When Babak Tafreshi was 13 years old growing up in Tehran, Iran, a neighbor lent him a telescope to look at the moon. That moment changed his life. He has gone on to become one of the world’s most lyrical and technically proficient documenters of the night sky. He is the founder and director of The World at Night, a group of photographers who seek to reclaim the natural beauty of the night sky. He is also a board member of Astronomers Without Borders and a regular contributor to Sky & Telescope magazine. He lives in Boston but spends most of his time chasing the stars across the world.
Q & A
You were born in Tehran—tell us a bit about your childhood and how you became a photographer.
I got into photography via astronomy. One night, I was up on the rooftop of our house in Tehran. I borrowed a telescope from a neighbor who never used it. Looking through a telescope at the moon is stunning for the first time, especially when you're young. And that moment changed my life. After a few months I got a Russian Zenit camera, a very bulky, low-cost camera. It was good for two purposes: shooting the night sky and protecting me from wild animals because it was very heavy [Laughs].
There are several ways to do night sky photography. One is to shoot with a telescope, which we call deep sky or astral photography. Another is to combine it with landmarks to create nightscapes. My main interest is to combine land, Earth, and sky as art—to bridge art and science by combining Earth and sky images in a single photo.
Your main focus is taking pictures of the night sky. What do you love about that?
The night sky is my second home. Though, according to my wife, it’s actually my first home [Laughs]. Sixty to seventy nights of the year I am doing night sky shooting, for one complete night. That’s twice a week on average. The night sky is very calm and peaceful. Places that are packed and noisy in the daytime have a completely different atmosphere at night. You are connected not only to nature but also to the universe, and that’s a very unique feeling to me.
Every photographer with National Geographic is also trying to heighten awareness about something that is in danger, and my mission, besides merging art and science, is to claim back the night sky from modern life. Two-thirds of humanity—over five billion people—live with light pollution under a night sky that is bright enough to obscure the Milky Way. They don’t have access to natural night sky anymore, so this part of our nature has been forgotten. I try to deliver the message that the night sky is not only an astronomer’s laboratory. It’s an essential part of life.
Tell us about your initiative, The World at Night.
Over the years, I realized there were many other people doing this kind of photography, and I was inspired by many of them, like David Malin in Australia, who was a pioneer of photography using large telescopes. I realized it would be great to bring all these pioneers together in a project with the mission of preserving the night sky and showing that under one sky we become one family of humanity. That’s why we use the slogan “One People, One Sky.”
National Geographic Image Collection Interview With Babak Tafreshi By Simon Worrall