‘Courage is a lack of imagination’

Invisibility is imperative and religion is more a social phenomenon than faith,says Magnum photographer Abbas

Written by Pallavi Pundir | Published:October 5, 2013 5:37 am

Heroes die,” says Iranian photographer Abbas. 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. In India,for 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.

Of an oeuvre spanning over 50 years,the 69-year old photographer,who lives in Paris,is best known for two things: conflict photography and explorations of different religions. “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 have to be invisible,I have to be anonymous. When people know your face,people recognise you. You can’t work then,” he says.

The second side to his work is religions,the first project 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 a 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”.

For all the latest Mumbai News, download Indian Express App

    Live Cricket Scores & Results