‘Courage is a lack of imagination’

Courage is too easy,invisibility is imperative and religion is more a social phenomenon than faith — TALK catches up with Magnum photographer Abbas at the Delhi Photo Festival

Written by Pallavi Pundir | Published:October 5, 2013 5:43 am

Heroes die,” Abbas’s voice reverberates in a conference room at India Habitat Centre on Wednesday evening. Having covered countries such as Vietnam,Cuba,South Africa and the Middle East,it’s his coverage of the Iranian Revolution from 1978 to 1980 that brings out these words. A few minutes ago,addressing a packed room at the Delhi Photo Festival,the Magnum photographer’s casual “We sit on a plane and try to come back” quips to questions about dangers of conflict photography left the audience more in splits and less with heavy thoughts. Now,when not faced with any audience,the 69-year-old’s voice drops,almost sounding like a haunting confession.

Of an oeuvre spanning over 50 years,the Iranian photographer,who lives in Paris,is best known for two things: conflict photography and explorations of different religions. In Delhi for a talk and a workshop with fellow Magnum photographer Raghu Rai,Abbas wards off questions about courage on the field. “Courage is a lack of imagination,” he says,“It’s not important. What survives is the photographs.”

A man of few words,Abbas lets his images speak. Mostly in black and white,his preferred medium,one can see,of that era,Iran in a tizzy with images of rioters burning the Shah’s portraits,the army firing in the crowd or a group of women in black,crying. After this,he had gone on a 17-year voluntary exile,only to return in 1997 for his book Iran Diary 1971-2002,his interpretation of Iran’s history,photographed and written. While covering conflicts and maintaining a firm “emotional curtain”,Abbas confesses having “lost it” too. “The only time I cannot contain my emotions is when I see children dying. In Sarajevo,I once saw the body of a young boy in a morgue. His eyes were open. In a way,he was still dreaming. I instantly thought of my own children. But I still took the photos,” he says.

Paramount in conflict photography is what he calls the “private” and “public”,the former being the moments he lets go and doesn’t take photographs,and the latter,when he does. “This applies to me too,” he says with a laugh. Indeed,a couple of minutes later,when asked to pose for a picture,Abbas rushes to the shadows and conceals his face with his scarf. “I’m always behind the camera and that’s why I hate to be photographed. Ideally I would like to be invisible,to be anonymous. When people know your face,people recognise you. You can’t work then,” he says. Curiously,he applies the same invisibility to his past,“I was born a photographer. That’s a way of saying I don’t want to talk about myself. I’d rather talk about my photography.”

The second side to his work is religions,the first project of which was triggered by the Iranian Revolution. Islam was first chronicled in Allah O Akbar,which explores subjects such as militant Islam and tensions in Muslim societies,with focus on post 9/11. “It’s not much about faith than that of a social phenomena. My interest started with the Iran Revolution,when waves of passion did not just stop at the borders of Iran. I followed it up with Christianity,paganism,Buddhism and now,Hinduism,” he says.

The “Hinduism” series has been an ongoing project since 2011 and Abbas has travelled from Varanasi,Rajasthan and Haridwar to Kolkata,Mumbai and across South India,and neighbouring countries such as Nepal and Bangladesh. Images of devotees,idols,rites and rituals stand stark in black and white. “India is probably the easiest country to be a photographer in. Everybody thinks that they have the right to take photographs. The problem is that India is so colourful and there is such variety that it’s difficult not to look at it as exotic. You have to get beyond exoticism and resist the postcard effect. In this case,black-and-white helps,” says Abbas. The next in the pipeline is “Judaism”.

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