Remembering Abbas, A Photographer Focused On The Religions Of The World

May 1, 2018
Originally published on May 7, 2018 2:12 pm
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. We're going to remember the photojournalist Abbas. He died last Wednesday. He was 74. Abbas was known for documenting religions, from rituals and expressions of spirituality to acts of extremism and violence committed in the name of religion. Abbas was born in Iran and though his family moved to Algeria when he was a boy, he returned to Iran in 1979. He photographed the Iranian Revolution, documenting the protests in the streets, watching as a popular uprising against the shah turned into an Islamic revolution led by extremist clerics.

He subsequently traveled around the world photographing Muslims, Christians, Jews and Buddhists. He'd lived in Paris since the late '60s. He was affiliated with the Magnum Photos agency. I spoke with Abbas in 2015 and asked him about photographing the Iranian Revolution.

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GROSS: So one of the photographs that you've taken was, I think, a photograph that was a turning point for you. It was taken at a morgue in Tehran in 1979. And it's a photo of the bodies of four generals who were executed after a secret trial that was held at the Ayatollah Khomeini's headquarters. And one of the bodies in the morgue was the former chief of the shah's secret police, the SAVAK. How did you get to take this photograph? And why was it so significant to you?

ABBAS: Well, you know, we spent - every day, we used to go to the headquarters of Khomeini. And then we heard that people had been executed during the night. So the only way to see the results of the execution was the morgue. So I rushed to the morgue. And I was not the only photographer. There were a lot of photographers. Suddenly, I see four bodies in slabs, you know. That was the turning point because that's when I decided this revolution is not going to be mine anymore.

Up to then, after the revolt became a revolution and millions of people joined the revolution, which was manipulated at the beginning by the mullahs and it became a national revolution, not just a religious one, I joined as well. And that was my country, my people and my revolution. But this very moment when I saw these four generals at the morgue, I decided to stay on, work as long as I can work freely, but it was no longer my revolution.

GROSS: I think it was shortly before that photograph that you took in the morgue that you took another photograph that you found disturbing. It's taken in the street where there's a mob of revolutionaries dragging a woman, who they thought was a supporter of the shah, dragging her through the streets. What are they doing, and how did you come upon the scene?

ABBAS: They were hitting her and dragging her. So, of course, as a photographer, you first react. I mean, you don't think too much, you just - they were running and I was running backwards and taking pictures at the same time. There's always somebody saying, oh, don't take pictures, don't take pictures. And I would always answer in Farsi. (Speaking Farsi), this is for history. And when I said the word history, it somewhat clicked in people's minds saying, OK, you know, it's not for right away. It's for later on. The SAVAK will not recognize me on the photographs. I will have no problems.

So they would not hit me instead of hitting the woman. But the problem was not taking the photo. The problem was should I show the photograph, show it then? Because in the evening, I used to get, you know, with friends and we'd talk about the day. And they'd say, no, Abbas, you can't show this photograph now because it gives an unfavorable image of the revolution. Up to then, the violence was one-side, it came from the regime. Now suddenly we have this picture of the revolution being very violent.

And I said, I'm sorry. You know, this picture, I'm going to show it, and I'm going to show it now. It might be induced as it was. It might be my revolution, but I have to show it because I'm not only working for history, I'm working for the history of the present and today's history. And I have a duty to my viewers. You know, as a journalist, as a historian of the present, I have a duty. So I'm going to show it. And I did. I sent it right away to my agency, and it was published all over the place.

And I think in retrospect, I was right because some of the hate and the violence, we came up afterwards, during the - after the victory of the revolution is on the faces of the militants.

GROSS: What was the first photograph you took that got attention?

ABBAS: Well, it's just more than one, you know, so - but maybe one of them was the - I photographed apartheid in 1978 in South Africa. There's a picture I took, there's a white officer in uniform and there are rows and rows of black trainees, police trainees, and they're naked to the waist. And this picture became a sort of symbol of - icon of apartheid. So it's been used on covers, on books, on magazines, even somebody did a mural about it. So - and that was in '78. But that's not the first one. It's one of the first ones.

GROSS: What did that photograph mean to you? And what are some of the interpretations that you've heard of it?

ABBAS: Well, it's not so much what it means to me that we became, you know, again, the symbol of apartheid. And I remember, you know, I mean, because South Africans, in those days, they didn't know who I was. I went there not as an international photographer but as an Iranian one. And after they saw this photograph being published all over the world, you know, I think another photographer from my agency then, which was Gamma, went to get a visa. And the ambassador or the consul is supposed to have made this statement that this picture did us more harm than the whole division of enemy.

So it was the greatest compliment I could get.

GROSS: My interview with photojournalist Abbas was recorded in 2015. He died last Wednesday. He was 74.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham. He'll talk about understanding this moment in American politics and life by looking at the past, sharing examples of times when the partisan divide was bad but people unified for the common good. Meacham's new book is called "The Soul Of America: The Battle For Our Better Angels." I hope you'll join us.

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GROSS: Fresh AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.