World-renowned photographer

Born: March 29, 1944;

Died, April 25, 2018

ABBAS Attar, known professionally simply as Abbas, who has died aged 74, was one of the finest news, features and war photographers of the last 50 years. To newspaper and magazine editors around the world, his name under an image was a guarantee of both quality and humanity. To foreign correspondents like myself, he was a legend and his awards are too many to mention.

As a correspondent arriving alone in a strange country, often in a combat zone, it was always a relief to see Abbas and his camera in a doorway across the street, gesturing me to stay down and pointing out whence the gunfire was coming. His dark Persian eyes, thick black beard and often a Kurdish-style black-and-white chequered scarf sent out a sense of calmness to his colleagues as he clicked his shutter during extremely dangerous situations. If you wanted to get the story and get out safely, you stuck close to Abbas. I did so during the 1978/79 Iranian revolution; he helped keep me safe and he became one of my dearest friends, bumping into him whenever there was a major world story, whether in Mexico, Chile, Cuba or the Middle East.

Iranian-born but a longtime resident of Paris, he worked for all the big photo agencies, initially Sipa and Gamma but for most of his career for the Paris-based Magnum photo agency, generally considered the world's best and co-founded in 1947 by two of the greatest photographers of the time, Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

"The school of Henri Cartier-Bresson, they draw with light, they sketch with light,” Abbas once said. “The single picture is paramount for them. For me, that was never the point. My pictures are always part of a series, an essay. Each picture should be good enough to stand on its own but its value is a part of something larger.”

He often called himself "a historian of the present." Having witnessed and photographed death carried out in the name of religion, he spent his later years creating photo essays or books on, as he put it, "what people do in the name of God." Among these books was Iran: the Confiscated Revolution (1980) in which his images showed that Iran's revolutionary muslim leaders could be as brutal as the régime of the Shah they had deposed.

Abbas Attar was born on March 29, 1944, in the Baluchistan region of Iran, close to the Pakistani border, while his country was ruled by Shah (Emperor) Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. (35 years later, in 1979, Abbas would chronicle, through his images, the downfall of the Shah and the revolution which created the clergy-led Islamic state which still rules).

When he was eight, his family moved to Algeria where he got his first taste of war during that nation's fight for independence from France. “I grew up in a situation of violence,” he once said. “But war is not just ‘boom boom.’ Wars are a complex phenomenon, not only physical violence, but also psychological, social and emotional.” He took up journalism and photography when he was 18.

A lover of sports, he covered the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico and the 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire when he took some of the most memorable photos of Ali. "He (Ali) was like a film director and we were essentially working for him," Abbas recalled. He covered the later years of the Vietnam war, Bangladesh's fight for independence, the Biafran war in Nigeria, the Arab-Israeli conflicts, the troubles in Northern Ireland, the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and, of course, the revolution in his native Iran.

One of his most famous photos was of supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini, the muslim revolutionary leader, dragging away a woman they said had been a supporter of the Shah. Her fate was unknown but it is unlikely she survived that day.

Fascinated, sometimes even obsessed by how religion can lead to extremism, Abbas set out on a mission to study, photographically, as many religions as he could. In 1987, he published a book of images titled Allah O Akbar: a Journey Through Militant Islam. Needless to say, it did not go down well with Iran's muslim cleric leaders but after the 9/11 attacks in New York City, it proved with hindsight to be a haunting warning of what Islamist extremists were capable of.

A later book, In Whose Name? The Islamic World after 9/11 (published in 2009) followed up his theme of how supposed faith can lead to murderous extremism. He went on to chronicle photographically other religions or beliefs - Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and possibly the world's oldest religion, animism, which believes not only human beings but animals, plants, objects, have a distinct spiritual essence. Abbas's eyes and self-effacing demeanour always suggested to me that he was at one with the universe.

Once asked by an interviewer about his own relationship with God, he replied: "it's purely professional. I mean, God doesn't tell me what to do, how to photograph. And I don't tell him how he should deal with his believers, you know."

Announcing Abbas's death, the president of the Magnum photo agency, Thomas Dworzak, said: "Abbas was a pillar of Magnum, a godfather for a generation of younger photojournalists. An Iranian transplanted to Paris, he was a citizen of the world he relentlessly documented; its wars, its disasters, its revolutions and upheavals, and its beliefs – all his life. It is with immense sadness that we lose him. May the gods and angels of all the world’s major religions he photographed so passionately be there for him.”

Abbas is survived by his former wife Melisa, four sons, seven grandchildren and a great grandchild. I, for one, shall never forget him.