By Niloufar Rostami
April 23, 2020
Reza Deghati, a prominent Iranian photographer, has been emailing friends and colleagues a series of photographs since the coronavirus outbreak in Iran in early March as a way to tell them that the world has not ended and that everything will be fine. The photographs, part of a new collection called Parentheses, are drawn from his work over 40 years during which Deghati has captured images from nature as well as people going about their daily lives.
“Dear friends, now that we have to withdraw from the world, let’s make a virtual connection between words and pictures,” Deghati’s wife, Rachel, writes at the beginning of their emails in the collection. “One day we will open the windows to the beauties of the world.”
One of the photos in Parentheses, which has been emailed to people around the world, including in Iran and Afghanistan, is a photo of a man in a house in Afghanistan’s Nuristan region with the caption: “This image is a quote from the great poet Khalil Gibran, ‘Loneliness is a silent storm that breaks all our dead branches.’”
Another photo, titled “Trust,” shows a girl with a smile on her face. “At the end of the day, when we finish the daily rhythm of our lives, when we are looking for meaning in our actions, there is only one motive left: not to betray the trust in the eye of a child, for the future of our world,” Reza and Rachel say in the description of this photo.
Deghati was born in Tabriz. He was photographing popular and student protests against the Shah, in the 1970s, when a French news agency commissioned him to cover the events that led to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But his photos were not to the liking of the new Islamic Republic and Deghati was forced to leave Iran. He has since been based in France.
He started working for Newsweek, as a photographer in the Middle East section, later also working with National Geographic and other journals. In 2005, Deghati won the France’s National Medal of Merit. This award was given to him for his humanitarian and philanthropic work. He also received the 2009 Lucie Award, the “Oscar for photography.”
Deghati has photographed the conflicts in countries like Afghanistan, Syria, and Serbia, and his photographs have become iconic. He has also organized workshops for young people in Afghanistan, India, Iraq and elsewhere. And today the Parentheses project gives IranWire a fresh reason to speak with Reza Deghati.
How did you come up with the idea of sending your photos to people during the coronavirus lockdown? Where did this idea start?
Honestly, when the coronavirus outbreak started in Italy, that is, from the beginning of March, when I was talking to my friends in Italy, I saw that they were very anxious. Everyone was worried and upset. There, the people were suddenly, within a day, faced with everything closing down. The flow of normal life was cut off. Well, I thought, what I can do for my friends during these days was to send them a photo with a message every day. After a few days, I received some very positive replies. While I had previously sent photos to these friends and they had not paid much attention, during the outbreak they replied and said the photos lifted their morale and made them feel better. And then when the lockdown began in France, I did the same for my French friends and colleagues, and later for my colleagues and friends in English-speaking countries and Middle Eastern countries.
For each nation, depending on their sensitivities and taste, I choose different photographs from my 40-year collection. The texts are written by my wife, Rachel, who is a writer, and she also often quotes from poems by Rumi or other poets.
The best thing I could do was to send my photos to every corner of the Earth to make people feel better. I want them to look forward to the photos easy day. Now it takes Rachel and I two or three hours, each day, to select the photos and write text, and to send these messages to people in different countries around the world.
How many people receive your emails each day?
I have about 40,000 to 50,000 people in my email list, who live in around 100 countries. We also write and send the emails and photo descriptions in three or four languages.
How long are you going to keep doing this?
The end of the lockdown in France has been set for 11 May. I think I will continue to do this until then.
Why did you choose the title Parentheses for this initiative?
Lockdown is a kind of parenthesis, a parenthesis between the life we have always had and the life ahead. It is true that many things will change after the pandemic, but people will still return to normal life in some way, and the current situation is a special one. This period may be a chance for humanity. … Those who have lost loved ones or are suffering from the disease are upset. But for the rest of us, this is a parenthesis and a chance to get out of our daily lives and habits. This period may be a kind of meditation.
What do you do in these days of lockdown, staying home, while your projects and travels are canceled?
From the beginning of March to the next two or three months, four big projects were canceled. I had three, four trips, exhibitions and conferences, all of which were canceled. We have closed our office and our employees are working from home. But I believe that for every tragedy and calamity, one can find a reason.
I have lived in Paris for 40 years and have lived with Rachel for 30 years. My son is 26 years old and my daughter is 22 years old. But in these 30 years, I have never been able to spend that much time with them. This is the first time that our family of four has lived together for a long stretch, without being interrupted by my travels or the children’s school schedules. In the last 40 years, I have been in Paris for about three months a year, during which I was mostly at my office or at conferences and exhibitions. So this lockdown is a blessing for me. Aside from family, I’ve piled up many books and films over the years that I’ve wanted to read and watch, and now I’m doing it, and each movie or book gives you a new idea. Other than that, I do normal things like chess, and I do these things with my kids.
Tell us about the projects you want to work on after the lockdown.
I do not want to think about new projects because of the current conditions, except for projects that have been 100 percent finalized. Everything I try to think about right now is part of the pre-coronavirus world. I look forward to seeing the coronavirus story reach a point where it allows me to see how circumstances are evolving, so that I can get a better sense of the world after the outbreak, and design a project that is consistent with the new world. But if I think about projects now, my frame of reference is the past, before the outbreak, which has no value for the future.
I have taken nearly 1.6 million photos in 40 years, and I have not had a chance to work on many of them. Setting up an archive will be one of my tasks now and for the coming months.
What suggestions do you have for people at this time?
Socrates, Plato, and other greats have said you should know yourself in order to know the world. If we accept this statement, now is the best time to get to know ourselves.
Because of the conditions in which we live, we only see ourselves every day and have to deal with our own world, so we can get closer to ourselves. Previously, the habits of our society did not allow us to think. We were like a bead which had to constantly go around and around, and we could not be still for a moment to ask ourselves who I was and what I wanted to do. Now that this parenthesis has been created in our lives, it’s a strange chance for non-repetition, which I hope won’t happen again, but this period is the best time to get to know ourselves.
Tomorrow will not be a simple world, at least not economically like before. A more difficult and harder world awaits us after the lockdowns. The remaining few days of this period should be used; even having fun with family members, such as cooking together, or whatever it may be.
I know that in some parts of the world, such as Iran and Afghanistan, where economic problems are prevalent, this moment is not a parenthesis for people, and it is disturbing. I remember a story by [Persian poet] Saadi. Once there was a famine in Damascus. Saadi he had a rich friend there, and when he went to see him, Saadi saw that his friend’s face was very yellow and thin. He asked why his friend looked unwell … he replied that the sadness of others had made him that way.