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Writing History with Light

Abbas Attar (1944–2018)

Christian Funke (Christian.Funke@uni-bayreuth.de) is a researcher and faculty member for the study of religion at Bayreuth University, Germany.

A tribute to the Iranian photographer Abbas Attar who used his camera to show events and people embedded with multiple meanings. Apart from other historic events, he chronicled the Iranian Revolution in all its complex colours.

The Iranian photographer Abbas Attar, better known by his professional name Abbas, died in Paris on 25 April at the age of 74. Abbas became a living legend among photographers through his exposure of the Iranian Revolution from 1978 to 1980 and his work on religion.

He was born in the Iranian village of Khash, but the family moved to Algeria in the 1950s when he was eight years old. His father was a pioneer of the Baha’i faith, establishing the first permanent community of the religion in Algeria, then a French colony. It was soon to gain independence after a bloody war against its former overlord. “History was unfolding in front of my eyes,” Abbas later remembered, “for a boy who sees history at his doorstep it was natural that he becomes interested.” He said that he decided to become a photographer when he was 11 years old. As a young adult, Abbas initially both photographed and wrote the accompanying journalistic reports, first as a sports editor. But it was photographing the issues of conflict and religion that would remain the recurring focus of his professional life.

Contradictions and Paradoxes

From the 1960s, Abbas earned recognition as a photographer of wars and conflicts, covering Biafra, Bangladesh, Northern Ireland, Vietnam and South Africa. He would often emphasise that he was not so much interested in the military front line, as in the psychological, emotional, social, cultural and economic aspects of war. In Vietnam, Abbas photographed the schools and workshops of the Vietcong as well as the first tourists visiting after the war.

In 1970, he returned to his homeland Iran for the first time since childhood. By then, the Shah (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) had set out to make his country a military, economic and political powerhouse in West Asia. His photographs show the Shah’s agenda of modernisation unfolding and contrast it with the prevailing forces of tradition. On one occasion, he photographed the production line of a Paykan, the first Iranian automobile and a symbol of middle-class consumerism, as well as the wreckage of a car, used as a young shepherd’s resting space in the countryside.

When Abbas revisited Iran in 1977, he sensed that the contradictions and paradoxes of the Shah’s Iran had created more profound frictions. As the first clashes and demonstrations against the Shah occurred in the streets, Abbas too believed that change was necessary. The unfolding revolution thus became a key moment in defining his identity as an Iranian. At the same time, his widely published photographs helped to shape the revolution’s image abroad. Although the protest was largely organised and managed by Islamic clerics, it was supported by secular, nationalist and communist groups as well as thousands of ordinary people. Abbas was among the first to sense and document the hijacking of the protest by Islamist forces. A picture taken during the Ashura demonstration of 1978 shows a woman standing separated and alone behind a row of men with their backs to her. In retrospect, Abbas said “Since there was a very strong Islamic element in this revolution, and I knew that Islam is not really favourable to women, it just clicked in my mind. In a way, it was a premonitory photograph.”

Showing the Dark Side

One of his most iconic photographs of the revolution shows an elderly Iranian woman who is being harassed by a mob in the streets of Tehran believing her to be a supporter of the Shah. Later that day, in January 1979, when Abbas discussed the incident with Iranian friends and colleagues, they urged him not to release the image, as it showed the “dark side of the revolution.” However, Abbas was clear that he was a photographer first and a supporter of the revolution after that and released the photograph to his agency, Gamma. When the revolution became increasingly bloodthirsty, Abbas photographed the dead in Tehran’s morgue and managed to be present during the sham trial of the Shah’s former minister Manouchehr Azmoun. The accused did not recognise Abbas, who had previously photographed him. “I always thought I should have shown some human gentleness to him, maybe I should have shaken hands with him. But you have to be a photographer first, a human second.” Abbas had lost his revolution. Like many other Iranians, Abbas believed it safer to leave Iran then. He returned 17 years later.

The two photographs and their stories also reveal how Abbas drew a line between his own subjectivity and his objects. His photographs are interested in the human condition and at the same time, part of it. The photographer and his humaneness thus become part of the photograph. “When I photograph people, I’m not interested in the person but what they represent,” he said, but like a modern-day mystic, Abbas understood the many-sidedness of things. The person and what they represent are no contradictions and always are at the centre of his photographs.

From 1983 to 1986 Abbas, then with Magnum Photos, worked in Mexico and developed the narrative style that would henceforth characterise his photo essays. While in Mexico, he did not cover the current affairs but explored the “contrasts between an ancient country and the objects and things that proclaim the modernity of those who possess them.” In a way, for Abbas, Mexico was an emotional break in the aftermath of the revolution. Asked about his emotions when taking photographs, he replied that they were like “time bombs” and he suffered nightmares for three years after the revolution.

Fascination with Religions

Abbas then began a photographic journey covering religions and religiosity that would last until the end of his life. Covering the revolution in Iran paved the way for a project about the global phenomenon of militant Islam, again taking a look at the contradictions between tradition and modernity in Islamic societies. In the 2000s, Abbas turned his attention to Christianity, and later Animism, Buddhism and Hinduism. Before his death, he was working on a series on Judaism. For Abbas, God was “an interesting man-made concept.” Despite flatly dismissing religion, always raising his concerns, disbelief and lack of understanding, not only in his travelogues but also in conversation with believers, his photographs always showed the particular religion in all its facets and in context. Abbas photographed evangelical snake-handlers in the United States as well as the way in which the disabled in Lourdes were cared for. In short, he showed the good and the evil, the violent and the peaceful and understood all these aspects as a part of what people do in God’s name.

As a photographer, Abbas never considered himself an objective observer, but always a fair one. He allowed his audience to make its own judgment. While his voice was powerfully present in his photographs, it was also straight, honest, and never manipulative. Abbas wanted to convey his message, not by pretending to show things and events and people as they were, but by showing them as they might be, embedded with multiple meanings.

Abbas, who was undoubtedly one of the most important photographers of our time, remained secretive about his private life. “Why do you even need to know my name?” He asked. “Just look at the pictures.”

Updated On : 14th Jun, 2018

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