Denounced in the country of his birth the Iranian photojournalist Abbas continues to explore controversial topics, including “the horrors people commit in the name of God”. Interview by Dave Tacon.

Abbas-S1Portrait of Abbas by Dave Tacon. The Iranian photojournalist insisted that his face be partially obscured so he wouldn’t be recognised on the street.

As I arrive to meet Iranian photojournalist Abbas at the Hotel Pams courtyard during Visa pour l’image 2009, I find him talking in animated Farsi into his mobile phone. He soon finishes his call and explains that he is booked to give an interview to Iranian radio in half an hour.

It’s hardly surprising that he is so sought after. Abbas is an elder statesman of photojournalism and, as a full member of Magnum, he is, to borrow a term from the American mafia, a made man of the photographic community. Furthermore, he has a new book and exhibition to promote. Although his career spans more than four decades, he shows no signs of slowing down. We grab a coffee at the bar – a triple espresso for Abbas – and get down to it.

It soon became apparent that this would be a challenging interview. Abbas, who is a stout man with a thick, graying goatee, bushy eyebrows and an accent more Parisian than Persian, is also an intensely private man. His single name byline hints at this. While he states that his family emigrated to France in the early 1950s when he was “six or seven”, efforts to extract further biographical information are politely batted away. For instance, when I attempt to ask him of his photographic beginnings, whether he was born into an artistic family, he employs his stock answer, “I was born a photographer”. When I press him, he continues, “I have been a professional photographer since 1968. I say I was born a photographer so I don’t have to answer all those personal questions. I was born a photographer.”

He allows me to take his portrait, but only on the condition that his face be partly obscured, so he wouldn’t be recognised in the street. This causes some amusement to West Australian photographer Bohdan Warchomidj who passes by. “What are you talking about Abbas? You’re famous!” he cackles.

Pursuing Religion

I’m more successful in my conversation about the theme that has dominated his work for the last three decades – religion. “What I’m interested in is not religion as such, but the political, social, psychological aspects of religion. The horrors people commit in the name of God. This is what I try to photograph.”

Abbas’ canon includes a book on militant Islam, Allah O Akbar (published in 1994), Faces of Christianity (2000) and a study of Judaism, The Children of Abraham (2006).

“I don’t know why I’m fascinated by religion,” he says, “maybe it’s because I don’t understand it.”

Abbas’s “purely professional” interest in religion has taken him to all corners of the globe to observe a multitude of cultures and traditions. His latest book, titled In Whose Name?, is no exception. He travelled to 17 different countries over seven years as he investigated the Islamic world in the shadow of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

“The reason why I started the project was that I was in Siberia, working on [a project on] paganism when 9/11 happened. I saw it happening live although I was 18 time zones away. It was an extraordinary event, so I wanted to do something about it. I thought I might cover the aftershock of the event all over the Islamic world, trying not maybe to explain why 9/11 happened, but to give people maybe some elements of why this has happened. Basically, that’s what it’s about. What has happened to the minds of Muslims that makes 9/11 possible.”

The book’s title – itself a question rather than a statement – summarises the photographer’s intention – to engage in dialogue with his audience. Additionally, the work represents a dialogue between Abbas and his subject. Quotes from his diaries – which separate the various chapters of his photo essay – are also peppered with question marks. However, when I ask Abbas as to whether the project led him to draw any conclusions of his own, he is guarded in his answer.

“People can draw their own conclusions – I hope I’ve given them enough elements. I hope I’ve been fair. I’m not saying objective, because I’m very much a subjective photographer. I have photographs of people praying in the book – it’s about their relationship with God – and [therefore it’s] about Islamism, why you have Islamism and Jihad, the terrorist side, the holy war – the people who blow themselves up every day around the world… I hope I’ve been successful. You’ll have to tell me!”