Photojournalist Alfred Yaghobzadeh

”I have to reflect what is happening in front of me, like a mirror”

Interview: Nezih Tavlas / October 27, 2021

(Credit: Charles Platiau)

Photojournalism News: What drew you to photojournalism?  

 Alfred Yaghobzadeh: In 1978 I was a student at the school of Arts in Tehran, in interior decoration, I also had a music shop. I was 18 years old, and dividing my time between my university, my music shop and enjoying life having fun with friends.

When the Iranian Revolution started, I find myself in anti Shah (the king) demonstration in the Shah Reza Street in Tehran, in the middle of the upheaval and the crowds, I saw some foreign photographers and journalists.

As I watched them, I thought that I can be more useful and still be a part of an important chapter of the History of my city.

My mother offered me my first camera, a small Cannon camera. I started my first pictures during the revolution. Very rapidly I joined the team of photographers in AP, the American wire service. Violent events in Tehran started to escalate with the storming of the USA Embassy and the beginning of the hostage crisis in Nov 4, 1979 - Jan 20, 1981.

When the Mullah’s established their authority, the new Islamic Regime brutally imposed their own agenda, the young leftist groups, the socialist groups, were put in prison or executed. This Cultural Revolution was one of the most critical and dangerous events in the History of the Iranian post revolution.

On September 22- 1980, the war started on the Iraq-Iran boarder, Iraqi armed forces invaded western Iran along the countries joint borders. 

I decided to go to the front-line. I Went by all possible means, I jumped on trucks, took all kinds of buses to reach the front lines. It was the first time in my life I encounter real war, not on a screen, but before my very own eyes.

The army commanders were very tense, they did not want any cameras, specially no foreign press. I had to find a way to work and get closer pictures. I went back to Tehran, and proposed a local newspaper to make me a press card in exchange of free pictures I would give them. I went with a group of “ paramilitary volunteers in Iran–Iraq War, known as "Irregular Warfare”. All young boys, I ate with them, and spent my days and night with them, covering as many offensives as I could, for a period of 3 months.

Going back to Tehran to process my films, and pass through the military censorship and send then my pictures abroad, to the French based Press agency Gamma and Associated Press.

On the front line, Islamic authorities were putting more pressure on the press, arresting journalists, accusing them of being spies. Everyone was a suspect for them. On the ground, the death toll was atrocious. These young kids were all dying. They were promised to go to paradise, if they died for the Islamic Republic.

I did not want to be part of this Islamic ideology, I was witnessing a carnage of innocent boys.

Back in Tehran, the revolutionary guards raided AP office and arrested us as spies, confiscated all the office equipment, we could not work for a few days.

 These few very intense years of working non-stop on the field served me for the rest of my photojournalism journey. As a very young photographer Iran’s Revolution, Iraq- Iran war, and all this period of turmoil, taught me how to work and think quickly, how to frame correctly and fast. You learn how to be alert, find subjects and look rapidly for permissions and accreditation from the newly born Islamic Republic authorities, after they toppled the King of Iran.

On the war zone , I learned patience, and coping with the day-to-day life in the trenches, eating only a piece of bread, staying several days without washing, and adapting to very unusual circumstances.

Personally these were the best “schools”. It is important to feel, live the situation, and give as much time that you can to the story you are covering.

With the escalation of pressure and censorship, as a photographer I had less and less possibility to take pictures. I decided to leave the country. I packed, and left to Paris.

 Photojournalism News: What equipment do you use? Do you have a favourite lens/camera?

 Alfred Yaghobzadeh: I use NIKON D610 for official photography, like presidential visits, fashion show, were I have to use long telephoto.

I use FUJI FILM TX2, it is a light and fast camera with a lot of options. For street pictures and daly life. It is not the perfect camera for but it is an easy to carry camera.

I used to have favourite cameras and lens, during the film time, but with the digital cameras, times have changed. I mostly now use a lens 35mm.fix lens and a fast lens for the low light 35mm f 1.4 and 16-55mm f2.8.

 Photojournalism News: What social media platforms do you use?

 Alfred Yaghobzadeh: I use Facebook, and Instagram. Helps me keep in touch with friends and colleagues.

 Photojournalism News: How do you prepare yourself before any assignment? What would you put in your camera bag for a typical task?

 Alfred Yaghobzadeh: It depends on the story. If it is a feature story, a long-term project. I read a lot and research before. So that I can build the story. Then I call journalists, local press, local people on the field, to establish contacts, and double check some basic information. I then study the possibilities of aerial pictures, check the weather conditions, and plan and research beforehand as much as I can. This saves time on the field, and we try to avoid bad surprises. But a photojournalist always has to adapt and go ahead with his story, no matter what he finds on the field.

If it is news, as a professional, you know what to do. You just grab your passport, your camera bag and go. There is no need to prepare, as news is fast moving. You have to be very flexible and adapt every day to the news.

If I do news, no need to prepare, you have to adapt and news move fast, and you have to be very flexible, and adapt.

In my camera bag, I have: A hard disk, a USB cable, a little torch, some plastic bags, 3 Tylenol, cables and batteries, a rain coat, and some plastic bags.

 Photojournalism News: How would you best describe your style of work? What are you trying to say with your photography?

 Alfred Yaghobzadeh: My years at the “Beaux Arts” in Tehran has marked my vision. I always respect the line and composition, for any kind of picture. I am always careful with the light. Sometimes you have to look for it and sometimes you are lucky.

But I always try to respect a unique vision, like a “tableau”, a painting. You must use your imagination for a good composition, it should not disturb your eye. Your picture must have a harmony, a movement, and you must to include all of these elements in your picture. You cannot miss it. Because you cannot later, crop or do “retouch” to your picture. You either, have it, or you don’t have it

It depends of course what you are doing. As a basic rule you have to have all the information to give the message. Get the message across.

As I started my photography with the Iranian revolution in Tehran, the idea was to reflect the reality, by showing it on images. When you say something, it is one thing but an image, has a different “statement” it is concrete, it is a fact.

With the Iraq -Iran war I was on the front line. I was trying to say what I was seeing. Human suffering, human despair. I was trained in this field. This was my first contact with photojournalism. I continued to be a witness. To inform.

If my photos can help the cause, as a document, it is good. But I cannot change the world or change the course of the conflicts.
I stay as neutral as I can, as I try to reflect with my pictures what I see, I don’t take part. I never take part. My job is not to judge, the public makes their own judgement. I always communicate with both parties on the field and make friends with both parties.

 Photojournalism News: How many photos do you take for one story?

 Alfred Yaghobzadeh: Depending on the story and the subject. But I have realised with experience that it is better to shoot more pictures than less.

I try to shoot the maximum so as not to regret it later on.

I realised that when after a story, some years later, I tried to put the story together, I had some aspects and angles of the story missing. I regret not having shot more pictures.

So now on a story I shoot as much as I can around the story. I shoot many different angles. The subject has to be shot by many different angles. So that when you edit, you can find the perfect image.

On a story I work a lot, from when the sun rises to when the sun goes down.


(All images © Courtesy of Alfred Yaghobzadeh )

Photojournalism News: What is the last trip you made?

 Alfred Yaghobzadeh: The last trip I did was in Turkey, in the Ancient Town of Hasankeyf.

It is Southeast of Turkey, along the Tiger River next to the border with Iraq. Hasankeyf is more than 12000 years old, it is now completely flooded, due to the Ilisu Dam. Two hundred villages are under the water. Residents have been resettled. I have followed the evolution of the rising water of the Dam, for 20 years. I started covering Hassan Keif at the very beginning, so as to take pictures of the ancient town and antiquities and other remains that would be swallowed forever under the waters. Then I went regularly every 5-6 years, till I witnessed the water completely covering Hasankeyf. No one in the media was interested in publishing this story. It is a shame, but it is important to record History and being part of our Humanity. I have proposed it to several magazines, but no response. Ten years ago, it would have been published. Today the interest is reduced to local stories, and journalists are not sent any more for quality work. If they need a picture, they have Reuter, AP and they don’t put the effort to find a quality image, shame on them.

 Photojournalism News: What projects will you be working on next?

 Alfred Yaghobzadeh: For the moment, honestly, I don’t know, as the media are all focused on domestic stories with Covid 19 and the vaccines. Especially that boarders with many countries are still closed. I am studying on a follow up project, on the Yazidis, after the atrocities of ISIS in 2014. I had covered extensively, Yazidi women and families between 2014-2017.

The problem these few years, is not so much the projects and the good ideas. We are facing a kind of frozen attitude from the medias. They use more and more wire photographers, AP, Reuters, and local photographers. That leaves us with a lot of uncertainty with magazines and other medias.

I took a lot of pictures last year during the French lockdown, showing daily life during Covid 19.

 Photojournalism News: Which of your photographs would you describe as your favourite? What makes them so special to you?

 Alfred Yaghobzadeh: It is difficult to answer this question after 40 years on the field.

But I will tell you the story of a picture that I took when I was 21 years old.

It was during the battle of Susangerd in 1981, in the south of Iran, Iranian fighters advanced towards Iraqi forces, in a difficult terrain. Iranians had intentionally flooded the location around Susangerd turning the ground into a quagmire. This is when I see a young boy of maybe 14 years old, lying in the mud holding a gun his face nearly touching the boots of a Basij (young volunteers for the war). I will never forget the expression in his eyes.

This picture was used in several school manuals. For decades children grew up with this image. Posters were made out of this boy to recruit young fighters. The Iranians used it for war propaganda, making it a symbol of young courage in the war. Students had the photo as a poster on the walls of their rooms.

Some years later, working in Lebanon I saw my picture painted on the walls of Hezbollah Headquarters, in Baalbek.

Till today, I find this picture used as a painting, a part of a wallpaper, all kinds of support and uses. Most of the time my name is not mentioned.

For all these years, the boy was unknown, with no identity.

In 2017, the Iranian government found his body and identified him as “Hassan the Warrior”. For his official burial as a national symbol of heroism, they made a big ceremony. His mother waited for all these years, thinking her son was still alive. When they confirmed it was Hassan the warrior, she had a heart attack and was taken to hospital. They postponed the funeral, waiting for the poor lady to get better. But she died the same day as the funeral of her son 36 years later. On the grave of Hassan the warrior, his tombstone is engraved with my picture taken when he was 13 years old. I had never imagined my picture one day engraved on a tombstone, you are used to see it in books or magazines, when I saw it, I felt a bit strange.

 Photojournalism News: What message do you want your photos to convey?

 Alfred Yaghobzadeh: As a photographer, I have to reflect what is happening in front of me. Like a mirror. I cannot exaggerate anything. As a photo reporter my job is to reflect reality as it is. We are there without frontier. What we see, and the way it is, is the message I want to convey. In the most transparent form. It is not our country; it is not our cause. If my pictures for any reason, help the human cause, it is for the better. But most important I try to convey, a neutral, honest and a witness like message.

When it is a long-term documentary. I convey all the elements and aspects of the story. The human aspect, daily life, different lights during the day. I try to convey as much emotion and information to have the audience “read” the pictures like a story. Telling a good story is important.

A photo has to speak by itself. No caption is needed.

Photojournalism News: What does a photo need to be a great in your eyes?

 Alfred Yaghobzadeh: For a picture, the most important, is the composition, the light, and of course the beauty and the emotion. You have to be lucky to catch all these factors at once.

In front of the same event, you have two photographers, one will have a picture that will catch the strong emotion and perfect angle and composition, and the photographer with a just one centimetre away, will have nothing of these aspects, it will tell the event, but the picture will be very weak, with no depth.

 Photojournalism News: In the digital age people consume billions of photos every single day, under the circumstances what could make a photo memorable?

 Alfred Yaghobzadeh: Yes, they shoot pictures everywhere, they shoot everything, these pictures are memorable, but it does not make them “the keepers of our memory.”

Today as you say, they take pictures with their phones, their cameras. They have access to all places and everything, more than professionals. It is the instant that matters. It is done to preserve the memory of the instant.

Everybody is photographer, you don’t need to be a genius to take a picture. Before we used to study the light with a light meter, study the distance and the speed. Now the camera, or the phone does everything for you. You shoot 100 pictures, you put them in the system, and you get one good picture out of them.

 Quality of time you put and an exceptional eye could make out of these digital photos a “memorable” photo.

(All images © Courtesy of Alfred Yaghobzadeh)

Photojournalism News: What motivates you to continue taking pictures and what do you do to keep motivated?

 Alfred Yaghobzadeh: I am somehow addict to this job. I could have learned other skills in my life to maybe one day retrain to another job. But for the moment photography is an intrinsic part of my life. My motivation comes that this is life. I follow life around me. When I travel to places, I share my life with the people, I live with them, I share their happiness, their sadness. It is a destiny. I try to be a mirror, to reflect their life.

Now, what has changed to keep the motivation going like before, is that you need not only to challenge, but also resist. Resist, in order to push and convince editors to make stories that you believe are worth telling about. You need also to resist financially. I am now a free-lance, so it is a constant search for subjects and editors to publish.

Still after all these years, travelling gives me as much joy as my early years.

I still have pleasure and excitement taking pictures as my first days on the field.

 Photojournalism News: What was the biggest professional risk you have taken and what was the outcome?

 Alfred Yaghobzadeh: I take many risks. I have been wounded several times and taken hostage.

1985 wounded by hand grenade fighting between Amal movement and Palestine's in Sabra and Shatila camp Beirut.

1994 wounded by Russian tank shell Chechnya battle of Grozny wounded by Russian tank shell.

2011 wounded by shotgun in the head during Egyptian revolution by Egyptian Army Cairo.

Taken hostage twice. Beirut and Gaza.

 When you are a photojournalist, driven by your curiosity you find yourself in places, where maybe you are not supposed to be, you are not a guest, you are not welcome and invited, and the outcome is sometimes a lot of damage.

You cannot blame anyone. It is happiness and sadness. Both, you can have many happy souvenirs, or bad ones, wounded etc. I forget the bad ones, and try to go back.

I have many stories in every country, over the 40 years, where I found myself in danger.

I am not the kind of photographer to take risks and brag. I am very careful and have eyes behind my back, behind my head. Having been in war zones very young, I anticipate, and I keep very alert. As a photographer it is also my duty to take one step nearer to the event if I judge it is worth it. The outcome can be ok, or it can be risky to very risky. It is a gamble, you can be beaten, you can be arrested. It is part of our life.

 Photojournalism News: What would be your dream assignment?

 Alfred Yaghobzadeh: I remember 20 years ago or more, the magazine Photo, published in a special issue, around 200 pages with photos of many photographers. And they established a list of photographers that they would one day send to the moon for an assignment! My name was on this list. So, if this list is still valid, I would like to go to the moon on an assignment, and shoot with Kodachrome slides, and Velvia and come back!

But I generally don’t dream, I am quite down to earth, I see what I can afford financially, and I propose as much stories as I can, until one editor will catch to the bait. It’s like going fishing…

 Photojournalism News: What are the essential skills/ qualities a photojournalist should have?

 Alfred Yaghobzadeh: First of all, he or she has to have human qualities. To be human, to be honest, to be kind, and compassionate. He or she must have social skills, to be able to make friends and to be trusted by the subjects he is taking pictures.

For example, I never use a fixer on my stories. I always try to do everything by myself. This way I avoid putting a barrier between me and the subject. Especially when I am invited in their homes, I am very respectful of their traditions, and I take time to talk to them and make them comfortable.

Then of course his or her camera is important, but again, with talent you can take great pictures with simple cameras. The most important is your talent, your talent is your eye. You have to work on your eye, this will make the difference. It will give the message of how you see the world.

And again, education, culture and experience are important. The personality of the photographer plays a role, he must really think of a ‘painting’ when he takes his picture, the composition of a painting, in terms of light.

Especially for my generation, we are used to slides. We had to think fast and make our best to have a perfect light and composition. If your picture was too much ‘under exposed,’ or too much ‘over exposed’, it was over, there was nothing you could do about it.

 Photojournalism News: What do you think about the digital manipulation of images?

 Alfred Yaghobzadeh: To be honest for my job as a photojournalist. It is not possible to manipulate images.

For publicity, artwork, commercial work, now it is easy to manipulate with the digital, this facilitates their job easy.

In photojournalism I am against it. It is not possible to touch your picture.

Your pictures should stay as they are, natural and untouched.

 Photojournalism News: What does it mean to be an ethical photojournalist?

 Alfred Yaghobzadeh: To be honest, first to yourself and to the reality in front of you, this is the basic in ethics. I see things as they are.

The reality in front of me is just to take care of the frame and the light. The rest is the event unfolding in front of me.

You have to reflect the reality as a mirror, you cannot cheat, if you believe in your work you must stick to reality. With your talent you will have a good picture. It also takes a lot of hard work and practice.

 Photojournalism News: How do you see the role of photojournalism evolving in the world? Do you think photojournalism is losing its importance?

 Alfred Yaghobzadeh: The photojournalism is still going on, when it is breaking news, everybody is on the story and then it can develop into a feature story. Somehow it is still there.

What makes photojournalism it is the photographer. In the 80’s and 90’s it was paradise for photojournalism.

Now it is the spread of “fast photography” with the technology, everybody has a camera, a phone, it is fast. The camera makes the picture not the photographer.

Photos are still published in the press; it is always in demand.

What changed is the price. With internet and the flood of pictures, the price of a picture is now miserable. There is no more respect for photojournalists.

Medias have lost their interest in good subjects. So, in a way, I see day by day photojournalism, slowly dying, like on a slow fire. A tourist thinks he can take a better picture than a professional photojournalist. This is the result of the technology we were dreaming about.

Maybe one day it will bounce back again.

 Photojournalism News: Do you have any advice for aspiring photojournalists?

 Alfred Yaghobzadeh: To be an honest person, respect the people around you. Read about History and know about the History of the country, know about their culture.

You have to shoot a lot, just shoot, shoot. Photography is like any skill, practice practice. Go to museums to see great painters to inspire you with their creation their composition their light.

Alfred Yaghobzadeh

He was born in Teheran, Iran. In 1979 the Iranian Revolution interrupted his studies in interior design and he turned instead to photographing the turbulent streets of Teheran. He began with Associated Press, followed by Gamma and Sygma, Newsweek and Sipa Press. Alfred’s assignments have taken him around the world, reporting on breaking news and major conflicts in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa. His work has received the World Press Photo first prize, first place in The American Overseas Press Club and the NPPA Best of Photojournalism. His photographs have featured on the covers and pages of numerous international publications including Stern,Time, Geo, Newsweek, Paris Match, Elle, Figaro Magazine, National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Life, El Pais, The Guardian.