It is rare to meet someone whose every gesture embodies his ideals. Award-winning Iranian-French photojournalist Reza Deghati is such a man. One who, by his own description, “loves to contact people and learn their stories,” he remembered the names of the Blue Met volunteers, and thanked them with the grace usually reserved for luminaries. Packed to overflowing, the room seemed too small to contain him.
The session began with a film on his life. At the age of 16, appalled by social injustices under the Shah of Iran, Reza began to secretly take photos and paste them onto public walls. The Shah’s secret police caught up with him. At 22, he was imprisoned and tortured for five months. Instead of retreating to obscurity, he began taking sensitive photographs at dangerously close quarters – the American hostage crisis, atrocities committed against the Kurds – and became world-famous for his work. A French citizen today, Reza remains a frontline photojournalist. He shot the impact of the Rwandan and Cambodian genocides, and several decades of war and peace in Afghanistan. He is also a tireless humanitarian, having among other things founded AINA, an organization that helps local media educate populations around the world.
I saw several people wipe away tears during the extraordinary footage. But nothing was quite so extraordinary as the man himself. He uttered unpleasant truths simply and gently. “No, the West is not well-informed,” he responded to a question from the audience, “The West is like the Titanic, with many decks, with the opera, with restaurants, with many things going on, and the rest of the world is like the ocean. There are poor people everywhere. Journalists live on the Titanic, but they also dive into the ocean and try to tell the people on the Titanic about it. The problem is the captain. The captain does not want the passengers to know about things.”
Asked to comment on the current war in Afghanistan, he said: “The Afghan war is lost…” He explained that decades of catastrophic foreign interference had undermined Afghan confidence in the current Western presence. “I could make one phone call and find out where Bin Laden is and what he had for breakfast…the Western forces did not even consult the leaders who had been fighting the Taliban for so long.”
Summing up the Western mission, he said: “It is a lie.”
After hearing such disheartening pronouncements, I felt oddly heartened. Reza has happy, kind eyes. To be in the presence of someone who has been tortured for his truth-telling and emerged only stronger, to tell it again and again, is deeply moving.