This article also appears on The Atlantic’s website.
South African photojournalist Anton Hammerl is believed to have died on April 5 when he and three other journalists were attacked by loyalist forces on the outskirts of Brega. But news of Anton’s likely death only came to light today, when American journalists Clare Gillis and James Foley explained in an interview with the Global Post that Anton had been shot and probably killed. Anton’s family has said they believe he is dead.
Gillis, Foley, and Spanish photographer Manu Brabo were with Anton that day, and were subsequently held for six weeks by the Libyan government. They have just been released. During their captivity, South African officials — based on communications with Tripoli — appear to have believed that Anton was still alive. Anton’s family, and the rest of the world, were given this impression as well. So when Gillis, Foley, and Brabo were released this week without Anton Hammerl, it was a shock.
Anton was a father and an incredibly talented photographer. (Check out his portfolio — have you ever seen cleverer pictures of Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and the Dalai Lama?) From the short time we spent together, I got to know him as a warm and thoughtful man as well. I spent a day driving to the front with Anton and three other journalists on March 31, six days before his disappearance. This is a story about that day.
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On the long highway between Benghazi and points west, it’s sometimes hard to know exactly where exactly the “front line” is. In our big red Ford Flex SUV, we’d drive along that highway — a lone road through the desert — to the top of one hill, where a lot of guys were standing around holding Kalashnikovs and other weapons. We’d stop, roll down the window, and ask what was going on. If things looked interesting, we’d get out, talk to people, and take photos.
And then we’d see other guys on top of the next hill a kilometer or two down the road, maybe with a Grad rocket launcher on it or some pickup trucks with anti-aircraft guns, so we’d drive on to that hill, after convincing our driver it was a good idea. And so on. We were about 15-20 km east of Brega and about 55 km west of Ajdabiyah.
After a while, a shell landed on the hill ahead of us, and opposition fighters started jumping in their cars and trucks and streaming backward. That was our cue too, so after a final few minutes of interviewing and shooting photos, we got in our car and did the same. We retreated a bit with the rebels, and then stopped for more photos and interviews. We spent an hour or so at the front that day doing this kind of thing.
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On the way back to Benghazi, we stopped at Ajdabiyah Hospital, where casualties from the fighting are often brought. Those seriously wounded are stabilized before being sent by ambulance to Benghazi for care. Ajdabiyah itself was shelled by Gaddafi’s forces, has changed hands several times, and remains mostly deserted except for opposition forces.
Each of us went off on his own, walking through the hospital. The hospital was quiet that day. It wasn’t like the hospitals in Benghazi or San Francisco or Tokyo, well-lit and gleaming and buzzing with doctors and nurses. Its narrow, gray-green corridors were quiet — and mostly empty, like the rest of Ajdabiyah.
After walking around for a few minutes, I turned a corner and ran into Anton. He was trying to communicate with two hospital staff from Bangladesh. They were janitors who had stayed despite the war and were working to keep the hospital clean.
Anton had tried some English with the two janitors, and I tried some Arabic, but neither of us got far with them in either language. And Anton didn’t speak Bengali. Neither do I. It was handshakes, smiles, and shrugs all around.
Here, in their green janitorial uniforms, were two men thousands of miles from their homes who were staying in a war zone to work. Many Bangladeshi expatriates in Libya have evacuated, but many have stayed on the job. They have people to support back home.
Under the circumstances, these two custodial staff presumably didn’t have much communication with anyone else beyond the basics needed to do their jobs. Yet somehow, they came to work and did their jobs, despite the war. But how did they get to the hospital every day? Where did they sleep? How long had they been in Libya? What kinds of families did they have back home? How much were they getting paid? Did they get any days off? Did they follow cricket? We had no way to ask these questions.
And what were they going to do if the front line washed back toward the hospital all of a sudden? In a war zone, people are always chatting about the front line — how far away it is, whether it’s moving toward you or away from you, where the shells are landing, whether there’s been aerial bombardment today, and so on. People trade rumors, reliable information, and everything in between. But if you don’t speak the language well — some language that enough well-informed people around you speak, whether Arabic (locals) or English (press) — then you’re screwed. Was someone looking out for these guys?
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Anton and I never got answers to these questions. Nevertheless, that moment made clear that these two men were willing to risk a lot to keep their jobs in Libya.
That moment also said something about Anton. Anton was a professional photojournalist, and a very talented and imaginative one, as his portfolio shows. But he was not trying to speak with these two men so he could photograph them. Moreover, these two men were certainly not “breaking news.” Anton just wanted to hear their story, to understand their world.
From Anton — and from two other photographers I came to know in Libya, Samuel Aranda and João Pina – I learned that photojournalism is not just about taking riveting photos and selling them to whomever will pay. It’s about becoming familiar with the world — paying attention not just to the who-what-when-where of a breaking story framed in the apposite image, but to the why. Photojournalists — at least the best ones, like Anton and Samuel and João — know that to seal the texture and history of a moment in an image, or to capture the struggles of the everyday in a subject’s face, you need to understand the stories and the forces of society behind them.
Perhaps all journalists already know this. I’m sure all photojournalists do. But I didn’t. We sociologists may think we have a monopoly on the practice of sociology. We don’t.
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After our failed attempt to speak with the two Bangladeshi janitors, Anton and I climbed back in the car. On the way back to Benghazi, I got to know him a little. He was square-jawed and handsome, with thin-rimmed glasses, upturned collar, mad-scientist hair dropping down to a widow’s peak, and a soul patch that made him look bohemian and raffishly intellectual — all in all, a little more elegant than the rest of us bumming around Libya, and effortlessly so. It didn’t take more than a minute to tell that Anton was worldly and very sharp, but also kind-hearted and self-effacing. He recounted, in his charming South African accent, his photo projects in various corners of the world. And he spoke warmly of his family back in London — of his wife (who describes him in this interview with the New York Times’ Lens blog) and children, including one who was seven weeks old when he left for Libya.
Anton, here’s to you.