Interview by Svetlana Bachevanova and David Stuart
Saeedi has managed the photography department of various news agencies in Iran and led key projects for over 15 years. One of Saeedi's interests is street photography: portraying ordinary citizens and daily life. When Saeedi is not working, he likes to teach photography to students and mentor young photographers.
For the past eight years, Saeedi has received the title of best photographer of Iran. His work has been published in internationally in Time magazine, Spiegel, Life, the New York Times, Washington Post, Washington Times, and various Middle Eastern publications and online agencies. His recent work displayed the images of Libyan people as they were fighting for democracy and land-mine victims in Afghanistan.
Among Saeedi’s recent awards are the 2014 FotoEvidence Book Award, the prestigious UNICEF award 2010 , Henri Nannen Award 2010, and the China International Press Photo Contest (CHIPP)2010, R.F. Kennedy Foundation Photographer of the Year 2012, International Photographer of the Year (Lucie )in New York 2011. World Press Photo 2013. National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) 2013, China International Press Photo Contest (CHIPP) 2013, winner of RPS wall grant in Japan 2013.
FE. What differentiates your project Life in War from many others images the public sees from Afghanistan?
MS. I have lived a long time in Afghanistan and have seen a lot of photographs from there. Always the photographs were of war, drawn from the embeds who traveled with soldiers and wanted to see action. All the photos were of violence and blood. Maybe a couple of photos in a collection would capture something about life but the real focus was always war. When I first went to Afghanistan, I talked with my editors about not going just for war, not embedding with soldiers and working with military forces. Only real life, daily life of people living with conflict. I was happy because this allowed me to live with the people. The most important thing for a photographer, I think, is to live with the people as they live. To experience life as the people experience it. I reached that in Afghanistan. I was living with the people.
The people of Afghanistan are living the war. It has been 30 years they are living with war. Thirty years they hear the explosion regularly. People don’t expect to return home every time they go out. War is death. It is all around them but they go on living. This is a paradox. Life in War. They are in a paradox. Nobody should live in a war but they do. In my work in Afghanistan, I have focused on everyday life. The good that people live even during war.
FE. Do you remember the first picture you did there?
MS. It was 2001. I had an assignment with Time Magazine. I went in through normal channels and it was a normal assignment, where they wanted pictures of the war. I don’t care to talk about that first work. It was an assignment. I prefer to talk about the photographs I have made while living there, among the people, for the last four years. About my work “Life in War” that I am working to publish as a book.
FE. Do you remember the first photograph you ever took?
MS. I took my first photograph with a Canon AE1 that my father gave me. I was 16 years old and my father had a poultry farm, with chickens. So I photographed the chickens. Later, I left school and went to work in the afternoons. I spent a lot of time going to the house of art during the mornings and this is where I got interested in photojournalism. I studied at night. I wanted to be like Cartier Bresson. I still want to be like Cartier Bresson.
FE. You were arrested in Iran, in 2009, during the time people were protesting the elections. What got you in trouble with the authorities in Iran?
MS. I was going to photograph the demonstrations after the elections in 2009. I was sending the images to my agency and they were very happy with the photos. Then Iran forbids journalists from reporting on the demonstrations but I continued to go and photograph and send the images to my agency. After 10 days , the security forces came to my house and took me.
MS. Many thoughts passed through my head but the primary question I had was, why am I here? All I did was do my job. If we don’t report about the demonstrations, about people protesting for democracy, how can we be journalists? We must do our job. I don’t condemn my colleagues who followed the directive not to report but I couldn’t join them.
Any way, I was worried when I was arrested. Conditions in prison were difficult. They accused me of being a spy for the United States and Israel. I told them I wasn’t a spy but only a photographer doing my job. In order to be released, I had to confess that I took the pictures without permission and agree not to violate the prohibition again. For this, they dropped the charge of being a spy and reduced my potential prison term to three years. Then they allowed me out on bail and permitted me to live, but not to work, in Iran.
Since I couldn’t work in Iran, I went to Afghanistan to work. I travel between Iran and Afghanistan and have had a good life in Kabul since 2009.
FE. Do you feel safe in Afghanistan?
MS. Nobody can understand where is safe and where is not safe in Afghanistan. There are dangers everywhere in the world. Probably there is more danger in Afghanistan, but death is everywhere. Maybe in Afghanistan death comes faster.
Freedom of information is much better in Afghanistan than in Iran. But, as time passes, the Afghans learn from the Americans how to control information. Five years ago you could go wherever you wanted in Afghanistan as a journalist. Now travel is controlled for journalists. They are trying to control information. Every manager has a consultant from the US or Europe to help them learn the art of governing, which also includes controlling information. There is less information available now. But you can say what you please about anybody in government and nobody bothers you. People criticize all of the government, not like in Iran, where criticism of the government is prohibited.
FE. How has your experience changed you?
MS. Every hard time you have in your life, you have a good time also. Like now, when we are here in this beauty in Basilicata, with other photographers, making new friends. Maybe it was difficult to move and find a new home but I also found new friends and a story or life: life in war in Afghanistan.
The most important thing for me in my pictures is the existence of the person, the subject. There are human beings who give life and others who take life from us. What are we doing in the middle of this. We should be good or we should be bad. What we are doing is between this. Many photographers do fashion, advertising, paparazzi, but from a photojournalist the editors always want the bad news. I try to show everything. What, in my opinion, is bad as a reporter is showing only bad things, deprivation, brutality and death. It is right to show the dark side, the hardship of life but the good things also have their place. I want to show the humanity of the people I photograph. Living with people who have suffered 30 years of war has had a big impact on me.
Going from Iran to Afghanistan was hard for me. Coming back to Iran was difficult. I lost my wife because every time I came back to Iran I was stressed about whether I would have to serve my three-year prison term. I liked a girl and was very close to her. But she couldn’t stay with me because a photojournalist does not lead a normal life, is not a normal person. I have to travel and be engaged in the world, and cannot make a normal life.
FE. You express a deep love of photography. Do you think it has been worth it all this lose and sacrifice?
MS. So who should sacrifice himself ? Last year, how many photographs sacrificed? they lost their for the lives of the others .If photographers don’t go to show the realities, who should do this? I did photos from wars, but these four years in Afghanistan, it was not so directly in the war. It was life in war. There was always danger: land mines, explosion aimed at civilians, hostages. It affects the spirit of a person to live with constant danger. It is right that the photography should be neutral but it cannot be without feeling. When a group of people die in front of you, your heart breaks. Everyone of us has this heartbreak because we are human. Still, I must do my work.
FE. Is your book about Afghanistan an act of closure?
MS. No, not yet. I like to publish my book like all other photographers but the more I look at my work the more I find that is incomplete. In my last travel I added many new images to the collection for my book. Some photographers come to Afghanistan for two months and then produce a book .This is not a serious thing to do. I have four years of photographs and still I wait to complete it.
Photography is a matter of taste. My book reflects my feelings about my photographs. The selection I show here [ed. note: Basilicata PhotoReport/Age] is different from the selection I will show in Perpignan. The selection I showed in Tokyo was also different.
A book is the best way to have impact with the photographs. At a photo festival, photographers come together and talk to each other, congratulate each other. How much effect do we have? What will change in the world? All the money and energy that goes into the ceremonies, would be much better for publishing books. If the images go to the media and tell the stories, more people will hear it and more people can see them. When my photographs are in the media like Time or the New York Times, I‘m happy because more people see the images, they have more impact. It’s not about recognition. It’s about effect.
FE. Did you ever experience censorship with the people you worked?
MS. No. Except that in Iran everything is censored. When I was working in Iran, my photographs were cut from the media regularly. One of the reasons I left the media I worked at was that my photographs were constantly cut.
FE. So how do you see yourself in your pictures? What is the message of you pictures?
MS. When I am shooting the photo, I am engaged. This is the moment After that, I don’t think about my photographs but I like to listen when people talk about my photographs to see if what they see, is what I intended. I just want to show the humanity of the people I photograph and capture a moment with them.
I think of the photographers from the past. The mythic ones, like Capa, what they did when photography was dependent on film and chemicals. I want to frame my images like Capa, in the camera and reveal what I see.
FE. After Afghanistan what is the next project?
MS. I have projects but I don’t have money. Very soon I will start a project in Africa. The people who get the work most of the times have long relationships with editors and galleries, but I prefer not to have the relations to do the things I don’t like.
An Afghan woman learns how to make a doll at a workshop sponsored by a Malaysian NGO called Mercy that seeks to help local females to empower themselves. 80 women participate in every workshop despite rising tensions between an increasing Taliban presence in the city and the extensive NATO presence.