Photojournalist Moe Zoyari
"I truly love what I do, so it is never a job for me"
Interview: Nezih Tavlas / December 8, 2021
(Courtesy of H.F. )
Photojournalism News: What drew you to photojournalism?
Moe Zoyari: My father passed away in a car accident when I was 10. My family wasn’t poor but we definitely weren’t rich. And I always disliked asking my mother for money. So I started selling newspapers on the streets of my town a few years after my father’s death for a few months. As I was going back and forth to the office of this weekly paper, I got to love the atmosphere of it. Writers discussing the news, people running around not to miss the deadlines, etc. One day, the paper had a very important interview but the photographer didn’t show up. I told the editor that my brother has one of those old Russian Zenith film cameras, and I can take photos with it. The editor accepted my request and a week later the photo I took was published in the paper with my name next to it. I was 14 at the time, and I thought to myself that I am the most famous photographer in the world! That’s how it all started for me. Then I watched movies about photography, photojournalism, composition, light, and storytelling. It didn’t take too long to know what the power of pictures was and now it became a way for me to tell stories. And a few years of hard work took me to become a photographer for British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the United Press International (UPI) in Iran and the Middle East.
Photojournalism News. What equipment do you use? Do you have a favourite lens/camera?
Moe Zoyari: My whole life is in two backpacks. That’s all I have in this life. And one of those backpacks is filled with the tools I need to tell stories.
My main camera is a Sony A7III, a 35mm 1.8 lens, and an 85mm 1.8 lens which I only use for portraits or video interviews. A small DJI Mavic Air drone and a Fuji X100S for my daily photo walks. I use a Zoom H4N recorder and the Rode WirelessGo for video interviews. Plus a GoPro 8 for underwater or action shots. A few notebooks, memory cards and batteries and a couple power banks. I have the latest Macbook Pro to edit photos and videos and I shoot almost all my video b-rolls with my Samsung S21 Ultra. That’s all I carry with me.
Photojournalism News: What social media platforms do you use?
Moe Zoyari: I use Instagram and Facebook Page to share my daily photo walks. Twitter for breaking news and the state of the world and on my YouTube channel, I do mostly travel videos.
Photojournalism News: How do you prepare yourself before any assignment? What would you put in your camera bag for a typical task?
Moe Zoyari: I would say I almost always carry a camera with me. And with the new microscopical technology, I have my smartphone with me which has a great camera.
I research the location and the story first to see what I need to bring with me and what I should NOT take with me. I check to see what’s the dress code in that region or town so I wouldn’t stick out and try to blend in as much as possible. I would also message a few fixers or contacts through social media to see if I can establish a connection and get a feeling of the place before I visit. After I am finished with the assignment, I keep in contact with the people I worked with and the locals.
Photojournalism News: How would you best describe your style of work? What are you trying to say with your photography?
Moe Zoyari: I am a documentary photographer and anything that is related to the human beings and people of this blue planet. I try to be honest to myself, my craft and my subjects as much as I can and hope to tell whatever is happening at the scene in the truest, least biased way possible.
Photojournalism News: How many photos do you take for one story?
Moe Zoyari: There is no set number. Some stories are visually more interesting so I would try to capture everything and some not much. Goal is to cover all aspects of it from all viewpoints, visually and metaphorically.
(All images © Courtesy of Moe Zoyari )
Photojournalism News: What is the last trip you made?
Moe Zoyari: It was to the East of Turkey for an environmental story for one of the biggest news platforms, which unfortunately I can’t share more details on until the story is out. After that assignment is finished, I will go back to the country of Georgia to work on the story of a Catholic Nun.
Photojournalism News: What projects will you be working on next?
Moe Zoyari: My hope is to be able to get an assignment that is related to Global Warming and the effect of it on people and this planet.
Photojournalism News: Which of your photographs would you describe as your favourite? What makes them so special to you?
Moe Zoyari: It is an old photo of mine of a child looking back through women wearing Chador. The kid reminds me of myself, trying to look through darkness to find some hope and light.
Photojournalism News: What message do you want your photos to convey?
Moe Zoyari: Late Magnum photographer Abbas once said: “Photographers can’t change the world, but with photographs we can show why the world needs to change.” - I think right now with the power of social media, fake news, and misinformation our work has become harder than before. So what I aim for is to show a positive but honest portrait of humanity. In a way that would make a positive impact on a person or a society. We are currently not in the brightest years of humanity so a little bit of light in this era of confusion can help a bit.
Photojournalism News: What does a photo need to be great in your eyes?
Moe Zoyari: It needs to tell me a story. It needs to have an excellent composition, lighting and that golden moment. Nowadays with the help of smartphones and social media everyone thinks that they are photographers, which is fine. But what people need to understand is that one or two good photos doesn’t make you a good photographer. It’s a line, not a few dots. It’s years of good work that make one a distinguished photographer.
Photojournalism News: In the digital age people consume billions of photos every single day, under the circumstances what could make a photo memorable?
Moe Zoyari: About a decade ago, you had to work on a project for months and then make an exhibition of it which a few hundred people might see in person. But now, with the power of mainstream media and social media, one can share a photo with thousands of people around the world within seconds which wasn't possible 15 years or so ago. So, I would say to stay in people’s mind, your best chance is to visit interesting and eventful places, bring photos that are powerful both in telling a story and be rich visually. If that photo can make an impact and make one think deeply even for a few seconds, you have been successful in your work.
(All images © Courtesy of Moe Zoyari )
Photojournalism News: What motivates you to continue taking pictures and what do you do to keep motivated?
Moe Zoyari: I truly love what I do. So it is never a job for me. I have been doing it for 21 years now and I would do it all over again without a single regret. If you ask most people what would you do if you had an unlimited amount of money, most people would choose another job or career. Not us. We have the camera as a passport to visit any place we want. Seriously, I don’t know any other form of art where you can literally go knock on someone's door and say: “Hey! I am here to tell your story.” And they would gladly open the door for you. So what better motivation than not only to see this world as a photojournalist, but be a voice for the deliberately silenced and preferably unheard people and be able to support yourself financially off what you love? It’s magical.
Photojournalism News: What was the biggest professional risk you have taken and what was the outcome?
Moe Zoyari: I was born in a small town and the thought of leaving my mother’s home at the age of 16 and moving to the capital was already insane. The first few days of my move, I had to sleep on park benches as I didn’t have enough money. A few years later, I won the Picture of the Year (POYi), left my country when I was only 20 years old for good to Europe and then to the United States. Every single step was a risk but the outcome has been rich. Now I have visited and worked in 56 countries and consider myself a person with no land. A true world citizen.
Photojournalism News: What would be your dream assignment?
Moe Zoyari: Because of the current political situation in my home country Iran, I haven’t been able to go back for more than 12 years now. I would love to go back and visit my own people again without having to fear an arrest. I would also love to visit Israel and Palestine one day too.
Photojournalism News: What are the essential skills/ qualities a photojournalist should have?
Moe Zoyari: Of course you need to know the political state of the world. Relations of countries and cultures. Know a language other than your mother tongue. Know your equipment and your abilities. But these are the basics. The important part is to know that you are the eye in a place that you are sent to. You may be the only “eye” there. So what you do, what you shoot and what you publish matters. And you need to have a skill or a gut sense or instinct that’s yours and yours only and nobody can teach you that.
Photojournalism News: What do you think about the digital manipulation of images?
Moe Zoyari: That’s a big NO. Most that do that are after personal gains, such as awards or fame. That’s not why we do what we do. We don’t go to conflicts or war torn countries to get an award. We truly go there to see what’s happening there and to show it to the others.
If you get an award from what you have already done a hard work on is great, but if you go there JUST for the sake of getting an award or you manipulate a picture or an event or a scenario to make it look visually more powerful for personal gain, then there is no place for your act or you in this craft.
Photojournalism News: What does it mean to be an ethical photojournalist?
Moe Zoyari: I believe this is something that can be taught. A photojournalist needs to be honest, and be able to empathize with his or her surroundings while he/she does his/her work.
Photojournalism News: How do you see the role of photojournalism evolving in the world? Do you think photojournalism is losing its importance?
Moe Zoyari: Good journalism is not. Yes, we have more platforms now and the ability to make a platform ourselves with the help of social media which anyone could join and start publishing their own ideas. But we work with facts. No beliefs. We just need to be true to our beliefs, ethics and standards. The oldest news agency is 175 years old now and they have had many ups and downs but they are still standing strong among many other great ones. I believe the platforms are changing and we should use them. So no, photojournalism is as important as it was 175 years ago if not more.
Photojournalism News: Do you have any advice for aspiring photojournalists?
Moe Zoyari: Be authentic. Work on stories that you are passionate about. As my mentor legendary photojournalist John H. White would say: “If you don’t tell your story, nobody will”. So, don’t worry about money, access, technology or competition. Tell the story you are passionate about and the world will listen.
Moe is an Iranian American photojournalist and multimedia producer, who began his career as a photographer at the age of 14, focusing his work around human rights issues and political turmoil in Iran. Afterwards, he expanded his reach, covering events in the Middle East, Europe and the United States, earning the Pictures of the Year International award multiple times. He has documented stories in more than 50 countries for a goal to be a voice for the deliberately silenced and preferably unheard people. These stories are illustrated in his books and have been published in national and international journals and publications, including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Time, and Der Spiegel, among others. He graduated summa cum laude from Columbia College Chicago with a B.A. in Multimedia Photojournalism.