Belfast Telegraph

In pictures: How a leading Iranian photographer snapped a bookful of Troubles images... with a little help from George Best

A selection of shots captured by Iranian photographer Kaveh Kazemi during the Troubles
A selection of shots captured by Iranian photographer Kaveh Kazemi during the Troubles
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

A highly acclaimed Iranian photographer who has just published a book of his images of the Troubles had an unconventional 'guide' to the situation in Northern Ireland - George Best.

Kaveh Kazemi (67) credits the Belfast-born Manchester United legend for helping to open his eyes to the complexities of the conflict.

Kaveh met Best in the 1980s in London, which he was visiting as part of his quest to expand his career as a photojournalist.

"I'd become acquainted with George in a coffee house we went to on the King's Road," Kaveh said.

"I saw the images of the Troubles almost every night so it was always in the back of my mind to go to Northern Ireland. And then when the revolution came to Iran a street in Tehran was renamed after the hunger striker Bobby Sands.

"In 1984 I wanted to see what was going on in Northern Ireland."

Kaveh's only problem as he prepared to set off for Belfast was that he didn't have any contacts in the city.

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Kaveh Kazemi book of photographs
Kaveh Kazemi book of photographs
Kaveh Kazemi book of photographs
Kaveh Kazemi book of photographs
Kaveh Kazemi book of photographs
Kaveh Kazemi book of photographs
Kaveh Kazemi book of photographs
Kaveh Kazemi book of photographs
Kaveh Kazemi book of photographs
Kaveh Kazemi book of photographs
Kaveh Kazemi book of photographs
Kaveh Kazemi book of photographs
Kaveh Kazemi book of photographs
Kaveh Kazemi book of photographs
Kaveh Kazemi book of photographs
Kaveh Kazemi book of photographs
Kaveh Kazemi book of photographs
Kaveh Kazemi book of photographs

"So I asked George Best for some ideas. But I didn't realise he was a Protestant and his suggestions were mainly about what was happening in his community, primarily in east Belfast," recalled the photographer.

"But I quickly found out that it was fairly quiet there. So, I found myself on the Falls Road, where I took photographs of British foot patrols, murals and funerals and everything."

Kaveh was also in Belfast in 1985 at a time when unionist protests over the Anglo-Irish Agreement were intensifying, and he managed to grab the attention of many international news agencies with a photo at the huge 'Ulster Says No' rally. His image of loyalists setting fire to an effigy of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ended up in a major French magazine.

A selection of shots captured by Iranian photographer Kaveh Kazemi during the Troubles
A selection of shots captured by Iranian photographer Kaveh Kazemi during the Troubles

It was also in 1985 that Kaveh had a chance encounter in Belfast with local journalist and writer Paul Clements and they struck up a friendship that has endured to this day.

So much so that Paul has written the foreword to Kaveh's book, My Days In Troubled Ireland, which he says is a collection of "brave and unflinching images" that serve as a reminder of what people lived through during the Troubles.

One of Kaveh's earliest challenges was to get a photograph of Martin McGuinness and he travelled to Londonderry in the hope of tracking him down.

Kaveh Kazemi
Kaveh Kazemi

But he ended up getting two Sinn Fein leaders for the price of one.

He said: "When I arrived in Derry I was told that there was a republican funeral in Buncrana so I went there in a taxi and saw Martin McGuinness among the mourners and there were scores of blue-helmeted Garda officers there too.

"Gerry Adams was called on to address mourners at the graveside and I couldn't believe it. I got a picture of the two Sinn Fein leaders and it's in my book."

Kaveh also photographed DUP leader Ian Paisley, who left him in no doubt that he wouldn't be allowed to bring his camera into his Martyrs' Memorial church on the Ravenhill Road.

"But he did let me take a photograph of him outside and I later took a picture of him and Peter Robinson on the march in Derry," Kaveh added.

And as well as meeting Sinn Fein leaders, he also came face-to-face with influential loyalists like Billy Hutchinson and David Ervine.

A selection of shots captured by Iranian photographer Kaveh Kazemi during the Troubles
A selection of shots captured by Iranian photographer Kaveh Kazemi during the Troubles

His last trip before he came back to promote his book was just after the Omagh bombing in 1998, although the images of the aftermath of that appalling tragedy don't feature in the book, which he concluded with the first Christmas of peace in 1994.

Looking back at his visits to Northern Ireland, Kaveh says he never felt any real sense of danger.

"I was concerned about how the security or intelligence people would react when they found out that I was Iranian, but most times everyone was fine with me," he added.

A selection of shots captured by Iranian photographer Kaveh Kazemi during the Troubles
A selection of shots captured by Iranian photographer Kaveh Kazemi during the Troubles

Before his work here, Kaveh had already established himself as a respected freelance photojournalist, and his pictures have appeared in newspapers across the world and in prestigious magazines like Time, Newsweek, Stern, Der Spiegel and Paris Match.

Kaveh has travelled the world chronicling life and death in war zones including Lebanon, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Syria and Nicaragua, to name but a few.

He sustained his only major injury during the revolution in Iran.

"I was hit by a slingshot and my skull was fractured," he said.

"I have been fired at and I have been detained by the authorities, but they are the usual things that go with the job."

In recent years Kaveh has been trawling through his archives of pictures for books documenting his eventful career.

Last year he brought out another book of 60 photographs of prominent scholars, novelists, artists, poets, writers and musicians from his country.

Kaveh is worried about the current situation in Iran, with tensions increasing between the country and the West in general, and America in particular. He believes Donald Trump is making things even more dangerous but he says things were bad long before he arrived in the White House.

Kaveh has dedicated his new book to the people of Northern Ireland, whom he praised for their willingness to embrace peace.

A selection of shots captured by Iranian photographer Kaveh Kazemi during the Troubles
A selection of shots captured by Iranian photographer Kaveh Kazemi during the Troubles

He's aware of the impasse at Stormont and the problems presented by Brexit. "But I hope the difficulties will pass," he said.

Kaveh is represented by the world's biggest photographic agency, Getty Images, who have a staggering 12,000 of his pictures on file - and they're still in big demand.

But the photographic industry is changing - and he believes it's not for the better.

"Everyone has a camera or a mobile nowadays, and the price of photographs has fallen sharply," he added.

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