Abbas – Documenting Iran from 1970

February 4, 2016

By Charlotte Beale

Legendary Iranian photographer Abbas joined journalist and filmmaker Maziar Bahari in a conversation at the Frontline Club on 3 February 2016, chaired by CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer.

Bahari and Abbas have collaborated to launch abbas.site, a platform showcasing Abbas’s photographic body of work on Iran since 1970, including his coverage of the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Abbas’s work includes “the most iconic photos of Iranian history between 1971 and 2005,” said Bahari. “He shows parts of Iran in one photograph in a way that some people have to write many books about.”

“This is the first time I’m showing contact sheets,” said Abbas, as he showed his images of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s Persepolis celebration in 1971. “Normally photographers don’t show them. It’s like your personal diary, but I thought after 37 years, I can show not just the photos, but what led to the photos.”

“I wanted to show the complexity of Iran through the complexity of the lives of 12 Iranians. One would lead to another, like a circle. But the revolution started, and that was the end of the work.”

“How did you make sure you didn’t get hurt when the revolution turned violent?” asked Palmer.

“Well, I ran fast!” said Abbas.

“Some of the violence and hate which emerged later was already written on [the revolutionaries’] faces,” Abbas said, on the subject of his work in the early stages of the Islamic Revolution in 1977.

He showed his photos of Iranian Prime Minister Hoveyda at home, and then in a morgue shortly after his execution by the Revolutionary Guard in 1979.

“Although you feel very strongly for the man on the slab, you still do your work as a photographer. You try to compose the best picture… In all situations of strife or violence or emotional upheaval, you put a curtain between you and what’s happening. Because if you don’t, you can’t function,” he said.

“As a photographer, you don’t think, you just act. You capture energies you’re not even aware of. It’s when you do the editing and the sequencing that you become conscious.

“The act of photography is very intuitive. Your intuition is fed by your education, your culture, by the argument you had with your girlfriend the night before… that makes you take this picture instead of that one.”

Abbas commented that great photography is a combination of two things – “information and aesthetics.”

“When the two come together, in a suspended moment, that’s it. I don’t freeze the moment, I suspend it. I like to give the impression to my reader that the people in my photograph kept on doing the thing they were doing before I took the photograph.”

On the subjectivity of his work, Abbas commented: “the difference between a militant and a photographer [is that] the militant has his own agenda. The photographer, although he feels strongly, has a duty to his readers and also as a historian of the present, to be as fair as possible.”

In response to a question on how he manages his presence as a photographer, Abbas responded: “as much as possible, you try only to be a witness, not a partisan. Sometimes it’s hard, because of course they know what you are when you have a camera in your hand.”

In response to an audience member who asked what model of camera he prefers, Abbas said, “my favourite camera is my eye. It works very well.”

The discussion then moved to Abbas‘s references as a photographer, with Bahari commenting: “when you ask about Abbas‘s icons he doesn’t talk about Cartier-Bresson – he talks about Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Cezanne, who really painted life.”

On the methods of the photographer, Abbas commented: “Instead of writing with words, you write with light.”

Visit abbas.site to view the project in full.