Iranian photographer Hossein Fatemi, who has been based in Kabul since 2009, began working with Panos Pictures this year.
Panos Pictures Editor David Arnott talked to Hossein about why he left Iran and how he became the first Iranian to embed with the US military.
How long have you been working in Afghanistan? Why did you move there from Iran?
My first trip to Afghanistan was in 2007, when I came here on a month-long assignment. Following the Iranian elections last year and the persecution of journalists that followed, I could no longer work in Iran. My freelance press card was not extended by the Iranian authorities, prompting me to come to work in Afghanistan.
Around twenty Iranian photographers sought asylum in the USA and Europe. I didn’t want to give up my passion for photography, preferring to work in a country where I can improve my portfolio without all the difficulties associated with working in Iran.
Can you tell me a bit more about what happened to you after the election in Iran? Did you take a lot of photos during the protests and how did you distribute them? Were you ever arrested or threatened by the authorities?
To the extent that I could work I did. At that time I was working for one of the wire services so my images appeared in Time and some other magazines, but because I was accredited to a foreign media I was super careful not to be targeted by the authorities. So I was never arrested or threatened.
Do you think that, as an Iranian, you have a different perspective on the situation in Afghanistan to other members of the media, the Europeans and Americans?
Sure. Afghanistan is an Islamic country and we share the same language, so I have a better understanding and knowledge of Islam and Afghan culture therefore these things distinguish me from American or European photographers.
Did it take a long time to secure the embed with the Marines? Do you think it was any harder for you than it would have been for an American photographer?
Iranian and Afghan photographers always thought that they couldn’t get embedded with Americans. Having only an Iranian passport, I thought there was no way I’d manage the embed. But I applied, just in case I were to get the opportunity. And to my huge surprise, I got it. I realised that the process for embedding with Marines is the same, whether you’re American, European or Iranian.
Did you find it easy to relate to the Marines on a personal level? Did they treat you like one of the team?
It was very interesting for me to become the first Iranian to embed. On a personal level, relations with the Marines were excellent. They were so good with me and they respected me all the time. Even though we were in areas where there was little running water, I managed at one point to cook some Iranian food for them so they would get a taste for Iranian culture. I made the Persian dishes of ghorme sabri and ghayme sabzi for them. They returned the gesture by giving me a gift of a bracelet and a cross.
In fact, they were more helpful to me than they are to American or European photographers who embed with them. They gave me every facility they had in their camp for themselves. The base was built new and there were not enough beds so one of the team captains gave his bed to me when I arrived on the first day.
For them it was truly bizarre to find an Iranian among them. Some were so surprised, they thought I was joking until I showed them my Iranian passport.
Hossein Fatemi with the US Marines. Afghanistan, 2010.
What was your impression of the feelings of the Marines? Did they seem optimistic about the progress of the war?
I think they were optimistic. They live in very difficult circumstances in Afghanistan and were very good with local people.
Did you talk to them at all about the political issues between the governments of Iran and the USA?
We discussed more often about Islam and Iran in general. Their ideas were against the Iranian government more than against Iranians themselves who they said they liked, and some of them had Iranian friends in the US.
Since you have been in Afghanistan, have you been publishing your pictures in the Iranian media? Will you publish these pictures of the Marines in Iran?
No, I haven’t given my work to Iranian media and I don’t think that they’d want it. The Iranian press agency for which I used to work, which has strong links with the Revolutionary Guard, has publicly disowned me as an Iranian photographer and said I’m a collaborator with the Americans.
Click here to see Hossein’s story The Surge and click below to watch a profile of him on the BBC Persian service.