Attar Abbas, better known as Abbas, was an Iranian photographer known for his photojournalism in Biafra, Vietnam and South Africa in the 1970s, and for his extensive essays on religions in later years. He was a member of Sipa Press
from 1971 to 1973, a member of Gamma
from 1974 to 1980, and joined Magnum Photos
Attar, an Iranian transplanted to Paris, dedicated his photographic work to the political and social coverage of the developing southern nations. Since 1970, his major works have been published in world magazines and include wars and revolutions in Biafra, Bangladesh, Ulster, Vietnam, the Middle East, Chile, Cuba, and South Africa with an essay on apartheid. From 1978 to 1980, he photographed the revolution in Iran, and returned in 1997 after a 17-year voluntary exile. His book Iran Diary: 1971– 2002
(2002) is a critical interpretation of its history, photographed and written as a personal diary.
From 1983 to 1986, he travelled throughout Mexico, photographing the country as if he were writing a novel. An exhibition and a book, Return to Mexico: Journeys Beyond the Mask
(1992), which includes his travel diaries, helped him define his aesthetics in photography. From 1987 to 1994, he photographed the resurgence of Islam from the Xinjiang to Morocco. His book and exhibition Allah O Akbar, a journey through militant Islam
(1994) exposes the internal tensions within Muslim societies, torn between a mythical past and a desire for modernization and democracy. The book drew additional attention after the September 11 attacks in 2001.
The choice was to think of oneself either as a photojournalist or an artist. It wasn’t out of humility that I called myself a photojournalist, but arrogance. I thought photojournalism was superior.
-- Attar Abbas
When the year 2000 became a landmark in the universal calendar, Christianity was the symbol of the strength of Western civilization. Faces of Christianity: A Photographic Journey
(2000) and a touring exhibit, explored this religion as a political, a ritual and a spiritual phenomenon. From 2000 to 2002 he worked on Animism. In our world defined by science and technology, the work looked at why irrational rituals make a strong come-back. He abandoned this project on the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
His book, In Whose Name? The Islamic World after 9/11
(2009), is a seven-year quest within 16 countries : opposed by governments who hunt them mercilessly, the jihadists lose many battles, but are they not winning the war to control the mind of the people, with the "creeping islamisation of all Muslim societies?"
From 2008 to 2010 Abbas travelled the world of Buddhism, photographing with the same skeptical eye for his book Les Enfants du lotus, voyage chez les bouddhistes
(2011). In 2013, he concluded a similar long-term project on Hinduism with the publication of Gods I've Seen: Travels Among Hindus
(2016). Most recently, before his death, Abbas was working on documenting Judaism around the world.
Before his death, Abbas was working on documenting Judaism around the world. He died in Paris on 25 April 2018, aged 74.
About his photography Abbas wrote:
"My photography is a reflection, which comes to life in action and leads to meditation. Spontaneity – the suspended moment – intervenes during action, in the viewfinder. A reflection on the subject precedes it. A meditation on finality follows it, and it is here, during this exalting and fragile moment, that the real photographic writing develops, sequencing the images. For this reason a writer's spirit is necessary to this enterprise. Isn't photography "writing with light"? But with the difference that while the writer possesses his word, the photographer is himself possessed by his photo, by the limit of the real which he must transcend so as not to become its prisoner."
Abbas, as he referred to himself professionally, was known for dramatic black-and-white photographs delivered with a point of view, especially in his book Iran Diary: 1971– 2002
(2002), a collection of images and text presented as a sort of journal. When the events that resulted in the overthrow of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1979 began, Abbas supported change, but he soon became disillusioned with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who took over the government. “When the revolution started, it was democratic,”
The Toronto Star quoted him as saying in 2013. “It was my country, my people and my revolution. Then, slowly, it was being hijacked.”
A turning point, he said, was the execution of four generals after a secret trial. He photographed their corpses in a morgue. “Something that we learned,”
he said, “is that the extremists always win. That was my main lesson from the revolution. The extremists were prepared to kill, imprison, torture — everything. So they won.”
Abbas was born in 1944 in a part of Iran near the Pakistan border. When he was a boy his family relocated to Algeria; he said that growing up during that country’s war of independence sparked his interest in documenting political events. He taught himself to use a camera, and among his earliest jobs was working for the International Olympic Committee at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico. He would return to Mexico in the mid-1980s, taking pictures throughout the country over three years and producing the 1992 book Return to Mexico: Journeys Beyond the Mask
In the 1970s he worked for the French agencies Sipa
. Early in that decade he was in Africa, covering the aftermath of the Biafran war in Nigeria and other events. He then found himself back in Iran. “My family is from Iran,”
he told Vice
in 2015, “but it isn’t as if I felt particularly Iranian back then. But I did feel that things had to change — you can’t just have some shah making all the important decisions for an entire country.”
As the situation became more unstable and it became clear to him that the revolutionaries were no better than the regime they were replacing, he faced pressures from friends. “They urged me not to show the revolution’s negative side to the world,”
he said. “The violence was supposed to come from the shah, not the protesters. I told them that it was my revolution as well, but I still needed to honor my duty as a journalist — or a historian, if you will.”
He left the country in 1980 and did not return for 17 years. The revolution, though, had instilled in him an interest in what people throughout the world were doing in the name of God. “It was obvious after two years that the wave of Islamism was not going to stop at the borders of Iran,”
he said in a video interview with The British Journal of Photography
in 2009. “It was going much beyond the borders.”
There are two ways to think about photography: one is writing with light, and the other is drawing with light.
-- Attar Abbas
He began by examining that phenomenon, resulting in the book Allah O Akbar: A Journey Through Militant Islam
(1994), which recounted his travels through 29 Islamic countries. “When you’ve started with God you might as well stay with him,”
he said, explaining why he went on to look at Christianity, paganism, Buddhism and more. It was an examination not of personal faith, he said, but of how faith can be deployed and twisted in other spheres. “What I’m interested in is the political, social, economic, even psychological aspects of religion,”
he said, adding, “More and more, nations are defining their identities referring to religion.”
If his work often put him in the middle of trouble spots, Abbas was not necessarily interested in images of blood and weaponry. “Most photographers, when they say they’re war photographers, they’re not really war photographers; they’re battle photographers,”
he said in the video interview. “War does not limit itself to boom-boom, to the battle itself. Wars are very, very complex phenomenons, because they have a source, and it takes a while to come up, then it happens, and there are consequences. I’m more interested in the why and the afterwards of the wars.”
He played down the part of his work that involved putting himself in harm’s way. “They say ‘courage’ — O.K., you have to be courageous,”
he said. “But for me courage is a lack of imagination. You cannot imagine that it’s going to happen to you, therefore you go to the battle.”
Source: New York Times