Manoocher Deghati is an award winning photojournalist who has witnessed much of the world’s strife over his three decades of work. Joseph Mayton sat down with the Iranian exile during his recent visit to Cairo
In 1978, Iranians began their revolution to overthrow the Shah in what would establish an Islamic state that continues to provoke controversy 30 years later. At one of the first popular demonstrations against the ageing dictator, a young photographer named Manoocher Deghati was snapping photos of the days’ events. When the time came to head home, a truckload of soldiers drove past, spouting their weapons in the young man’s direction. Upon inspecting the wall behind him, both to the left and the right showed signs of the buildings wounds cause by the bullets and the beginning of three decades of “near misses” for a man who would photograph nearly every major global event while finding himself an Iranian in exile.
Almost 25 years since Deghati was forced into exile, not being allowed to carry the symbol of his profession, a camera, he remains on the precipice of Iranian society, seeking to enlighten the world about a country he still calls home, but which will not accept him back in their streets.
The Iranian believes that his homeland today is lost and confused, although he remains optimistic that the struggle for freedom and success continues in its people.
“Iran is a country that knows invasion. You had the Arab invasion, the Mongol invasion. They have learned through history to manage. That is why now Iranians have a double life. The life that is imposed on them: veiled women, censorship. But when you go inside Iranian society you’ll find there is an incredible life underground, which is wild sometimes,” he tells, while puffing his cigarette on a Cairo balcony.
It is his connection with Iran that has pushed him to photograph injustice globally. Professionally, his career boomed in late 1970s through the early 1980s upon returning from his studies in Rome, Deghati believed that photography was the most ideal means of showing the turbulent years in his native country. Unlike many of his contemporaries who chose to pick up a gun, Deghati believed in the power of a photograph.
“It was the best tool to use in that situation. Being a photographer was easier because the work is individual; you can go around with a small camera and hide it,” he says of his decision to choose photography. It became the right choice, as over the next three decades Deghati has risen to the top of one of the most competitive mediums, winning numerous awards.
Early on in his career, Deghati established his name as an enterprising photographer by covering the infancy of the new Iranian state.
On November 4, 1979, a group of Islamist activists ransacked the American Embassy in Tehran and held 52 diplomats hostage. Deghati was called in by Newsweek to cover the crisis, which would last 444 days. It was his first major story. In many ways, however, the hostage situation would come to surround his life as he went into exile some years later after clashing with the Iranian authorities, which on more than one occasion threatened his life if he took photographs of the country.
Not one to sit back, Deghati was defiant. He tells of a meeting with the Iranian Interior Minister in the early 1980s who was not too pleased with the work he was transmitting across the globe. The minister sat behind his desk and peered out at the young man, a black case sitting idly to one side. Lifting the lid, the minister revealed a machine gun. He told Deghati that if he continued taking photos, the next time the minister “would not be the one doing the talking.”
In the middle of the hostage crisis the American military attempted a rescue mission that failed in dramatic fashion. A helicopter crashed and left eight American servicemen dead. Deghati was the first photographer on the site in Tabas, some ten hours drive east of Tehran. He says that when word first reached him, it was believed that a UFO had crashed in south central Iran and there were bodies of Aliens.
“I drove all night, thinking that I was going to be the first to take photographs of aliens,” Deghati laughs. Instead, he was able to photograph a failed American attempt to establish a base in Iran to rescue the hostages. Deghati’s photo evidence quickly reached the globe and shed light on the Carter administration’s failed endeavor into Iran.
Now, in 2009, Iran once again finds itself in the international spotlight and Deghati is in a precarious position as an Iranian in the Middle East. Almost 25 years away from his native homeland has done little to quiet the world-renowned and award winning photographer who photographed the Sandinistas in Central America, numerous wars including in the former Yugoslavia, Iran-Iraq, both American-led Gulf Wars and both Afghanistan wars.
His outspoken criticism of the Iranian regime has been one of the leading reasons he has not returned to the country.
“Iran has been through many changes, especially since the revolution. But, unfortunately, the changes were negative in many aspects, especially political,” he argues.
Iranian officials, he admits, have contacted him over the years to tell him that they would guarantee his safety if he were to return to his native land.
“But, then I would ask them who would guarantee theirs. And they couldn’t give me an answer, so I did not risk it.”
One friend, he says, was deceived by the invitation and flew into Tehran. Deghati says that he was immediately arrested and taken away and has not been heard from since.
“It’s like you’ve lost your mother. That’s the feeling. Because not being able to return to the land you belong is not an easy feeling. But, you learn to deal with it,” he tells.
“One of the things I do every once in a while, when I could, is to take assignments in countries around Iran to be close. Like last month I was in Abu Dhabi and I was putting my hand in the Persian Gulf water and just feeling this connection,” he says laughing.
Despite his professional success in Iran and throughout the planet, he says his biggest regret is the Iranian revolution and his generation who failed.
“During the Iranian revolution, my generation and the people who were of the same kind of thinking made a lot of mistakes,” he admits somberly, memories of his homeland obviously flooding back into his consciousness. “This is why Iran fell into the hands of the fundamentalists. We were young intellectuals and we didn’t have much contact with the people. My generation started the movement, but it didn’t work [because] they started fighting with each other and they fell into the trap of the mullahs.”
Being in exile can be hard on many who must endure distance from the familiar, but it is especially so for an Iranian who has chosen to spend much of his career in the Middle East covering the innumerable conflicts. He was the only Iranian photographer in Egypt in the early 1990s while working as Agence France-Presse.
“People have always been very nice to me wherever I have been, from the United States to Egypt. Most people know not to mix the Iranian people with the government.”
In 1996, while covering an uprising in the West Bank, an Israeli sniper shot him in the leg. It nearly cost him his life. He was forced to spend one year and a half in a French military hospital recuperating. Spending time in a wheelchair gave him a renewed sense of purpose, leading him back to Afghanistan, which has become his “home away from home.”
Most people who know Deghati say he is by nature a giving man. Jessica Murray, who organizes photography workshops across the globe, worked closely with Deghati in early April at a photojournalism workshop in Cairo, Egypt. She said that very few photographers of his stature measure up.
“I think he is somebody who, and I think it comes through, in the way that he teaches and the relationship that he forms with the people in the workshop. He is what he is,” she begins. “He uses this medium to not only tell something, but also to create a dialogue and also to give back to people.”
Deghati himself argues, “if you don’t [give back] then you aren’t human.” Following his own advice, he and his brother Reza – also a renowned photographer – founded the Aina NGO in Afghanistan. The aim was to establish a means for young Afghanis to enter the technological age of the new millennium.
The center has brought scores of Afghanis, men and women, together in an atmosphere that has given them an opportunity to strive in a media dominated world. Through the institute, Afghanistan now boasts homegrown photographers, journalists, media institutions and a computer savvy generation ready to take on the world, Deghati believes.
Afghanistan was a natural choice for the Iranian exile. “Being Iranian, having known Afghanistan and worked there; we speak the same language, we share the same historical culture and I had always wanted to give and share my experience of what I have learned.”
Deghati never seems to shy away from controversial or sensitive parts of the globe. He had taken photographs in Afghanistan before the Taliban rose to power and returned to the country in 2001 following the American invasion. The culmination of his admiration for the country was the establishment of Aina, which means mirror in Farsi, in 2002.
“This was the moment when we felt that we could do something for this country. That was the initial idea,” he continues.
Not everyone in the country has warmed to the concept. The resurgent Taliban and other conservative groups have opposed the idea, especially as it gives women a place in the mainstream media. An unexploded bomb was discovered just outside the gates of the compound, he tells, but later, a suicide attack on the Aina headquarters left one person dead and another injured in what he says proves that the media training center is working and helping to push the country forward.
“I was in Kabul six months ago and I had the best moment of my life seeing these people working,” he says. His photographers from Aina have gone on to lead the media industry in the country, including one woman who has become the UN’s photographer in the country.
The life of an exile is difficult, even more for an Iranian in today’s world. But, through his photography and his example of a global life, Deghati has proven that even in exile, life can continue.
The future for Deghati, for now, is in Nairobi where he runs a school to help impoverished children from the slums. In a sense, his life as an exile, despite the absence of a true home has given space for others to find a home with him, wherever he has found himself.