ABBAS, Humanist and photojournalist 1944 – 2018

One of the giants of journalistic photography died this week, on 25th April. At the age of 74 the Magnum photographer known as ABBAS died in Paris. Though those who met him at the Magnum meeting in Wales in February of this year thought he had aged, his passing came as a surprise.

Abbas Attar was born in Iran in 1944. He later moved to Paris where he lived until his death. From 1971 to 1973 he was a member of the French Photo Agency SIPA. From 1974 to 1980 he was a member of GAMMA, an agency founded in 1966 by the French photographer Raymond Depardon. Depardon left Gamma in 1978 to join Magnum. Abbas also joined Magnum in 1981.

A man of firm conviction, he was acknowledged by his contemporaries as a photographer of exceptional skill and dedication. His work took him to many of the troubled areas of the world: Biafra; Bangladesh; Ulster amongst many others. Being witness to these on-going tragedies his style never faltered: every photograph was a statement of truth. There could be no prevarication in his work. Like his contemporary, Philip Jones Griffiths, he could only photograph what was there but in so doing he was able to expose the reality of a situation.

His coverage of the Iranian Revolution resulted in the 2002 book: IranDiary. One of those photographs is included at the end of this article. Over time, though he worked for all the major magazines, books became an important voice for his work.

One of his lasting legacies will be his perceptive and even-handed series of books upon the various major religions of the world. As I write this, his book focusing upon Judaism is ready for publication. One who has seen a proof copy initially feared that it might be coloured by his Iranian heritage. There was no need to fear. It is as even-handed and perceptive as all his other books on World Religions.

Those who worked with him valued his skill and universally remember how, though not an easy man to have small talk with, he was perceptive, generous and committed. In the early 1970s, when the war in Vietnam was still “the place to be!” Abbas and Raymond Depardon were on assignment in Vietnam. There, they met a Magnum photographer who was covering for Philip Jones Griffiths. Abbas and Ian Berry met on an American Army helicopter. There were no restrictions as to reporters having access to military vehicles back then. This was the war that gave the media almost total freedom. However, they both found they were somewhat limited in what they were able to achieve. They decided to work independently of the US Army and borrowed a Jeep from a local priest. At first, this independent travel worked well. The problem being their clothing. They were dressed in American Army foul weather gear. As a result, they became targets. Their next move was to hire a motorbike. If there is any one mental image that could linger in the mind it should be that of the bearded Iranian wearing his olive drab army poncho, sitting on the pillion of a motorbike, with Ian Berry driving the machine with his usual verve. Abbas would be sitting there with that camouflaged cape flapping in the slipstream doing his best to keep his cameras dry, and missing nothing.

Abbas, Vietnam 1974

This a photograph of ABBAS taken whilst he was in Vietnam. The year is said to be 1973. My guess is that it could well have been taken by Ian Berry.

HAITI: This is one of ABBAS’s photographs covering the world’s religions. In this case the image is of pilgrims at the Seau d’Eau. It was taken in 2000.

TEHRAN: This is a photograph made by ABBAS in 1979. It features the arrest of a woman after a demonstration. The original caption suggested that she was being led away for execution.

All three photographs are reproduced by kind permission of Magnum Photos.

John Cogan

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