Fatemeh Behboudi is a documentary photographer based in Tehran, Iran. Having grown up in the violence of war in the 1980s, the photographer is committed to documenting its effects on Iran and its people. During the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), thousands of Iranian soldiers went missing, their bodies never found or only recovered years later. Mothers of Patience is a powerful series about the mothers waiting in grief for closure, winning an Honorable Mention for Contemporary Issues at the 2015 World Press Photo Award. Her latest series, Martyr is Alive, is about martyrdom in Iran.
How did you get into photography?
There are many reasons for me to choose photography. One is that my father was a photography student and I chose photography with his help.
But the most important reason for me to continue with photography was the death of my best friend. When I was 19 and a photography student, she showed a lot of interest in one of my photos. She told me, “You have taken a photo of the tree’s spirit and I believe that you will one day become a great photographer.” That was the last thing she said to me before she died. Her last words are like a miracle for me, a light in the darkness. I always think that the death of my best friend was a window for me to turn her belief into reality. I hope that this will happen one day so I can keep my promise.
What was the first photograph that really had an impact on you, and why?
I think that the first photo that had a great influence on me was a photo of victims of Saddam’s chemical attack on Halabja. It was of a father and an infant who were killed while hugging each other. I’ve looked at the photo many times and it was interesting for me to ask why this image is always alive for me. The image is still on my mind and has raised many questions in my mind about the victims of war.
Why did you choose to go into documentary photography?
I had started with photojournalism for Iranian news agencies and newspapers since I loved photography. The reason for my tendency towards documentary photography possibly has two answers; the first is the limitations that I had faced in photojournalism for being female. I’ve experienced many restrictions in the news agencies that I’d worked for simply because I am a woman, and not for my talent and capabilities. It was a difficult period in my life. Maybe the restrictions that I had in my job is the most important reason for my choosing documentary photography.
The second reason is that the political events in my country had changed my views towards politicians and had presented me with different challenges; it was the reason I became closer to the people. As I got more involved with the people and their lives, I saw how their rights and the stories of their lives have been ignored for the sake of politics – stories like love, pain, hope, suffering and poverty.
By approaching the people’s lives, I became familiar with the deep realities of their situations and the fact that no eyes looked at them. This created a lot of questions in my mind and I started doing documentary photography to find the answers.
It has turned into an old friend who does not intend to leave our homes.
As a photographer in Iran, what type of stories do you want to tell about your country?
Iran is a complicated and diverse country, and its realities have been concealed from the world by politics and the media. My field of interest is the impact of war, tradition and religion. I’m working on these subjects and want to show the results to the world.
But my main focus is on the impact of the war in Iran after 30 years and how the people are still under the influence of the Iran-Iraq (1980-1988) war. I was surprised at how deep and alive the war has remained in Iran, so much so that several generations later, we are still affected by it. With these projects, I would like to show to the world the possible future of victims of the wars that are now being launched in different countries, especially in the Middle-East.
You were born during the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s. Having grown up with the constant state of war in the background, how has it shaped you as a person, and subsequently as a photographer?
For me, war is not a new or surprising event. I remember that my drawings during childhood were full of war scenes. Iraqi fighter jets were bombing residential areas. People being killed. The Iranian martyrs, the burnt dates. Even in kindergarten, we played war games using toy guns and tanks.
I remember the days that the corpses of the Iranian martyrs were transferred to Iran through the border, and my family and I followed everyone else to welcome the martyrs. For years, the sound of sirens was heard in Iranian movies. And for years, the people of Iran talked about Saddam Hossein, the impact of war and the killing of tens of thousands of people during that war.
All of these issues have left a great impact on my personality and mind from childhood until now. As a photojournalist, I gradually became interested in showing the impact of war and how war can destroy several generations after it and leave an endless impact on the victims.
I think that the war will never become an old issue for me and the people of Iran. It has turned into an old friend who does not intend to leave our homes.
Feeling people’s sentiments is highly important in my job, but if you cannot manage these feelings, it can be destructive.
When did you first start becoming interested in documenting the effects of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988)?
I started the first project related to this in 2012. It was about a bordering city that was named ‘the paradise of Iran’ before the war. The city, called Khorramshahr, was under Iraqi occupation for 2 years. 80% of the city was destroyed and it was in horrible ruins. When I took photos of the city, I was working for a news agency. It was then that the first questions were formed in my mind about war and its victims. I became more and more interested in continuing the project and other related works. I saw that few powerful documentaries have been produced about the impact of the war in Iran and I continued my job by the things that I had learnt about the war.
Mothers of Patience is an intimate series of mothers waiting years for news of their missing sons from this war. What difficulties or challenges did you experience doing this series?
It was a highly bitter project that presented me with deep challenges in my mind about the war and its victims, things that I had never before faced. Many of my beliefs were changed by this project; beliefs that I had never asked myself before due to their sacredness. I looked for mothers in different parts of Iran, who didn’t have any governmental assistance, and the project was implemented with high difficulty.
The bitterest thing for me was the fact that those who could have helped me in my own country, didn’t help; they didn’t believe that such a story can be successful globally.
There is a lot of grief, and a mix of hopefulness and helplessness, in the photographs, how did you handle the overwhelming emotions while making the work?
Photography has always been a master to me. It told me: Practice to become more professional. Therefore, I covered many different stories in Iran before starting the Mothers of Patience project, including executions in Iran, earthquakes, children’s hospitals and other challenging humanitarian and emotional subjects, with the aim of training my soul for bigger projects.
During the production of the Mothers of Patience project, it was my rule to never involve my own sentiments in the work. But when I saw the photos after ending a shoot, I would become distanced from everything for hours and days, thinking about and crying many times for the people in my photos. The deep pain of these mothers has had a profound effect on my personal life and my view of the war story.
Feeling people’s sentiments is highly important in my job, but if you cannot manage these feelings, it can be destructive.
Your new work, Martyr Is Alive, is about martyrdom in Iran. Can you please explain the significance of being a martyr in Iranian society?
The definition of martyrdom in Iran is very profound and complicated; it has roots in the Iranians’ Islamic beliefs, history and culture. The Iranians’ right-seeking spirit which is rooted in Iran’s history along with the Muslims’ religious heroes, including Imam Hossein (AS) and Hazrat Abolfazl (AS) who were killed for freedom-seeking and battle against the evil, are among the most important reasons for the formation of the martyrdom culture among the Iranians. It has turned into a sacred and powerful value which has affected all of our lives.
The story of martyrdom became even more highlighted in Iran since the Revolution in 1979 and the Iran-Iraq war. It was for this fact that many families lost their children and husbands during this period.
This issue affects Iranian life even today and many young Iranians go to other countries to fight against the ISIL. The culture of martyrdom has affected Iranian families in a way that they assume it as an honour and they do not fear death; it was an interesting point for me to take photos.
A lot of the work was done in Behesht-e Zahra in Tehran. Can you tell us the importance of this cemetery in your story?
The importance is the difference between this cemetery and the cemeteries of heroes in other parts of the world. I remember that before starting the project, I saw a photo of the graves of American soldiers killed in war and only their names, date of birth and death were written on their graves, and nothing more.
But when I went to Behesht-e Zahra, I saw life there, filled with people and families of the martyrs. People live with the graves of their children, and they cry, laugh, celebrate occasions and the new year with them. It seems that this cemetery is a part of their homes. I think that the most important difference between this cemetery and other cemeteries across the world is that of the people’s beliefs and its liveliness. The Iranian people believe that their sons who were martyred during the war are alive and this has caused them to share the most important events of their lives with the martyrs.
I’ve always known you for your powerful black and white photography, but for this body of work, you are using colour, why?
Mothers of Patience and Martyr Is Alive are two complementary stories.
Mothers of Patience is a bitter story of victims of war whose lives have stopped in time and are waiting for the return of their sons’ bodies with pain and hope. I worked with colour photos for the Martyr Is Alive project because of its liveliness. People live their lives beside their martyred children easily along with the bitterness of war. It was interesting to me because of these martyrs, who despite not having any physical presence, are a source of hope for people and no one feels death and hopelessness in this place.
You’ve mentioned once that since going abroad to Amsterdam for the Joop Swart Masterclass and gaining international exposure, you’ve been getting fewer assignments. Why do you think that is so?
Becoming more professional is a part of my photography path and I like to have a powerful view as an Iranian female photographer in photography, therefore I didn’t pay so much attention to assignments. The World Press masterclass was the first step for me to learn more professional work. However, there were fewer job opportunities for me in Iran after I had returned from the masterclass, possibly because I didn’t have a powerful supporter. When a woman becomes the centre of attention in Iran without a strong supporter, Iranian society tries to marginalize her. These events distanced me from the photography atmosphere and I didn’t have any motivation to work. But of course, it is possibly related to chance.
Which photographers have had an influence on you and your work, whether directly or indirectly?
I can say that Maggie Steber is one of my best and most supportive photography masters. The Mothers of Patience project was formed with her support in the past four years, and thanks to her it has reached global success.
Manouchehr Deqqati is another photography master who, with his kindness and beliefs, has been a great motivation to me and my work. Also, James Nachtwey, Abbas Attar and Stanly Green are among other good photographers who have had a great influence on my views.
Is there one photograph of yours that is especially significant to you?
Photos are like my children and I have special feelings for all of them; it is hard to choose among the children. This is maybe because many of them bear a part of my sentiments and thoughts at different times. I will say that I like the photos from the Mothers of Patience project the most as I had worked on them with my heart and they have changed my world a lot.
What motivates you to keep taking photographs?
I would like my photos to turn into the voice of the people who are not seen by governments and the world. I would like my photos to be a source of hope for peace and for people of the world to understand each other.
When I informed the mothers of martyrs that people around the world are now aware of their sons’ stories, their happiness and tears were surprising to me. That you can create a relation between the people in your stories and the people of the world is an enjoyable feeling that I hope to experience again. These are the things which give me motivation for photography.
What are you working on now?
I will soon start a project about the victims of Iraq’s chemical attacks on Iran during the war.