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Arts & Culture

Why India, Mecca And Las Vegas Struck A Chord With This Iconic Iranian Photographer

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now to Iran, where we'll meet a veteran photographer. His most famous photo was of an Iranian protester years ago, but he's also used photography to explore the world. He spoke with NPR's Peter Kenyon in Tehran about his career and some of his favorite scenes.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The walls of Jamshid Bayrami's Tehran apartment are lined with some of his photographs from Iran and around the world. Bayrami says he dropped out before graduating from high school, convinced that he needed to learn about the world firsthand, seeing for himself. He says through an interpreter that he also fell in love with capturing images of the people and places he saw.

JAMSHID BAYRAMI: (Through interpreter) In fact, I'm in love with traveling and journey to various places. And I love to take my camera when I am traveling to take photos. So in fact, I can say I started with social documentary photos first. And later on, indirectly, I was taken into news journalism.

KENYON: One of Bayrami's best-known news pictures landed on the cover of The Economist magazine. It was taken during student protests in 1999, which were brutally put down by security forces. It features a young demonstrator holding a bloody T-shirt above his head. Bayrami says the young man was chanting along with the other demonstrators. But it was when he suddenly fell silent that the photographer saw the image he wanted.

BAYRAMI: (Through interpreter) I took several photos, several frames from this gentleman. I noticed one of them in which he is silent. And his silence draw my attention to it. And to me, that picture and that person looked more like Che Guevara. And that's why I decided to choose this photo and sent it to the newspapers.

KENYON: Che Guevara, the Argentine revolutionary, is one of the people Bayrami says he would have loved to photograph. Another is Nelson Mandela. He also says he'd like to photograph Donald Trump, mainly to tell him that Iran is an important and civilized country with some 7,000 years of history.

Looking over a career spanning three decades of taking pictures in some 30 countries, Bayrami says India stands out for the sheer multitude of scenes and images it offers. He calls it a university for photography. He also singles out two other places he's photographed for special mention, a combination you might not be expecting.

BAYRAMI: (Through interpreter) One is Mecca, in which every year about 3 million people or Muslims coming together wearing a simple uniform kind of dress, no difference, all in white. And that is very interesting for me to see. And the other place which impressed me most was the Las Vegas in the United States of America, in which I notice a large crowd of thousands and thousands of people who were very happy and enjoying the time.

KENYON: Bayrami has seen the tools of his trade evolve and change over the decades. He says he was one of the last photographers in Iran to make the switch to a digital camera. When asked what it is about capturing moments in time that attracts him, he thinks for a bit and suggests it probably has something to do with the power of an image to transcend cultural and language barriers and communicate with many different people on an emotional level. He says the great French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson said it best.

BAYRAMI: (Non-English language spoken).

KENYON: "Photography addresses all groups and nationalities in the world," he says, "whether a person is illiterate, literate or an intellectual." But the important point, he adds, was expressed by Cartier-Bresson when he said, quote, "A good photo is when one's mind, heart and eyes click the shutter at the same time."

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Tehran.

(SOUNDBITE OF WILCO SONG, "KAMERA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.