How did you get started in photography? My father was a photography student, and I used his camera to take photos. Then, when I was nineteen, I studied photography for two years at the University of Tehran. But what really attracted me to photography and made me continue it was the death of my best friend. She was interested in one of my photos and told me at our last meeting, “I believe you will be a great photographer one day.” My friend’s last words were a light in the darkness, and I have pursued the path of becoming a great photographer to make her dream come true.
How has the experience of growing up during the Iran-Iraq war affected your work? I was born during this war, and all of my childhood was spent in the name of war. Every day, I would hear news that a large number of corpses had been brought back. I would go with my family to welcome these bodies of unknown martyrs and see mothers who were searching for the bodies of their sons.
Since then, I’ve always asked myself: How many people have been killed during the wars in the world? How many soldiers’ bodies have never been found, with their mothers still waiting? How many children have lost their lives because of hidden mines? Why are the wounds of the war so alive and deep, and the pains never forgotten? And, at last, what is the truth? These questions were so influential that I began working on a project regarding the victims of the war.
What led you to begin your series The War is Still Alive? I felt that people around the world do not know about the Iran-Iraq war, its victims and the impact of the war on the next generation, as well as the damages and pains that people have faced. I wanted to produce a new look at war, a look that the people of the Middle East may understand better because their lives have always been full of war, threat and sanctions. With this project, I want to say that a war is never over, that it lives forever. I want my images to create questions in people’s minds and prevent new wars. The War is Still Alive is my long-term project that has different parts: Mothers of Patience, Martyr Is Alive, This City Has No Hero, Trip to Holy Land and Unknown Martyrs.
You recently wrote, “I hope my work to be the voice of my people.” How so? My remarks are influenced by two incidents. First, when I worked with different media outlets in Iran, I was interested in taking images of politicians. But, ten years ago, I documented a political incident in my country, and the politicians were not interested in listening to the people’s voice. Second, my remarks are due to the fact that the foreign media does not reflect many events and incidents in Iran correctly given their policies and heavy censorship, and people around the world do not have any precise information about the situation in Iran, the people’s lives, the sanctions or even the victims of the Iran-Iraq war.
These two incidents changed my view of photography, and I decided to turn my camera towards people. I understand that people are everything to me because I am one of them. I hope to be the voice of unknown people who have been victimized by violence and war for policy and media. These past few years, I’ve learned how the media’s distortion of realities can easily lead to more threats, sanctions, wars and damage to the people of a country.
What inspires your decision to use color, versus black-and-white photography? Any photographer draws from her or his own world. My world has always been black and white, with many contrasts. My choosing color or black-and-white depends on the story, suffering and hope of the subjects inside my stories.
What has surprised you about the reaction to your work? For many years, I have encountered challenges as a female photographer, and while this has disappointed me, I have also received heartwarming messages from people around the world who were influenced by my projects, especially Mothers of Patience, which is about the mothers of lost Iranian martyrs of the Iraqi-imposed war against Iran in the 1980s, who have waited more than 30 years to find the bodies of their sons. The fact that these projects have been able to find their way into the hearts of people and make them sympathize has been the best reaction I’ve seen.
What do you think of documentary photography at the moment and where do you see it headed? Right now, I think that documentary photography is changing a lot. Documentary photography can easily change our views of a person, nation or religion and help people move onto the path of peace. But when you go to an exhibition today and view the works of the photographers, you feel that many of the photos have been taken without any concern and just for the sake of being seen—projects that cannot influence your feelings and thoughts. For me, Magnum Photos’ veteran photographers, like Abbas Attar, Stanley Greene, James Nachtwey, Gilles Peress and Alfred Yaghobzadeh, were the role models for photography.
What has been the most memorable moment that you’ve captured? When Mothers of Patience was given an award by the World Press Photo in 2015, I contacted one of the mothers and told her, “Dear mother! Your son is no more unknown. Now the people are aware of you and your son, who has been lost for years.” The mother simultaneously laughed, cried and thanked me. At that moment, I understood that photography is not merely about me; it is about people, and the mission of my camera is to be the voice of the people and help them.