographer. Photography means writing with light. That is exactly what I do–write with light. Like a someone who uses the written word to capture a subject, I don’t only work on a subject, I work around a subject…beyond the subject. Working four years on Christianity and seven years on Islam and three years on Mexico–this is not the normal lifestyle of a photojournalist. It’s more like that of the writer. Also, I always keep a diary and parts of this diary go with my pictures in my books. I try not to write about my photographs, but write about the environment in which I took the photographs.
_Iran was my country, my people, and my revolution–at the beginning at least. Therefore, photography wasn’t just recording other people’s lives, it was also recording my own life or my own wishes.
RM: The Hadj–the pilgrimage to Mecca. How difficult was that to photograph?
Abbas: It took me five years and one war to actually get the visa. The Saudis did not make the life of the photographer easy, but I managed to get the photos I wanted. I had to go there three times. Each time I was not happy with the situation so I kept going until I got what I wanted. I am as demanding of myself as I am of others. RM: So much so that you may resort to trickery to get your pictures. In Return to Mexico, I quote you: “I have to improve my tactics so that every villager is flattered at being photographed.” Do subjects need to be seduced?
Abbas: When a photographer goes to a situation like in this Mexican village, he is not innocent. He carries a whole other culture on his back. Whether he likes it or not he represents the Western world–the gringo. Although I’m not American to their eyes I was a gringo journalist. So there was no reason for them to be kind to me. I had to seduce them with a lot of polaroids at the beginning. I took their pictures and gave the photos to them. I sort of became the official photographer of the village. After a while they started asking me to photograph their festivals and give them prints It was not easy, it was very confrontational.
RM: How do you handle criticism?
Abbas: Well, there is not enough of it.
RM: Not enough of it?
Abbas: That’s right I wish I would get more.
RM: Tell me about the Christianity book–your new project. What compelled you to do it?
Abbas: It is set for a publication release in the Spring of 2000. I just finished shooting the photography and I am now in the process of editing the work. I’ve done the basic work in my head. It’s just a question of putting it to form. I started Islam because it was, in a way, natural for me to do it. After following the revolution of Iran, it was normal for me to not only look at the revolution but also the ways this revolution was affecting the world. When I was finishing my project on Islam, I was thinking about what I was going to do next. I decided to stay with God, but then just change prophets. Because, when you look at Christianity or religion in general, it is a just a way to look into our societies. Religion is just the pretext. Religion is just not faith, it is culture, it is economy…it is many things. I hope to make it similar to the book on Islam.
RM: Your books are always in black and white. How do you feel about the use of color.
Abbas: My expression is in black and white for a very simple reason. Because I see in black and white. When I am working I am not in a normal state, I am in a state of grace. I automatically convert yellows greens and browns into shades of grey blacks and white. But I have to cover the color stories wanted by international magazines. It is not easy to accept the assignments and remain master of my time.
RM: How has your work changed over the years. Abbas: I’m the same photographer, but with more maturity now. Your asking me to judge my photography again?
RM: Yes I am.
Abbas: The difference is I know exactly what I want now. When you start out, it is normal to experiment. But after 30 years I am not experimenting that much. I don’t like to shift different styles or different interests. My work is pretty consistent. My signature, my style is recognizable.
RM: I understand you have an up-coming exhibition.
Abbas: Yes, I am having an exhibition in Brussels. This is my first one. I was supposed to have an exhibition before on the book on Islam. But, because of the whole controversy and sensitive nature of the work, people were afraid to show my work on wars. The exhibit is from April 22 – June 22 at the Chapel of Charles The Fifth. Can you imagine that…an exhibition on Islam in a Chapel?
RM: Is that another contradiction? So, at the end of the day, do you think that it might be said that you persist until you prevail? A serious pause ensues.
Abbas: Perhaps, because I never take no for an answer. My personal life may be different, but when I am working I never take no for an answer.
RM: Well I did not take no for an answer either, and that is why I got this interview. I hope you don’t think I was harassing you–I hope you were joking. Any words of wisdom for those starting out.
Abbas: Just what I told you. Don’t take no for answer. And a secondary piece of advice, get a pair of good walking shoes–a very good pair.
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