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Manoocher Deghati: <br class="br_visual" />a lifetime spent <br class="br_visual" />facing reality

Manoocher Deghati:
a lifetime spent
facing reality

© Manoocher Deghati

November 2015

Highly-respected award-winning photojournalist Manoocher Deghati has spent his career in the front line of news reporting, both as a photographer and a bureau chief for The Associated Press. In an exclusive interview on his career, CPN writer Paul Kendall discovers just what makes the man tick...

‘Legendary’ is an overused and invariably misapplied word. But in the case of the eminent Iranian photojournalist Manoocher Deghati, it’s a perfect fit. Since the moment in 1978, when he arrived back in Iran from studying film-making in Rome on the day of the uprising against the Shah (which he documented with a single camera body, one lens and two rolls of film), he’s acquired a reputation for having an almost uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time.

© Manoocher Deghati
© Manoocher Deghati

Iranian revolution women prisoners, Tehran, Iran, 1982. Women prisoners in the notorious Evin prison in Tehran. On the third anniversary of the advent of the Islamic Republic, in February 1982, journalists were shown oppositional prisoners at Evin prison who were said to have “repented”. A thousand men and women were thus exhibited at the time of prayer in the prison mosque. They were obliged to sing religious or revolutionary songs. A political prison of sinister reputation, Evin became the symbol of all prisons of the Khomeini regime. Thousands of people, oppositionists or suspected oppositionists, were tortured or executed without the least form of due process.

“I’m known for that, but it’s not my fault”, he laughingly protests. “Wherever I’ve landed, something has happened. Colleagues have said I could blackmail some countries – call the president to say I’m going to live in their country and they will pay me not to come. This has been incredible for me. Everywhere I went, something big happened. I went to Kenya to work for the UN and the election violence started. Thousands were killed and nobody expected such a thing to happen. When I went to Cairo in 2011, after 36 hours the revolution started and people said “Ah, you knew that”, but really I didn’t. Nobody told me. I just come and things happen.”

He’s also known for his disregard for personal safety, when in pursuit of a story. “I’ve always wanted to have a very straight picture – reality – in front of me. That’s what I’m always looking for. I wanted to face that reality, as a human and then as a photographer. But photography is always challenging. It doesn’t matter if you’re taking pictures of a president or a conflict or a famine… it’s always challenging. Some places are more so, of course. In some places photographers are a target, especially now in the Middle East or Africa. They kidnap us, they cut our heads off. But this is nothing new. During the 1980s, when I was in Central America, they were shooting photographers also. One bullet in the head… they didn’t take you hostage, you didn’t know where the bullet came from. You are always confronting some kind of challenge, some kind of danger or opposition, because we are getting too close to the reality and many people don’t like that. They want to keep it hidden.”

Manoocher is only too aware of those dangers, having himself been shot in the line of duty. “When I was working in Ramallah, I got shot by an Israeli sniper. There’s a picture of me on the ground which Jim Hollander, the Reuters photographer, took, with my Canon 300mm lens lying by me. I had that on the camera and when I fell down, my first reaction was to take a picture of myself on the ground… a selfie. And I took the 300mm off – I was bleeding and all this – and I wanted to put on a wide-angle, but I couldn’t because of the pain. And the 300mm dropped and rolled away.” The injuries he suffered left him hospitalised for nearly two years, but did nothing to deter him. “It actually gave me more courage. I said ‘I’m still alive, I didn’t die, I have to do it’.”

Finding light in darkness

The other thing that Manoocher particularly looks for in his work, and which he finds in the most unpromising of circumstances, is humanity… even humour. As shown by many of the shots in his wonderful retrospective exhibition at this year’s Visa pour l’Image. “Even if it’s in a conflict situation, there is always some kind of hope, something that shows humanity continues. And humour is a great part of humanity’s personality. Without humour life is dark… life is horrible. And when you find this humour in difficult situations, it’s even more attractive. It shows how humans can survive.”

© Manoocher Deghati
© Manoocher Deghati

Iranian revolution, Tehran, Iran, June 1980. On the speaker’s stand on Imam Hossein Square in Tehran during a speech on the anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini’s going into exile, stands Ahmad Khomeini, his son. The three portraits show, from left to right: Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, Khomeini and Hussein Ali Montazeri.

One of the keys to finding that humanity has been a deep immersion in his subjects. Manoocher doesn’t just document stories. He lives them. “I always prefer to live in the countries or continents where I’m working. I don’t like being based in New York or Paris, take a flight to go to a famine, then come back and drink champagne and eat caviar. That’s not in my character. I went to the countries or areas, I learned the language, I lived with people, I got to know their culture. And I think that affected my photography, because I had the knowledge of what I was photographing, rather than just landing and shooting.”

A perfect example of the fruits of that approach is one of Manoocher’s most celebrated shots. “The picture of Arafat returning to Gaza on July 1, 1994, was the only picture of Arafat that day. There were 200 photographers from all over the world there, and I was the only one to get the picture, because of my knowledge of the region and the culture. Before his arrival, they’d put out all this red carpet and chairs for people to sit and clap, and I said: “This is not going to happen like this. It’s going to be a mess.” and I was right. When he arrived, there were suddenly 10,000 people surrounding him and no photographer could get close, so nobody took the picture. But I took it because, knowing the situation, I kept one of the chairs with me. So in the middle of that mess I could get on the chair, so I was higher. I was there for one second and I only shot one frame. I had an EOS 5 film SLR with the 300mm f/2.8 on it and, being fast, I was able to get the picture. If I’d had a slower camera, it would have been impossible.”

Sharing the knowledge

Wherever he’s been in the world, alongside doing his own work, Manoocher has put great emphasis on training and nurturing young photographers. Especially those who might otherwise not even have the opportunity to pick up a camera. “As a photojournalist, what is your work, what is your mission? It’s to inform people. And photography, being a universal language, makes it easy to transmit this knowledge. If you want to teach music to somebody, you need years to pass things on. But photography’s not like that. It’s much less complicated knowledge to be passed. From the beginning of my career, I’ve always tried to help the younger generation. In fact I now have a lot of generations who have been trained or influenced by my work.”

© Manoocher Deghati
© Manoocher Deghati

Iranian revolution, Ahwaz, Iran, February 1983. A parade of Islamic revolutionary guards (Pasdaran) marches over a US flag on the ground in Ahwaz, at the front line of the Iran-Iraq war, in order to commemorate the 4th anniversary of the Iranian revolution. This photo was part of the feature story that won the World Press Photo 1st prize in the category news feature stories in 1983.

He continues: “I think the most important part of my teaching and passing on my knowledge was in 2001, when me and my brother Reza went to Afghanistan. Seven years of the Taliban had closed the schools and forbidden photography, radio, television. So we arrived there and – knowing the country and the language – we said ‘OK, this is the moment that we have to pass our knowledge to these people’. So we founded this organisation called AINA, which was an NGO to train journalists in general – video, writing – and within that I co-founded the photojournalism school. During almost three years that I spent there, with no expectation, I trained about 12 Afghan photographers, including the first female Afghan photographers. None of them had touched a camera in their lives. Some of them hadn’t even seen a magazine. Now one of them is an AFP staff photographer and he won a Pulitzer prize. One of the girl students has become a star of photography in the region and runs her own school. My students are teaching other students – it’s expanding. This is the greatest satisfaction of my life. I wouldn’t have been as happy if I’d won a Pulitzer myself, as I was when my student won.”

The key message that he tries to impart to his students is something that has been central to his own work. “What I always tell the new generation is don’t just study photography. Study philosophy, study history. This is how we can take better pictures. If you know more about history and geography, this will certainly reflect in your work. And doors open when you speak the language of the country and if you know their culture, how to behave… knowing the small rules helps a lot. They really appreciate it when you respect their culture and speak even a few words of their language.”

And for all the well-aired difficulties that aspiring photojournalists face in today’s constrained media environment, Manoocher also points out how fortunate they are in other respects. “I was saying to a young photographer, ‘You guys have a lot of advantages that we didn’t have. The equipment you have, and the facility to edit and send your pictures… you can’t imagine how it was. We travelled with hundreds of kilos of equipment. We went up mountains with a satellite dish to be able to transmit. So don’t be too spoilt. You should do better work, because you can concentrate on the photography, rather than other things.’ They are privileged in that way. Photography is the best tool of communication, because it’s a universal language, especially for the new generation. So use this for sharing your message, for showing the condition of your life. This would be my real point of concentration. Photography is a very important tool of communication, and it’s easy to use. So use it wisely. Don’t waste your time taking selfies. Use that smartphone or camera to do something important.”

Evolving with Canon

For almost the whole of his illustrious career, Manoocher has been a Canon shooter. “Before I started my professional career, I had an AE-1 film SLR. But I wanted to go to India and I didn’t have money, so I sold that camera and went for a few months to travel in India without a camera. In the 1980s I came to Paris, where I was working for Sipa Press, and I went to see Canon at their shop on the Champs-Élysées. They’d just started the Canon Club for professionals and they’d got new models – the T90 film SLR and the 300mm f/2.8 telephoto – and they gave me a lot of materials. Since then I’m in love with Canon and I’ve really followed, step-by-step, the evolution of Canon cameras, because I really like technology. And I can tell you… I’ve broken cameras, because police or demonstrators have beaten me and broken my camera, but I’ve never really had any technical problems with them. They’ve never betrayed me.”

© Manoocher Deghati
© Manoocher Deghati

Iran-Iraq war, Ahwaz, Iran, April 1981. A woman carrying her child moans and weeps during the funeral of a war victim on Ahwaz cemetery, Khuzistan, south-western Iran. More than one million people died in the Iran-Iraq war.

The transition to digital was a challenge for many of Manoocher’s contemporaries, but he seems to have embraced it with characteristic enthusiasm and positivity. “I was one of the first to try the original Canon/Kodak digital camera, which they gave us for a test. Some of my colleagues were really scared of digital, but for me, especially working for wire agencies, I found this was incredible to be able to transmit a picture without needing to develop or print it. I had a feeling this was going to be the future. Because I was working mostly for wire services, image quality wasn’t an issue. The analogue image quality they were getting, after pictures had been transmitted, was lower than the original digital cameras. So digital was paradise for me. Of course it was different for magazine photographers, but now that problem they had in the beginning with digital doesn’t exist anymore. Plus, of course, the benefit of not having to carry a darkroom and chemicals and paper wherever you went… that was a serious advantage.”

After 20 years of digital development, Manoocher has just one complaint about how it’s transformed photography. “Watching young people shoot, it’s unbelievable. Every single picture they take, they look at it. The amount of time they spend just shooting and looking, shooting and looking. I look later. I shot my last story for National Geographic with one EOS 5D Mark III body and the 24-70mm f/2.8 lens. One story shot completely just with this and I was very happy. I like prime lenses, but I think they limit you and you lose time changing lenses. Of course the quality might be a little better and a bit sharper, but I don’t mind sacrificing that for making it easier to work. So one body and one zoom lens… I was much more comfortable working like that. I was concentrating on my composition, rather than changing lenses and looking at the back of my camera all the time.”

Biografía: Manoocher Deghati

Manoocher Deghati

Award-winning photojournalist Manoocher Deghati was born in Iran in 1954 and studied cinematography in Rome before returning to his home country to work with Agence France-Presse (AFP) and several Iranian publications, including Iranweek and Aftab. He has worked as a correspondent for Sipa Press, Time & Life, Black Star and Newsweek in Iran, as well as for Sipa in Los Angeles and as the AFP correspondent for North Africa and the Middle East. Manoocher Deghati was director of the AFP photo department for Central America from 1987 to 1991, and for the Middle East from 1991 to 1996. He was named the regional photo manager for The Associated Press Middle East in 2011. He is founder and director of the AINA Photojournalism Institute in Kabul and was creator and head of the photo unit at UN-OCHA/IRIN, the United Nations humanitarian news agency, based in Nairobi, Kenya. Manoocher Deghati's work has appeared in such publications as Geo, Paris Match, Le Figaro and National Geographic and after directing the photo operation for AP in the Middle East for four years, he is now freelancing from his new home base in Italy.


Rafah, Gaza Strip, Palestine, July 1, 1994. PLO chairman Yassir Arafat waves to a crowd of cheering Palestinians as he is carried on their shoulders after he crossed the Rafah border point, entering the newly self-ruled Gaza Strip for the first time in 27 years.