Photographer Abbas Shutters to Think in New Exhibition


Abbas sees the world in black and white.

The Iranian-born photographer — who only goes by the one name — has been traveling the world since the late 1960s, documenting what he sees through powerful black and white images.

In recent years, his focus has been on religion, the results of which are showcased in a 66-photograph exhibition titled “The Children of Abraham,” which opened Nov. 20 and runs until March 20 at the Arthur Ross Gallery at the University of Pennsylvania.

Beginning in the early 1970s, he traveled to different countries to photograph the rituals of the three Abrahamic religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Abbas spent years covering conflicts such as the wars for independence in his homeland and in Algeria.

His assignments have given him glimpses of people’s behaviors and everyday lives, which often includes their religious backgrounds and cultures.

“I don’t work in a preplanned way; I let things happen to me,” Abbas said of his process.

He was born with a camera, he joked.

He was very young — 10 or 11, he guessed — when the war for independence broke out in Algeria, where he was living in the late 1950s, and he began taking pictures of it. He first thought: He would become a journalist.

“I was a young boy witnessing history being made in front of his eyes,” he said. “It was, in a way, natural for me to become a photographer.”

He returned to Iran in 1979 to cover the country’s revolution when he was 23. After that, he began traveling to Muslim countries for what he called the “resurgence of Islam” in the 1980s.
“I started working, traveling to Muslim countries and sometimes tying news with it,” he recalled.

Sometimes, he worked professionally for news outlets, providing photographs to accompany stories, but mostly his photographs found their way into books and exhibitions.

He credits the Iranian Revolution as his introduction to photographing religion, though that experience hit home for him more than other countries and conflicts he’s covered.

“I went to all these places because I’m concerned,” he said. “When I go to these places, I’m concerned; otherwise I wouldn’t go there. But Iran, I was involved because it was my country.”

He tries not to learn too much about the places he travels to, but it is important to him to know a little bit about what’s going on in that country and why.

“When you’re covering events, conflicts — and I like the word ‘conflict’ rather than ‘war’ — you have to know the historical perspective; otherwise you’re an idiot,” he said. “You have to put everything you see and photograph in perspective. Knowing the history even without being a scholar helps you.”

Rather than reading history books, Abbas researches his destinations through novels by writers who live there.

For example, he is currently documenting the rituals and lives of Jewish people and working on a book about Judaism. He has traveled to places such as Israel, Ukraine, Ethiopia (photographs from which are displayed in the Penn exhibition) and Brooklyn. Accordingly, he read novels by authors like David Grossman.

“Novelists give you flavor at the same time they give you the facts,” he explained. “You get more out of them. You have to know the culture, but at the same time, you don’t want to know too much. If you become a scholar, you’re not a photographer.”

The danger in knowing too much can lead to not having a “fresh eye,” which is what is needed as a photographer, he added.

“Everything has to be visual,” he said. “You’re writing with light, you’re not writing with words, so everything has to be visually meaningful.”

The choice to take his photographs in black and white was a natural decision.

“The world is in color,” he said simply. “Precisely because the world is in color, I choose to show it in black and white because I’m not showing reality — I want to transcend reality. Black and white helps me do that. See, you have to transcend reality to not become its prisoner.”

His interest in photographing the three religions in the exhibition stemmed from wanting to show the similarities between them.

Through rituals such as weddings, brit milot and prayer among many others, he shows how alike these religions are in these practices.The exhibition is organized through these rituals, and the religions are grouped together so the viewer can truly look at all three and see how similar they are.

In the photographs, there are many men with thick, dark beards, children with their parents, community members gathered to commemorate a special occasion. There are also less cheerful images, such as one particularly striking photograph of an Iraqi soldier killed by a U.S. aerial bombing, his body mummified by drops of oil from wells, taken in 1991 according to its description.

Acccording to Lynn Marsden-Atlass, director and curator of the gallery, Abbas had a specific narrative he wanted to create through the photographs he chose for the exhibition.

Marsden-Atlasssaid had seen Abbas’ work online and knew this exhibition would be great for the space, which hosts four different shows each year.

The photographs, she enthused, are “much more beautiful and much more subtle and more powerful than I had imagined them to be — and sadly, much more timely, given everything that’s going on in the world today.”

She called the installation a “visual exploration of the good and bad people do in the name of religion.”

There are many programs planned around the exhibition, including a panel featuring religious leaders at Penn from across the traditions featured in the photographs and a visit from the Interfaith Center of Philadelphia.

“One of the things that we do here is we create dialogue, so I’m hoping this exhibition will create a lot of conversation,” she said.

She hopes that viewers will learn a lot about rituals they might not be familiar with — and look at some “exquisite” photographs in the process.

“As human beings, we’re all tribal, we all have rituals,” she said, “and as Abbas just quoted in his interview with Terry Gross on the Nov. 19 edition of NPR’s Fresh Air, ‘Is there one person who believes in God? Then God exists.’ ”

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