Author: Salatyn MIRZAYEVA
He has been taking photo shots of wars for 40 years! He knows everything about them. His eyes and lenses have seen many ruins and people with the crippled destinies. His photos have been published on the covers of National Geographic, GEO, Time Photo. The internationally famed photographer from France, an ethnic Azerbaijani, citizen of the world, researcher of the National Geographic Society, chief specialist of the Ashoka Foundation Reza Deghati is well known in Azerbaijan as well. After all, it was his photos that presented the world the most terrible and heroic pages of the history of independent Azerbaijan: the January 20 tragedy, genocide of Azerbaijanis in Khojaly, Shusha defending against Armenian terrorists, tent camps for refugees and internally displaced persons, and many more.
It was not easy to arrange an interview with Mr. Deghati during the Second Garabagh War, as he has been again at the forefront even after 30 years. With only a single difference – this time he has filmed the triumphant march of the Azerbaijani army.
He has taken shots everywhere on the liberated territories: photographs of the destroyed city of Aghdam, ruins of Azerbaijani cemeteries, shelled monuments, desecrated mosques. Reza Deghati’s photo chronicles is 30 years old now.
After the victory in Garabagh, Mr. Deghati has briefly left for Paris and returned to Azerbaijan just before the January 20 National Mourning Day. Despite his busy schedule, he kindly agreed to answer a few questions of us.
"Welcome to Azerbaijan! You have visited Baku again to pay tribute to the memory of the victims of January 20, to share with us our pain and sorrow. What changes have you noticed among the people at the Martyrs' Alley after the victory in Garabagh?"
"First, let me tell you about my impressions. I come to Azerbaijan to honour the memory of the January 20 victims every year. But this time it was different. I have noticed the major changes in the hearts of people. In the eyes of people in the Martyrs' Alley, I have noticed something different – a feeling of joy and relief. We are obliged to the martyrs – they have sacrificed their lives to return our lands. And we have kept our word."
"You were with us on January 20, 1990, during the Khojaly genocide, as well as the Patriotic War. What’s the source of your encouragement – your professional duty or love for Azerbaijan?"
"(thoughtful). Both. But I would give you a third reason. For many years, I have seen a lot of aggression and injustice towards Azerbaijan. But the world community has not understood the suffering of the Azerbaijani people, it could not see the injustice that it suffered. Because on the other side of the scale was Armenian information, which had been developed in the smallest detail for hundreds of years. They have been strong in that war. Although it was the Azerbaijani people suffering from aggression, the world community has been presented the opposite. This could not but hurt me as a person. As a photojournalist, it is my duty to convey everything I see to the world, to wipe out all the lies and myths of propaganda from the minds of people."
"Do you mean we won the war, liberated our lands but we are still losing in the information war?"
"Unfortunately, yes. As soon as the war was over, I left for Paris and stayed there for about two weeks. I have had two appearances on the French TV channels commenting on the events in Garabagh. We must conquer the thoughts and faith of the world. For 30 years, I have watched this war from the hottest spots, and I can say that we are losing. Why? For example, someone shared a video where an Azerbaijani soldier kicks the headstone of an Armenian grave and destroys it. I could not even believe that an Azerbaijani soldier could do such a nasty thing. I have visited many enemy bases in Garabagh after the Armenian terrorists left them. I have taken photos of everything they left behind. So, there were many Azerbaijani military uniforms there, in excellent condition. That made me think that the guy on the video might well be an enemy soldier wearing an Azerbaijani uniform. That’s how Armenia shares this video all over the world. But we know very well that over the years of occupation, the Armenian military have destroyed tens of thousands of Azerbaijani graves. They were looking for the golden teeth of the dead. That’s why all the soil around the graves was full of human bones. I have been an eyewitness to all these events. But the world community is yet to see it. The problem is we are not showing evidence of Armenian atrocities and barbarism, which can be found everywhere in and around Garabagh. We do not spare the word globally, as Armenians do. But I believe that the world community will believe us, because desecration of graves is a sin in all religions and is contrary to international law. I have filmed many wars, but I have never seen anything like the one in Garabagh. There is not a single surviving Azerbaijani grave left there! As you can see, the enemy has left us the results of their barbaric deeds – we have all the necessary evidence. Now it's our turn to show this evidence to everyone."
"During the war in Garabagh, the speeches of the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev and his interviews with prestigious media outlets have played an instrumental role in bringing the truth to the world. Can we call this a turning point in the information war?"
"War has three directions: military, political and information. In any country, a corresponding branch of government or a certain official is responsible for each of these directions. This was the first war where I saw one person – President Ilham Aliyev – lead all three directions. I have watched all his interviews with foreign journalists. Now it is the turn of all the journalists, photojournalists, media outlets, TV channels to consolidate their efforts to spread the word of Azerbaijan as far and as much as possible."
"Is it worth worrying about what the world community says about us if we know that we are right? Our lands were not liberated peacefully, as required by the UN Security Council resolutions. But the world has been silent for all these years. Should we care about what the world say?"
"We live in a century where everything is intertwined. We cannot stay away from certain processes. For example, to further develop ties with the French, we need to get the false Armenian propaganda out of their heads. There is a 500,000-strong Armenian lobby in France, which has literally been dominant over the thoughts of the French people. I want to show them that they are blinded by Armenian myths, that there are realities and other truths they are unaware of. After the war in Garabagh, I have met with 15 ministers and members of the French parliament to show them my photographs from the region. I cannot express you how amazed they were! First, I showed them a photo from Khankendi, which has hardly suffered from the war. Then I showed them a photograph from Aghdam. It was an ‘Oh, mon Dieu…’ moment for them. "What's this? Hiroshima?" they asked me in surprise. “No, this is Aghdam. Until recently, it has been under the occupation of the Armenian military, whom you call ‘sufferers’ of the Garabagh conflict. But it is they who had destroyed this once flourishing city of Aghdam!" I explained them in response. It turned out that they had not been aware of these facts. But now they know, thanks to the method of influencing people through photography.
“Thirty years ago, I photographed a woman near the Aghdam mosque. She was screaming, raising her hands to the sky, as there was grief in her family. The bodies of the victims of the Khojaly genocide were brought to that mosque. That photo has become an emotional challenge for many. It looks silent, but in fact, it has been screaming of sorrow, as that woman. "Why is she crying?" they asked me, and I would tell the reason.
“Over the years, the Armenian lobby, which has been well aware of the methods of public influence, has penetrated into all spheres of the French society and the whole world, from top to bottom. And we must learn to do this as well. An information war must be waged in an orderly, clear and constant manner. After all, we are right in this case.”
"You were in Barda and Ganja, when Armenian invaders shelled these cities and killed dozens of innocent people. Isn't this enough to prove the world that our enemy is treacherous and lacks any sense of honour and dignity? What else does the world community need?"
"It is cruel and inhumane to shell peaceful cities, killing the civilians, including children. This is against the norms of the Geneva Convention. It is also unacceptable to use cluster bombs against civilians, like they did in Barda and Ganja. I have shared an Instagram post about a family that was shopping while their son was waiting in the car. The bomb hit that car. And when the family left the store, they saw a terrible picture – a burning car with their loved one inside. It was impossible to save him. I have taken many of the photographs with a lump in my throat, as I was about to start crying. It is impossible to take such shots without emotions, which make you chilling. On the other hand, my professional duty made me continue my work."
"Your Last tea in Shusha was made in 1992. The photo shows three armudu glasses and a silhouette of two soldiers in the distance. I wonder who these soldiers were and what were you talking about at that time?"
"(Smiles) Back in 1992, after Khojaly, Zangilan and Jabrayil, I slowly began to move towards Shusha. I was told that there were Armenian snipers along the road to the city. So, I had only one way to reach there, that is through the mountains. By that time, I had already had a chance to climb the mountains in Afghanistan (smiles). So, it was something I was used to. I took all the equipment and the films made in Khojaly (I had been there for a month) and other places with me. I had to deliver my photo archive to Paris safe and sound. Then I started my trip to Shusha. I have been lucky to miss three sniper bullets, by the way: one bullet went under my ear slightly touching it. I felt a sharp pain. The second flew over my hat, and the third ricocheted, hitting the ground at my feet. To tell you the truth, Armenian snipers rarely miss. I told them that they missed three times (laughs). Finally, I reached Shusha. My fellow compatriots were still there.
“I became friends with commander Ramiz Gambarov and another soldier whom Gambarov attached to me. On the last day of my stay in Shusha, just before the occupation, I asked them to take their photo in front of the Town Hall building, which was later destroyed by the Armenians. Then we drank the tea on my photo. We did not know what would happen tomorrow. Nor did we know whether the snipers miss their shots this time or not, or how the life of my fellow travellers turn out in the future. After all, it was a war. But at that moment we decided to forget about everything and just drink tea like three old friends. Then I promised myself to have another tea in Shusha, when peace comes to this place...”
"And you kept your word..."
"Yes, in the mountains with a beautiful view of Khankendi, I drank my first tea after the liberation of the Azerbaijani lands!"
"What does make you do the same dangerous work again and again? Are not you afraid?"
"I've been to situations when I closed my eyes and said to myself: "Goodbye, Reza!" (laughs). When I opened my eyes, I saw many wounded and dead around me, but myself. When you come face to face with death, you forget about everything. And why should I be afraid?! We will all die one day. Nobody dies twice."
"You have been filming wars all over the world for 40 years: in Afghanistan, South Africa, Iraq. Are there any photos that will remain a secret between you and your camera?"
(thoughtful) You know, photographers, same as journalists and doctors, make sort of a professional oath to keep their secrets and not talk about unnecessary things. I have been friends with many well-known personalities, I have communicated with presidents for many years. I was close to many people from different nations during the most difficult moments of their history. So, yes, I have enough secrets that continue being part of me during all these years. I have many photographs, but their time has not come yet. Maybe in some 20 years, or maybe when I depart this world... (smiles)”
"Would you like to hold a photo exhibition in Garabagh?"
"Of course, I do. I think that Shusha should be the centre of culture not only of Azerbaijan, but of the whole world. It has a huge humanitarian potential for this. Our duty is to help this city get back on its feet, rise from the ashes and triple its former cultural power."