Assignment Iran: Alexandra Avakian

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In 1983 Avakian graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with a B.A. in liberal arts. She also studied at the International Center of Photography and the New School. She has been a photojournalist since 1984 and has covered many of the most important issues of her time. Her photographs have been published in National Geographic, Time, LIFE, the New York Times Magazine, and many others in the U.S. and throughout Europe. Avakian has worked with such assignments as a cover story on Iran, photographic essays on Gaza, Romania, Armenia, Latvia, Lebanon's Hezbollah and American Muslims. Her work in Iran was chronicled in "Iran: Behind the Veil," a full-length episode of the National Geographic Television show Explorer. Avakian covered the Soviet Union, its fall, and the aftermath, including several civil wars, uprisings, and the 1991 coup for Time magazine and others. She also covered the first Palestinian Intifada for seven years and many other stories in the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Caribbean for the major magazines of her time. She spent seven months covering Haiti in 1986-87. She documented the civil war and famine in Somalia and Sudan for Time. Her subjects have also included the 1988 earthquake in Armenia, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution for LIFE magazine, the funeral of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 for Time, etc. Avakian's photographic and written memoir, Windows of the Soul: My Journeys in the Muslim World, was published by Focal Point/National Geographic in fall 2008. Avakian has received honors from Pictures of the Year International, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and American Photographer, just to name a few. In this episode of “Assignment Iran” Alexandra Avakian whose grandfather was an Iranian-Armenian relates her memories and experience of working as a photojournalist in Iran. She has had a few trips to Iran so far and hopes to find the chance to travel again.

TIME CODE: 00:00_05:00

SOUNDBITE [English] Alexandra Avakian, Photographer: “I am Alexandra Avakian the Photographer. I remember x showing me this stuff with Ayatollah Khomeini’s picture. And he’s saying this man is coming. And it’s going to change everything. It was a no contest situation because I wanted to go to Iran, and I did.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Alexandra Avakian, Photographer: “When I was about 8 years old, my father started teaching me. And the way he did it was through Life Magazine and Look Magazine, & I was already taking pictures. And he taught me how a story was told in pictures, purely in pictures. Through the pictures and the great photo essays of Life magazine & Look at that time which you know, doesn’t exist anymore. And it was during wartime (that was Vietnam War) there were very strong essays and photographs on the Vietnam War. And so I , you know learnt from that, & I also learnt because he was a great editor, he’d let me come into the cutting room when he was cutting a movie and he would let me cut for him, and in those day you know you had a thing that came down and would cut the actual film. And then he would then explain why this scene and this angle, fits with this scene and this angle and why he asked me to cut there. So he trusted me, he put a lot of trust in me to cut that negative, you know.

And he made a movie called “The end of the road” which was quite spectacular; a kind of indie film. And he let me for example he had discovered Gordon Wallace the great cinematographer, director of photography, he just discovered him on TV commercials and gave him his first job in movies and he went on to do the Godfather & so many other things. But he let me sit in Gordon’s seat & look at how Gordon had composed a shot. And I mean so very early on he was teaching me and through my school years and into my twenties. And he never wanted to me to photograph conflict, but I was drawn to it from the time I was at Sarah Lawrenceton studying a lot of things, and anthropology, theatre.”

TIME CODE: 05:00_10:00

SOUNDBITE [English] Alexandra Avakian, Photographer: “And I became addicted to taking pictures & telling people stories, especially tough stories In New York City at first & then eventually I went to Haiti. In you know the time that back duck Devayay, the dictator fled and I spent seven months there which upset my dad a lot because it was dangerous and yet he taught me everything that I knew.

When I was doing my current research before having left for Iran, I wanted all the new books on Iran so I went to the book store, I chose this, I chose that and then as I was waiting in line to pay a man says to me you should really read the man tell of a prophet, and I said that, I read that ten years ago, and he was very patient even though I was real to them. You know, a man talking to me in public, I wasn’t going for that even in the book store, and he said are you student? I said: No, and he said well why you are so interested in Iran?

I said: well I am a photographer and I am going there. He said: really? I said: Yes. And he gave me his cart and said Andrew whose… he said you know, I am an expert they called in, international geographic to ask me whether not they should do the story in Iran. And I told them to jump on it we want to do it and we talked about three hours, mostly about Iraq but also some about Iran, so here was a man just by chance I met him in the book store, in the Middle East sector had been there. Well I married up. That’s my husband. And he then introduced me to the Mahalati family and that made a big difference to me because I really need to work with an Ayatollah and he was very kind to me, he is from Shiraz, and he made beautiful little dessert out of ice and flowers and I photographed him in the mosque, and I photographed him during the month of mourning, before Ashura and I photographed him in his rose garden and also his wife cooked some beautiful meals and also he received Shia from Iraq, Iraqi Shia who were going to tell him what was going on with Saddam’s you now reparation at that time it was still Saddam just before we go to war against them.

Well, we left from Morroco, from Rabat & we flew to Paris because there was no direct flight at that time to Tehran, so we that’s what we did, Nadine & I, we flew through Paris. And we got there we were the last plane of correspondence let in. they were going to turn us around because they had enough. You know they had enough correspondence & so they kept us there & they gave us Mantou, you know very thick in June, it was hot.”

TIME CODE: 10:00_15:00

SOUNDBITE [English] Alexandra Avakian, Photographer: “And you know scarves, & everything. And I mean we had brought some along but it just wasn’t heavy enough for this purpose. And so we arrived & they had just covered. They let us in because we really begged them , you know, we said please we came all this way just for this, and they let us in; so how could they refuse (they could!).

I remember it was June & it felt like winter; you know because the country was in mourning. It was amazing to be there. I’ll show you a picture of that, I have in book, and the men were mourning. They were using the chains and the women were mourning and then we were taken to Ayatollh Khomeini’s House, and they showed us how he left it. And the glasses so… and the slippers just so… & you know they wanted to show us how modestly he live, which he really did… live in a modest home. And you know his painting, big portrait was outside and children were coming and kissing it from the neighborhood; not in any organized way. And it’s also in my book this picture, “Windows of the Soul”.

This is just outside Ayatollah Khomeini’s House after he died. And you know, young Baseej.

And some little girl…

And after that my father died and I didn’t do anything for a year, and then my Mother and stepfather, you know they were making this movie in the Palestinian territories and I went. And that was the beginning of 6 years of work on the Palestinian Israeli fight, and then the peace process. At the same time even I mean would do other things. I spent a month in Iraq here, a month in Iraq there… I lived in Moscow for 2 years and covered the end of the Soviet Union really for four years I would go there often on the first 2 years and then I lived there for 2 years. And then I moved to Gaza, and then to Africa were I spent 6 months documenting 2 famines, 2 civil wars in Somalia & Sudan.

How we had to travel in Somalia with body guards. This was a place where you could be killed for nothing, for your sunglasses… and from Africa to Gaza; because Gaza had been forgotten at that point. I thought this was a good time to go because there’s still a fight going on. And I also knew Yasser Arafat from a cover story I did for Times Magazine. And he although he called me a dictator and a trouble maker, he allowed me to photograph him when I needed to. And so I was able to do that, you know the first one was the cover of the NY Times Magazine which was extraordinary access in that was 1989, or 1988. And you know at the same time I was going to the civil war between Azerbaijan & Armenians in Karbaak and I never came, home. I didn’t come home for 10 years.

This is Gaza, so it’s just you know. I was working for myself in Gaza at this point because…and this was Yasser Arafat’s birthday … because no one would pay for an assignment at that time in Gaza. So actually I split expenses with Alfred. I think you know it’s very interesting to try to tell the story of the conflict without violence. This is the entourage of Yasser Arafat.”

TIME CODE: 15:00_22:15

SOUNDBITE [English] Alexandra Avakian, Photographer: “And then this is just daily life in Gaza.

Osama’s bachelor party…

There is Arafat on his plane. And we’re going to Libya to see Khadafy.

Just how kids live in the refugee camp, you know. They all sleep in the same place. Living in Gaza was an unforgettable experience, and for a lot of reasons.

After that I really got (around 1996, 1995 really) I started getting tired of conflict. And at the same time I started working with the National Geographic. And I kept you know proposing this story in Iran. I wanted to do what they called a country story in Iran, and they kept saying no, but would you go to Romania for us? This and that, you know, And so they finally accepted my proposal when Khatami , you know. I rewrote it when Khatami came into power, and you know I had read so much about Iran and I knew exactly what I wanted to do, which was to discover the country, And to try to reach beyond politics. To try to reach really I was so interested in the people to people concept. And when I went that’s when it happened.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Newsreader: “For 2 decades most westerners have not felt welcome here. Now, an American woman has been given the chance to capture this land in pictures. This is the story of 2 weeks of her journey to the Islamic republic of Iran.

Alexandra Avakian is a photographer for National Geographic Magazine. This is her third trip to Iran on this assignment. She has a short time and a long list of photographs she wants to get.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Alexandra Avakian, Photographer: “Islamic dress for me is just like if you’re an underwater photographer, you have to wear a wetsuit. Or if you’re like a mountain climbing photographer you have to bring ropes and all that equipment that they use. It’s your passport to an incredible country, and it’s a small price to pay.

I was the first American photojournalist who had been able to travel in Iran so widely and for so long. And it was four trips, about four months, about 750 rolls. It was very tight, I’ a tight shooter and that is tight you know, 750 rolls for National Geographic. But this ended up being the cover and 32 pages and also a film they made. They came and joined me and made a film of my work there.

Last and perhaps most important on Alex’s list is another tough picture. With only a few days left she head south to Isfahan, where she hopes to photograph Friday prayers.

I would say that beyond that professionally, it was an honor to travel that widely and for so long for National Geographic at that time. But I was excited to go for Ayatollah Khomeini’s funeral as well. And for personal reasons (you know) I hope I understood something and I hope I communicated you know what I meant to communicate. Personally the best memory was …. village, for sure. I remember my grandfather when I was little. He used to say dogs belong on the roof. And I never understood it and he used to poke my aunt’s dog with his cane, saying dogs belong on the roof. And then when I saw the village, I saw the flat roofs, you know where they kick the grain, and I’m talking about everybody’s house, but also his compound in particular. And you know that was very interesting to see how they lived.

I wouldn’t want not to know. I wouldn’t want to sort of live my life without knowing where my people came from. My interest in the story definitely has to do with my life through them, specially my father, my grandparents.

I would love to go there. You know. I hope to go again. I really really do. I just think going deeper and spending more time you know just to photograph the life of Iran such as it is as it reveals itself. And I don’t think people will understand in the United States that it’s beautiful, geographically stunning with many different kinds of geography, with the people who also are amazing in their various cultures. And I don’t think they realize that. They don’t know beyond that, to the beauty and the place. And so my interest at this point is the same really, is people to people, and to show you know really the incredible geography of the land, it’s very beautiful.”


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