London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Iranian photographer Mohammad Ali Berno was named the 2014 Photographer of the Year at the Prix de la Photographie (Px3) last month. His winning work, The Last Moment, was a series depicting the last ten minutes of the lives of two Iranians who were executed in public for mugging a pedestrian in Tehran.
Iranian state television broadcast a video of the attack, caught on security cameras, which was also uploaded on YouTube. The broadcast caught the public’s attention and swayed opinion toward the execution despite widespread criticism among Iranian society of the harsh punishment.
Berno began his career in 1998 as a sports photographer with the Iranian press. From 2003, he began photographing scenes of a sociopolitical nature. He won several local awards; the Px3 is his first international decoration.
Berno was unable to travel to the award ceremony in Paris due to visa issues. Asharq Al-Awsat caught up with him via phone from Tehran to talk to him about his achievements and the controversy surrounding his winning collection.
Asharq Al-Awsat: You photographed scenes of execution in Iran, which aroused sharp international criticism. Do you think there were political reasons behind your win?
Mohammad Ali Berno: There have been many assumptions in this regard. Yet, it is clear that the juries at photography competitions do not include politicians. Most jury members have either pursued a photography career for news channels or served on juries at festivals or competitions. Those jury members must only take into consideration the basic technical and informative characteristics of the photo, rather than the political dimension. Jury members abstain from inserting politics or making personal judgments that would distort the image of the competition.
Q: Photographers and journalists appear at critical moments, but should conceal their own feelings. How did you handle this situation?
Being part of special moments is part and parcel of my career and my life in general. Yet, as a human being, I may get affected by sad or happy occurrences.
Q: Your The Last Moment series had a sad and dark quality. How do you feel about this, especially as numerous photos that meet with successes are those that capture moments of bitterness?
I feel happy, because I succeeded in capturing a certain moment. I feel the bitterness of the photos I take, yet this did not prevent me from professionally pursuing my career. For years, we have noticed how most photos have captured sad news and bitter occurrences, but what matters is that the bitterness of these occurrences and the need to capture them on camera, to record that moment in history, are two separate things. We should not avoid capturing these moments on camera and showing them just because they are sad. We must also not neglect an important issue: Taking photos must not prevent us from offering a humane service or providing assistance when possible.
Q: Did you use a special camera to take these photos? Can good photos be taken without using good cameras?
I used the same camera I always use. Using a good camera is not everything in the art of photography. Even in international competitions in the past few years, you notice the number of photos taken on mobile phones. Several elements are considered as important as having a good camera: This includes fixing the scene’s borders, light, instant choice of subject matter and careful thought before taking the photo.
Q: How will you receive your prize in view of the sanctions that hinder the transfer of money into Iran?
The decoration and certificate of appreciation can be sent by post, and I’m hopeful that the efforts exerted by [Iranian foreign minister] Mr. Zarif and his colleagues will be fruitful and that the negotiations will lead to a positive result and will remove the sanctions.
Q: What is the best photo you have ever taken, and what is the story behind it?
I think the photo of [Iranian president] Dr. Rouhani, which I took during the visits he made to the city of Urmia during his presidential campaign in 2013, was one of the best I have ever taken. Dr. Rouhani was exchanging greetings with girls and young men who waved to him from inside their cars. The photo showed an exchange of emotions between the new generation and a prominent political figure in a scene that aroused strong emotions.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I would like to answer and react to those who consider this photo and the award I received as one that has a political motive. The change of punitive laws in a country is not something that comes under the photographer’s authority. However, taking photos of the social disorder and its outcomes could function as a step toward raising awareness and decreasing crime rates. We live in a world in which cameras and news media, or even mobile phones used by amateur users, do not miss anything. These days, everything is watched and recorded even if there is no camera.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Persian.