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MJ: Maybe we can talk about a couple of the images. I’m looking at number 6. There’s a father taking a picture of his daughters with a little camera.
NT: That picture was taken around 2am. At night many people are sleeping, resting from the long day. But it’s also less busy so some people take the opportunity to visit the Grand Mosque when the crowds have left. While wandering through the corridors of the Mosque, I met this family. The father was with his four daughters who were dressed up in Hajj dresses, and I thought they were so cute. The father was so excited to be there, sharing the moment with the family. When he started taking pictures of the girls, I thought this was a nice moment to capture. Generally Muslims are too often portrayed as large groups, not individuals. The picture of a father being happy with his children hopefully shows that there is fun and happiness out there.
MJ: I haven’t seen a lot of pictures of families there; usually the images are of crowds. There was another one in a hospital. I thought that was interesting because usually pictures of Hajj are outside with beautiful buildings.
NT: Hajj is expensive. To go there and come back you need at least five thousand dollars. Because when you go on the pilgrimage, you have to return with gifts for all your family members. There are cost for hotels and transportation. People from countries like Yemen or Bangladesh spend so much money to buy tickets to get to Saudi Arabia and Mecca that they want to stay a long time. They don’t want to just go there for 4 days; some people who go there stay for one month. So it’s an expensive trip. Not many young people can afford to go there. Many people who go are old and have saved up for a large part of their lives to do the pilgrimage.
Some even pass away while they are there. I saw over 20 dead people on the street, wrapped up in white sheets. They died because they were too old, from heat, from pressure. This gave me the idea to spend one day only in the hospital and take pictures. Also National Geographic magazine supported me on this trip and they had asked for behind-the-scenes images of the pilgrimage.
I also want to point out that many Muslims want to go to Hajj, but the Saudi government cannot handle all of them, especially because Mecca is a small town. The authorities say they cannot deal with more than 2 million people, and point at disasters in the past in which pilgrims died in stampedes or giant fires in the tent camps. So you have to apply to come to Mecca during the Hajj. Your country has to submit your name, and you wait until it’s your turn. For example, if I were to submit my name as a pilgrim, it would take 17 or 18 years until I could go. As a photographer, different rules apply.
MJ: Maybe we can talk about the last photo, of your white dress hanging up in the window. It’s really poetic. I wonder if you have any special feeling about it.
NT: One of the special things about Hajj is the dress. Everybody wears the same dress, all in white. That is quite impressive. The idea is that everyone is the same in front of god, it doesn’t matter where you came from or if you’re poor, rich, black, white, or yellow, you all look the same in the same dress. That was why I took the opening picture of my ironing board and the Hajj dress; the clothes were the main symbol of the pilgrimage before I started the trip. When I returned, I hung the dress at the window, as a souvenir. The next evening, when I walked into my workroom, the image suddenly struck me and I knew that the dress pictures would be my opening and ending shots.
Before I went to Hajj, I decided to mix my work with the intimacy of my personal trip there. Since I work with Polaris news agency, most of my work has been straight photojournalism. Being a photojournalist in Iran, where I work and live, poses certain challenges, so I am now focusing on documentary series, which I really enjoy.
Non-Muslims cannot enter Mecca, so I decided that I wanted to show the pilgrimage like the journey that it is, close to the people, seen through their eyes. I hope my images give people a realistic idea of what it is like to be there.