Abbas and me


The short story is that the photo credit for the cover image goes to Mr. Abbas Rahbar.  But there’s a longer back story of all that was involved in finding the photographer and getting the permissions.

One of the best things about working with a small press like Plain View is that the author gets to choose a cover.  I was excited by the possibility, yet I didn’t have a preconceived idea of what I wanted for Layla.

I began to search through images online.  It amazed me how many photographs were available, yet none of them seemed right.  Still, the process of looking enabled me to get a sense of what I wanted: a somewhat melancholy mood and an indication of a journey.  Then one day, after plugging in a some combination of key words, the image that became the cover of my book popped up.

It was so right.  No only was it strikingly beautiful, but it had everything I hadn’t known I was looking for: The hint of a young woman, an ambiguous figure in the distance.  The sense of movement as she walks toward that figure.  The fact that it was a desert landscape, where a pivotal scene in the novel takes place.  A sense of longing.

I quickly copied the image and the url and went to the Flickr (file-sharing) site to locate the photographer and ask for permission to use the photo.  But the url didn’t connect to anything.  Many hours of searching, the Help Desk, and a photo researcher finally got me to a subset of 5,000 images, and, after hours of scrolling through, Eureka! A name - “Horizon” - and an email address.

But weeks went by, and there was no answer to the email.  Returning to Flickr, I saw that the photographer had not been active on the site for years.  I had to conclude that the email was no longer in use.  Another dead end.  Meanwhile, my book was sailing through production, and time was running out.

I considered giving up, but the photograph had too strong a hold on me.  From the Flickr site I discovered that Horizon was from Iran, an engineer.  I Googled photographer + Iran + engineer, and generated a surprisingly long list of prospects to take back to the Flickr site. There I scrolled, one name at a time, hoping to match a name with “my” photo.  But again, no luck.

Yet among the photographers was one whose work included a montage of faces of other photographers. I looked closely, and spotted “Horizon.”  Excited, I immediately sent a message to the photographer, asking if he could put me in touch with the mysterious Horizon.  I was sure now that I was just one step away from having contact information.  But again, there was no response.  What I didn’t know at that point was that the Iranian government had banned the Flickr file sharing site altogether.

Frustrated – maybe nuts? - I went back to that montage, as if I could intuit the name behind “Horizon.” I don’t know what made me think to right-click on the photo, but there, suddenly, it was: Abbas Rahbar. 

When I Googled the name, I couldn’t believe my luck – Abbas Rahbar had just opened a Twitter account; he had a Facebook page.  Again I sent off a message, and once again I waited.

But this time, finally, success.  Yes, this was his photo.  Yes, I could have permission.  I was ecstatic.  Then, of course, there were other problems.  We had trouble transferring the file to the publisher and working out other logistics. There were anxious days when we were working out details and I didn’t hear from him.  This was during the unsettled days in Iran during 2010, and I was worried Facebook might be shut down.  Mostly I was worried for my new friend’s safety.

Somehow or other it all worked out.  I can’t wait to send him the book as soon as it’s out.  Maybe we’ll even get to meet someday, somewhere.

In the meantime, you too can enjoy Mr. Rahbar’s work on Facebook and at http://www.flickr.com/photos/horizon/.