Fatemeh Behboudi

Interview by Susann Tischendorf

(Left)  In recent years, the bodies of about 7,000 Iranian martyrs have been found and they have been buried under the name of 'Unknown Martyrs' because they cannot be identified. At present, over 5,000 other martyrs are still in Iraqi territory. Corpses are found and brought to Iran every few months. In this case eighty Iranian bodies were found in Iraq.  The bodies are in Iraq waiting for a license to go to Iran.
(Right)  Many of the mothers of the missing soldiers know nothing about what happened to their sons. For many years, they have been leaving the door of their homes open or keeping the lights on.  Anbar Jaberi (72), the mother of martyr Nematollah Jaberi, has waited 28 years for news of her son.  She always opens the door in case her son might be alive and come home one day.  


(Left) Nearly two million people travel to war-torn areas each year. The people of Iran believe that these areas are holy because of the blood of the Iranian martyrs who were killed in the war. Many of them are families of martyrs and travel to those areas to pray and mourn for their martyred family members.
(Right) The cemetery of Iranian martyrs that were killed in Iran and Iraq war. This place is the biggest cemetery in Iran and includes 33,000 martyrs, of whom 4,000 are still not identified. The portrait of a martyr on an unknown grave faded by the sunlight over the years. 

What are the obstacles you face as a photographer and how do you overcome them?

It is a hard question. I can say that the dream of an Iranian woman to become a photographer is harder to make come true than for women in other countries because she has to fight against many restrictions imposed by family and society in Iran's patriarchal community. She has to try to prove her capabilities. Therefore, much of her energies are wasted in this way.

The most important obstacles that I have faced as a photographer were lack of financial support for photography projects, large number of restrictions for choosing the projects in Iran, a ban on working with the foreign media, and being ignored because of gender discrimination. I have many times been deprived of a proper salary, better assignments, contracts with the news agencies and ability to continue projects which needed permission in Iran because of being a woman.

I tried to prove with my work that being a woman does not mean weakness to confront the obstacles. I wanted to prove that women can also have a powerful view in photography but it is a difficult job because sometimes I doubt the hope and belief that I have in myself and my job.

You are working on the effects of war on people. Why did you decide to dedicate yourself to this topic?

I was born during the Iran-Iraq war (1979) and I have witnessed the deep wounds of war in people's lives since childhood and have felt their pains closely. Two of my family members were killed in Saddam's bombing of Kashan city and another one was martyred during the war. I have spent all my childhood and adolescence during war and creating an image of this issue is especially important to me.

What has persuaded me to work on this issue is that I felt that around the world people do not know so much about the Iran-Iraq war, its victims and the impact of a war on the next generation, as well as the damages and pains that people have faced.

I wanted to have a new look at war. A look that the people of the Middle East may understand better because their lives have always been full of war, threat and sanctions. Therefore, possibly, a western photographer can never feel it completely.

By choosing this project, I wanted to say that a war is never over, that it lives forever, so that, possibly, one day my projects can create questions in people's minds across the world and prevent new wars.

The photographs that you see are from the four projects that I have worked on in Iran so far:

Mothers of Patience is about the life of Iranian martyrs in the Iran-Iraq war whose bodies have not returned home and their mothers have for over 30 years waited for them.

Martyr Is Alive is a story of the Iranian people's life and culture in Tehran's cemetery which hosts tombs of 30,000 martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war and where people spend the most important events of their lives beside the martyrs. They believe that the martyrs are alive.

This City Has No Hero is a story of a war-hit border city, Khorramshahr, which was famous as the pride of Iran's ports before the Iran-Iraq war. Eighty percent of the city was destroyed during the war and it has not come back to life like its pre-war situation.

Trip to Holy Land is an unfinished project of the Iranian people's trip to the war-hit regions in the country. Every year, nearly two million Iranians visit these regions in which the country's soldiers have been martyred.


(Left)  All mothers are crying for their sons . They do not know where their sons’ bodies are or whether their sons are alive or dead?  Anbar Jaberi (72) has waited 28 years. She is crying over her son’s clothes. This is the only way for her for be calm.
(Right) The body of martyr Hashem Khalili (16) was found on Iraq's Majnoun Island after 31 years. His body was identified by a plate and toothbrush. The plate is the only token remaining for his mother (Khadijeh Sha'bani, 64) 

Your hope is to help prevent future wars through photography as people will be more aware of the possible effects of wars when they have seen the images. Are there examples already today where you witnessed your photography influencing people? 

I think that my most influential project is Mothers of Patience. I received amazing feedback from people after releasing the project and receiving awards from World Press Photo and exhibitions that I had in several countries. Many people across the world sent me messages that they had cried on seeing my photos because they did not know about the victims of the war and they want to hear more stories about the Iran-Iraq war. Many others sent me messages saying that there are also other lost young people in other countries of the world, including Kashmir, Afghanistan, Argentina and Mexico, whose mothers are waiting for their return.

I know that no documentary project can make a miracle and prevent wars but I wanted to awaken people again by these projects so that they understand their world and ask where we are living and how the policies of our governments can damage other nations.

 Your project ‘Hope’ documents the lives of mothers of missing soldiers of the Iran-Iraq War. What about these women interests you and are there still many of them today given that the war ended in 1988?

The bodies of over 11,000 Iranian soldiers went missing in the Iran-Iraq war and 7,000 of them were found in the Iranian territories in recent years but they have been buried under the name of unknown martyrs for not having any identity. The number of mothers waiting for the bodies of their beloved ones stood at 11,000 but unfortunately nearly 80% of them have passed away.

These women have spent their young days with hope, pain, waiting and loving but they did not pay attention that they have lost their life during these years. Their only wish is to find even a part of their sons' body so that they can die in tranquility after that.

What do you think about the fact that people who were killed in the conflict were declared martyrs for their country? 

I believe that those who have been killed during war and on the way of defending their land and people are the real heroes and are called martyrs. In my view, the word 'martyr' is not special to any territories and religion and anyone who stands to defend righteousness and freedom against oppression and sacrifices his or her life is called 'martyr'.


(Left) Nearly two million people travel to war-torn areas each year. The people of Iran believe that these areas are holy because of the blood of the Iranian martyrs who were killed in the war. Many of them are families of martyrs and travel to these areas to pray and mourn of their martyred family members.
(Right) People a taking pictures of war memorials in the war-torn areas.

Are there photographers who inspire you or influenced you to become a photographer?

Yes, certainly. When I started photography, I did not know much about documentary photography because I was self-taught. The first one whose work surprised me was James Nachtway . Abbas Attar, Alfred Yaghobzadeh, and Stanley Greene are great photographers that taught me how to see and think about photography. I have never had the opportunity to meet Mr. Attar or Mr. Greene but I have seen Mr. Yaghobzadeh a few months ago.  

Are there any books that you could recommend reading related to documentary and photojournalistic work?

Photojournalism by Kenneth Kobre 
Nothing and Amen by Oriana Fallaci
Henry Cartier-Bresson  - Le Tir Photographique by Clément Chéroux

Is there anything you would like to add to this interview that I possibly forgot to ask you?

First, I'd like to thank dear Maggie Steber for her kindness and unparalleled patience. Especially on the hard days that I had in photography, she was always beside me .

I’m also thankful to those who have supported me and I apologize to them that I cannot work so much. Because I am a freelance photographer, and the new economic sanctions against Iran and other changes have made photography conditions for me very difficult and this makes me move much more slowly than in the past. 


The cemetery of Iranian martyrs that were killed in the Iran and Iraq war. This place is the biggest cemetery in Iran and includes 33,000 martyrs, of whom 4000 are still not identified. The portrait of Iranian martyr who were killed in the Iran and Iraq war when he was 16 years old.