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Young man, three veiled girls in a four-seater motorbike © Abbas Attar, Iran, 1997 | Image source internet
The choice was to think of oneself either as a photojournalist or an artist. It wasn’t out of humility that I called myself a photojournalist, but arrogance. I thought photojournalism was superior.
– Abbas Attar
Abbas Attar (1944 – 2018), better known by his mononym Abbas, was an Iranian photographer known for his photojournalism in Biafra, Vietnam, and South Africa in the 1970s, and for his extensive essays on religions in later years. He was a member of Sipa Press from 1971 to 1973, a member of Gamma from 1974 to 1980, and joined Magnum Photos in 1981.
As an Iranian transplanted to Paris, Abbas dedicated his photographic work to the political and social coverage of the developing southern nations. From 1978 to 1980, he photographed the revolution in Iran and returned in 1997 after a 17-year voluntary exile. His book Iran Diary 1971-2002 (2002) is a critical interpretation of its history, photographed and written as a personal diary. From 1983 to 1986, he traveled throughout Mexico, photographing the country as if he were writing a novel. An exhibition and a book, Return to Mexico, journeys beyond the mask (1992), which includes his travel diaries, helped him define his aesthetics in photography. From 1987 to 1994, he photographed the resurgence of Islam. His book and exhibition Allah O Akbar, a journey through militant Islam (1994) exposes the internal tensions within Muslim societies, torn between a mythical past and a desire for modernization and democracy. The book drew additional attention after the September 11 attacks in 2001. Faces of Christianity, a photographic journey (2000), and a touring exhibit explored Christianity as a political, ritual, and spiritual phenomenon. From 2000 to 2002 he worked on Animism. In our world defined by science and technology, the work looked at why irrational rituals make a strong come-back. He abandoned this project on the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
His book, In Whose Name? The Islamic World after 9/11 (2009), is a seven-year quest within 16 countries. From 2008 to 2010 Abbas traveled the world of Buddhism, photographing with the same skeptical eye for his book Les Enfants du lotus, voyage chez les bouddhistes (2011). In 2011, he began a similar long-term project on Hinduism which he concluded in 2013.
Before his death, Abbas was working on documenting Judaism around the world. He died in Paris on 25 April 2018, aged 74.
Abbas took religion as his main concern. While Abbas’ images document spiritual contemplation of the different religions, they also observe the shift of religions from cultural phenomena to ideologies with the power to cause wars. They capture the tension between tradition and modernity. To be able to document the everyday life of Muslims, he traveled from Xinjiang to Morocco, from London to Timbuktu, New York, and Mecca. He photographed their rituals, their spirituality, and also their growing radicalization.
Abbas has been – as the only Persian photographer – a member of Magnum Photos since 1981. His photos and stories have been printed worldwide in magazines like Stern, Newsweek, Paris Match, or New York Times Magazine. A number of books featuring his work have also been published. His works have been exhibited in locations all over the world, a highlight being “The Children of Abraham”, exhibited at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo (2006).
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