Photographer Reza empowers refugee children to become witnesses of their own history

Reza Deghati, who goes just by Reza, begins class by saying, “I have good news and bad news for you. The bad news is that I am not going to teach you photography.”

The children of Kawergosk Refugee Camp in Iraqi Kurdistan become concerned upon hearing this. They have been promised that they will be taught the art of picture taking.

A long moment of silence passes before Reza continues to speak.

“You have a problem in your life,” he says to them. “You are a refugee and you want to tell to the world, to the people around you, what do you see, what is happening, and how do you live. And you want the people to understand that this is not just what you are living through, but how you can tell them? You don’t speak all the languages, you don’t have access to the whole world to tell them.”

The children listen.

“I am going to teach you and give you a tool that will allow you to tell your stories and everything you want to tell to the world. And this is a tool that has no need of any languages.”

They become enthusiastic.

“The tool that speaks all the languages and it is a universal language is a camera. I am going to teach you how to use this camera and tell your stories, the stories that you want to show to the world.”

Reza’s career began with studies in architecture and has led him to become a renowned Iranian-French photojournalist who, for the last three decades has worked in over 100 countries covering conflicts and catastrophes for clients such as National Geographic, Time Magazine, and Newsweek. He identifies himself as a philanthropist, idealist, and humanist. To date, he has published 30 books, countless exhibitions and has created numerous documentaries for the National Geographic channel.

By 1981, just a couple years after he started taking pictures professionally, he was forced to flee Iran. The Islamic Republic had taken over and did not like the photographs he was making during that time. “They wanted to somehow get rid of me, to jail me or even to kill me,” he told ivoh during a phone interview. It was at that time that he moved to Paris, then to New York, and then back to Paris. He returned to war zones as a photojournalist soon after.

In 1983, while on assignment for Time Magazine in Afghanistan (which was still under Russian occupation), Reza realized that he could do more than just be a photographer; he could train victims of war to tell their own stories.

“I started training Afghan Refugees as a photographer,” Reza told ivoh. “I gave them cameras and film because I thought that they will have more possibility of doing inside stories than the professionals.”

Reza with the students in the Kawergosk Camp.
Reza (center) with the students in the Kawergosk Camp.

Reza’s motivation came from his observations of the different types of destruction that occur in war zones. “The one is the physical destruction. While you have the houses, roads, infrastructure destroyed or people, bodies, mutilated or . But these are just physical and material destructions. Then I realize that the main destruction is the invisible wounds,” Reza said.

He witnessed how the United Nations and various NGOs come into war-torn regions and help with construction. “They only help to rebuild camps and houses and roads and giving people who have lost part of their body the prosthesis,” Reza said. “But if you don’t help people to get out of trauma, the cycle of violence will continue and sometimes even the fact that you are giving him a new life, new infrastructures, they may continue doing their revenge.”

Photo by Maya Rostam.

At this time, Reza committed himself to training youth and women from conflict-ridden societies in the language of images. In 2001, he founded Aina in Afghanistan, a new generation NGO which trains populations in information and communications through the development of educational tools and adapted media.

Aina has trained over 1,000 Afghans, mostly women, in photography and other media practices. One of Aina’s earlier students, Massoud Hossaini, went on to be the first Afghan to win a Pulitzer Prize. They trained women in documentary filmmaking which resulted in an Emmy Award nomination in 2006. It also led to the creation of the first radio station for women, “Afghan Women’s Voices,” 10 publications and over 30 educational films shown around the country via mobile cinemas.

By partnering with various organizations over the years, Reza has brought this training to refugees in the developing world and to disadvantaged youth from Europe.

His recent project, Exile Voices, was launched in 2013 and trains Syrian Refugee Children in Iraqi Kurdistan. The goal is to re-empower the children to become witnesses of their own history.

He began in 2013 at the Kawergosk Camp near Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan where 13,000 Syrian refugees were living. The children there had little or no opportunity to be educated. In 2015, he began working with Syrian refugees in the Kabarto Camp near Dohuk as well as with the displaced Yezidi population who have been persecuted by the Islamic State.

Photo by Zeraf Rasoul.

Reza’s first step when entering a new community is to find a local person who is a photographer, journalist or filmmaker. He trains that individual and gives them a job as his local assistant. He then reaches out to different organizations who are working with the camps and compiles a list of children. “The criteria is curiosity or somehow having an artistic feeling or someone you feel that wants to change the world,” Reza said.

He then gathers the group and gives them his first words, “I have good news and I have bad news for you…”

For the first two days, there is no camera. There are only Reza’s books. Together they learn how to look at pictures. “So they start little by little, looking at my photographs, reprogramming their brain about the photography, about the images, about the composition and color,” Reza explains. “Then every night, they take the books at home and they are coming home in their tent and have to share with their families.”

The students watch Reza’s film and have a conversation about what they are looking at. Brothers, sisters and parents are all welcome to come and be a part of this learning process. Reza tells the families, “If we achieve this, then their works will be exhibited and shown on the internet and published in the newspapers and magazines. So your child the ambassadors of your pain, of your sufferings, and talk to the world.”

This process of learning is incredibly important for Reza. He believes that giving a camera to someone without training them in photography is like going to a village where community members don’t know how to read and write and giving them a pen.

He gives the children assignments to photograph their meals, elders or other children in the refugee camp. One night he says they can photograph whatever they want as long as the sun has set.

Over the following months, his local assistant makes sure that the photographs are sent to Reza. He provides feedback, meets the group via Skype and returns to the camp every few months.

The trainings are held by Reza’s Visual Academy and supported by foundations, personal funds, personal contributions, and Webistan Photo Agency (Reza’s own agency started in 1992).

Exile Voices has received international attention, bringing the world stories about refugee camps told through the children’s eyes.

Reza shares the story of 12-year old Maya Rostam who stayed with the group for two days learning photography. At the end of the second day, Reza approached her and asked about her experience.She tells me about the sounds of war, the long, grueling road of exodus, the scalding sun that beats down upon the survivors and the fatigue of the flight,” Reza said. When he asked why she attended the classes, she replied, “I want to learn photography because I believe that with it, everyone can see what I feel and how we live.”

That night, Maya went home with a camera and a mission to photograph at night. Reza tells her that if she returns in the morning, and if her images are good, she can officially join the class. The next morning, Maya is not there. It isn’t until the course begins that she arrives, incredibly embarrassed. “ … I called her and yelled why are you late? And she told me, master, ‘I photographed the reason which I am late. … My shoes were frozen so that is why I had to wait and that is why I am late.’ It brought tears in my eyes when I realized that is exactly what I wanted to teach them to tell their stories to the world.”

Maya’s shoes.
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