We visited two places that are normally off-limits to journalists. These were unforgettable and important moments for me for very different reasons. First, after much red tape, we got permission to go into Balochistan, the heart of west Pakistan. I had been trying to go to Balochistan for many years, and finally with this story I was able. This region of Pakistan borders my country, Iran. I've been in exile from my homeland since 1981, so I was very happy to go here. I felt very close to Iran.
An unusual meeting opened the way to the second place. We'd been trying to get into Waziristan since 2004. We'd gone through all the proper channels, asking the Pakistani government and all the different military sections, but we were always turned down. Then one day I was at a wedding in Lahore, Pakistan, and I got talking to a man about cameras. It turned out he was a retired general, who actually lived in Virginia. I later exchanged emails with him. I talked about Waziristan and how for the past three years we had tried to get official permission to visit. Within 24 hours, he had arranged for a helicopter to fly us into Waziristan. This story reminds me that as a journalist it is always important to keep your main objective in mind, because sometimes you get the story through unthinkable channels.
Balochistan is a very dangerous place. It happened that three different times after we left our compound or a city, there were rocket attacks or suicide bombings. We were always on alert, living in the minute, aware that we were possible targets. We always had to keep in mind that maybe a person coming up to us to shake our hand might want to kidnap us or hurt us.
Pakistan has a very big heroin problem—the number of drug addicts is very high—and I wanted to photograph this story. Of course, the government does not want this story told, so, in Karachi, I took all the necessary precautions to make sure that the police would not follow me while I was working on this story. I even had an assistant be a lookout to warn of possible trouble. I didn't want to get myself or the addicts into trouble. But one day, I was under a bridge, where a lot of addicts live and shoot up heroin, when suddenly I heard the loud wail of police sirens and saw two police cars coming at high speed. I immediately thought: My god, they have been informed and now they are going to arrest me. The cars stopped, and I saw two policemen get out with their guns. They were yelling, "Who is the photographer? Where is the photographer?" I was very worried that they were going to take all my film and arrest me.
An officer came running up to me, but then he suddenly stopped. "Oh, you are Mr. Reza from National Geographic," he said. "I saw your film on the National Geographic Channel in Afghanistan. You are my hero. I love your work and I love what you do." He starts shaking my hand, and the other policeman does as well. And then the officer asks, "What are you doing here?" "Well, I'm just taking some pictures," I said. "You are taking pictures of drug addicts? This is nothing," he said. "I know much better places. I can take you to see all of them." All of a sudden everything changed because this man had seen my work on the Channel. He became my guide and took me to places that I never would have been able to see on my own.
This has happened many times to me. I'll be in a very remote place, and the people will say, Oh we have seen you on the National Geographic Channel. They then become very friendly and help me.