2002 — professional winner
Kai Wiedenhöfer, born in Germany in 1966, received a MA in photography and editorial design from the Folkwang School in Essen and studied Arabic in Damascus, Syria. Since 1989 the focus of his work is mainly the Middle East. He has received numerous awards, such as the Leica Medal of Excellence, the Alexia Grant for World Peace and Cultural Understanding, World Press Photo Awards, the Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography and lately the Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism Award. He has published three books with Steidl “Perfect Peace“ (2002) , “Wall“ (2007) and “The Book of Destruction“ (2010) which was exhibited as a solo exhibition in the Musée d´Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Currently, he is working on a book about separation and border barriers worldwide which will be published by Steidl in summer 2012.
How has the Alexia grant influenced your career?
I got some new thoughts, see last question
How did your project lead to greater exposure or solutions for your
issue of focus?
Honestly the support for the Iranian reform movement from the West was
appalling and very disappointing. This also made the rise of
Ahmadinejad possible. Surely my pictures show a more positive way of
life of young people in Iran.
But solutions have to come from inside the country and the exposure
through TV or Youtube for example during the last elections fraud is
what makes people think about Iran and not photojournalism. This is also
due to the fact that there is almost no access anymore to Iran for
journalists - visas are denied.
Tell us about a moment from the project that you will never forget.
The moment the Iranians withdrew my residence visa after being in the
country for 3 weeks in late 2003.
Have you, or do you plan on expanding your project? How so?
Access to Iran is blocked. I still love the people & country but have to
wait for a mayor political change there which will make working possible
The book dummy "Azadi" (Freedom) for the project is still standing
around and waits to be continued.
How has being a part of the Alexia community changed the way you view
It has not change my view of the world but it made very aware of the
Lockerbie bombing and the effects that it has on people who lose
relatives in such an attack. Generally I think more about people who are
left behind in violent attacks/conflicts with their physical or/and
psychological consequences and the fact that they are out of the media
coverage very quick but have to deal with these consequences mostly for
the rest of their life. This idea I incorporate in my latest project in
Today about 60% of Persians are under 25 years old. Since the Islamic revolution in 1979 the population has doubled to 74 million. As a result, even conservative clerics had to support a campaign of birth reduction. Contraceptives are handed out for free and a PR campaign to reduce population grown is carried out. The growth created serious problems -- especially in housing, education, and the labor market.
About 20% of the theologians admit that the Islamic revolution has failed. These reform theologians are very supportive of a democratic society and want to separate state and religion again. They are the heroes of the young generation and have often been imprisoned. This change within has the best chance to reform the political leadership and Iran. Their power base is the young generation, which is not so different from the youth in other countries. They want to have a boy/girlfriend, hear music (preferably Western -- even Metallica, etc.), go to parties, enjoy their hobbies like inline skating or surfing. They are very worried about their future, as there are big economic problems. Salaries are low, rents are too expensive, even for graduate students who have managed to get a job. At the same time the education system cannot absorb the growing number of students. Out of despair, a lot of young people start talking drugs. A dose of heroin costs the equivalent of a liter of milk. This has created a big problem for the government which even sends anti-drug squads for training to Canada. Since 1980, 10,000 police officers have been killed in drug fighting.
Another problem I want to explore is women rights which is high on the agenda of young women. This often finds its expression in sports (like paragliding and the first women football team, which was just founded). As Iran was the spearhead of the Islamic movement and has a lot of impact on other Muslim countries, its failure and the lessons learned will also send signals to other Islamic communities outside Iran.
Iran has a very negative image in the West where it is thought to be controlled by fundamentalism. I was very much surprised when I spent a week there on an assignment in June 2001, because I also had a negative view of the country in my mind. Western media mostly stick to the clichés like the Mullah state oppressing democratic reformists. I would like to show the country in a more positive way, though not overlooking its problems. Breaking these clichés would further the understanding in the West and raise support for a positive development. A more positive image of Islam and the Middle East is my target with this story.
To further understanding, I also have to understand what is going on around me. Hence, I need to speak the native language. Language creates trust and good pictures mostly live from the trust people have in the photographer. I speak and read Arabic, which I studied in Damascus. This was my base for specializing on the Middle East for the last ten years working mainly in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and the occupied Palestinian territories (a book on the work will be published by DAP/Steidl in 2002). I have already started learning Persian. As about one third of the words are of Arabic origin, it is not too difficult for me. I intend to visit first a three-month language course at the Dekhoda Institute in Teheran and then carry out the project in another four months. Iran is a very cheap country and the money the grant provides would be enough for this long stay.