Sunday, December 4, 2022

Michel Setboun, from war to arts

Famous French photojournalist, Michel Setboun, answers questions about his career and Iran.

Michel Setboun is a famous French photojournalist. At age 26 he was overtaken by events and ended up a professional photographer. The time the founder of the Islamic Republic spent in Neauphle-le-chateau, a Paris suburb, in exile seems to have played an important role in his career. Michel Setboun was on board the same Air France flight that brought Imam Khomeini back home after 15 years in exile.

That was the beginning of a journey which eventually saw Setboun become a war photojournalist. That is why in an interview with Jamejam daily on September 10, he said he owes his career to Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Of course he seems to be paying a price for his comment: he says his friends call him an Iranian spy!

Setboun, now 60 years of age, retired from war photojournalism a few years ago and is now involved in artistic photography. In the interview with the Iranian newspaper he blames his age – read a decline in bravery levels – as the reason behind his decision to quit photojournalism. For him, other factors are also involved, among them a growing number of reporters covering conflicts, declining wages and more on-the-spot risks journalists face in today’s battlefields.

As Setboun puts it he has depicted war events from his camera’s point of view in Lebanon, Afghanistan, El Salvador and Guatemala as well as any other conflicts which raged on in the 1980-1989 period.

A recent Iran visit is his fourth trip after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. This time around he is in Iran to serve as a judge in an artistic photo festival and Jamejam daily has seized the opportune moment to put some questions to the lensman who himself captures the right moments.

What you went through were the standout points of the second part of his interview. What comes below is the translation of the first half of the interview:

How many times have you travelled to Iran before your current trip?

This is my fourth time after the revolution, excluding those times I came here when the revolution was in the making. Back then I was repeatedly moving back and forth between Iran and France.

How much has the city changed compared with those days?

From which aspect do you mean? For sure, the city has grown bigger and bigger.

I mean from a cultural perspective.

Outside Iran, the established feeling is that nobody knows what is happening in Iran. For them Iran is a strange country. But Iran is like other countries with similar attractions. My friends find it odd when I tell them I’m going to Iran. They think I’m going to embark on a space voyage.

From what I see here in Iran – the technology people employ together with what the young individuals and photographers do and the showing of those who are involved in artistic work, I conclude that Iran is like any other places in the world. I do not see so much difference.

How much do you try to convey such mindset to your friends?

Anyway, there are many out there who hold negative views [of Iran]. To change this negativity is not an easy task. I explain to them what I see. I tell them Iran has not waged war in this last century, least to say, but the US has launched many wars and meddled in the internal affairs of and relations between many countries. The US is to blame for the uncertainty gripping a couple of nations. […]

I always say that the countries in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf have produced in recent years nothing but [crude] oil, but Iran has produced many things, including art and artists.

It has helped photographers, graphic designers and artists and caricaturists grow. It has produced plenty of cultural items. It is far from fair to focus on a nation and say freedom is challenged there, but the very matter in question, which is freedom, remains out of focus in a county like Saudi Arabia. It is not fair.

Since I started out on my professional career as a photojournalist in Iran I feel a deep sense of debt to your country. So as I travel to Iran I try my best to talk with my friends in other countries over the changes I’ve seen in Iran [over time] to let them know that Iran is not what the outside world thinks it is.

For years you’ve been involved in media work. How much do you think media, especially the Western outlets, have had a role in painting such a negative image of Iran in the minds of people around the world?

Media coverage alone cannot be a key player. Such a negative picture stems from a handful of reasons among them political causes. Iran’s diplomatic ties with its neighbors and with the wider world determine how it is looked at from the outside, but I do not deny the fact that a flurry of negative news stories about Iran has been a factor in determining the negative views people air of Iran internationally.

People see no sense or justifiability in what unfolds. For instance, Iran and France had very close relations before the [1979 Islamic] Revolution but two years after the revolution, suddenly France changed course, lent support to Iraq in the war it waged against Iran, and this strained the amicable relations [between Tehran and Paris].

These events are not quite transparent in the eyes of ordinary people. The reason could be this: France establishes better ties with its friends and its interests determine which nations are its friends, so it backs them. In today’s world, the interests of nations define the ties they hold with each other.

My friends find it surprising that I defend Iran and talk about positive events in Iran. They even call me a spy for Iran. Outside Iran, all government decisions are associated with the public. This could be a reason why people out of Iran adopt a negative attitude toward it.

However the fact is that Iran is not the Satan. The Satan is the very country which has caused so many wars and destruction [across the globe] over the last century.

IFP has added its own introduction and headline to the interview by Jamejam’s Sajad Roshani. The original interview has been translated by Ms. Javidfar.
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