By Christoph Reuter
German photojournalist Anja Niedringhaus spent her life documenting wars, but she never allowed the difficult job to get the better of her. One of SPIEGEL’s own war correspondents commemorates the work of a longtime colleague killed in Afghanistan on Friday.
Most often, we found ourselves waiting somewhere together — between barbed wire and sandbags for a general or the next patrol. Once, after a bombing attack shortly before sunrise in Wazir Akbar Khan, Kabul’s diplomatic quarter, she snapped a picture for the Associated Press showing smoke rising out of the rubble. Our own photographer offered to give her a ride back in a car, but she declined. “It’s such a beautiful morning,” she said. “I’m going to walk.” The air was clear and the weather was perfect for taking pictures along the roadside.
Anja Niedringhaus, 48, was a masterful war photographer, unshaken in a world that is inhabited almost exclusively by men. She won prizes for her work and also had a strategic instinct for being in the right place at the right time.
There was also another facet to her — one that you don’t find very often in the world’s crisis zones. It is easy to go to a war zone, she once said, but its is far more difficult to escape it unscathed. Many war reporters and photographers become bitter, some become forlorn and others just turn cynical. But not Niedringhaus — not even after 20 years of reporting in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Pakistan. She had served as a photojournalist for AP since 2002.
Anja always had a healthy inner balance and didn’t allow herself to be hardened by the things she saw, not to mention experienced. She liked to call her camera her “little protector.” What she meant is that the horrible things she witnessed were always seen through the lens, which somehow kept them abstract. Perhaps even more important was the way in which she viewed things. “War photographers. How I hate being called that!” she would say.
Documenting War’s Absurdities
Her favorite photos, which she sometimes sent around by email, frequently showed the absurdities of war, those tender moments that showed the human side of people uneasy about going to war. Like the American soldier in Fallujah who had a G.I. Joe doll strapped to his backpack. Or the German soldier on the steppe near Faizabad in remote northeast Afghanistan, who sat quietly on his cot outdoors, with four candles burning in a small box to celebrate his 34th birthday.
Anja had an eye for detail and there was far more to her photos than just combatants and victims. After photographing one injured American soldier being loaded into a medevac helicopter, she tracked him down again months later to see, and document, his recovery and how he was finding his way back to “normal life” with a skullcap.
As war correspondents, our paths crossed repeatedly: first in Iraq, then in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Kunduz in Afghanistan and then later, randomly, at the Afghan Embassy in Berlin, where we were both applying for journalist visas. There was a lot to talk about and stories to tell, many of them sad or strange. Like that of the detained donkeys, clueless NATO officers or the time unwitting British diplomats invited a man known for espousing the virtues of pedophilia to cocktail reception. We laughed so hard that we were asked to leave the embassy. We returned later, quietly and repentantly, and were granted our visas.
Everyone his or her own survival strategy. Anja’s was her laughter, her wit and her weakness for humor. For a while in Sarajevo, she took in a stray dog and named it Butros Butros after the former United Nations Secretary-General. She was also fond of saying that her most famous image was captured on a whim. After weeks of lousy meals, she accepted an invitation to the US Army’s Thanksgiving dinner in Iraq. As she tried to leave, she found that all the doors had been locked and that security people were standing everywhere. She suddenly noticed the untouched turkey on a table. Sensing it might be an important moment, she rushed to stand next to it. George W. Bush suddenly appeared and, as he lifted the turkey on a platter, she snapped the perfect shot.
First German Woman to Win Pulitzer
Anja received a number of awards for her work and, in 2005, she became the first German woman to win the Pulitzer, a prize she shared with nine colleagues for images they shot for AP in Iraq. She was delighted to win America’s top journalism honor, but it didn’t change her in any way. Soon, museums began contacting her to offer Anja exhibitions of her work. “They say it’s art,” she said. “But I don’t think of my work as being art.” Instead she said she sought to portray reality as precisely as possible through her work, asking, “who, if not us,” is going to do that?
In 2006, she was accepted to the prestigious Nieman Fellowship for journalists at Harvard University. A short time later, she had dinner with a man she had often photographed and who was fond of her: Warren Buffet. He is among the richest people in the world, but despite his wealth, he has remained relatively down to earth. Buffet congratulated her and then at some point asked if she knew yet how she was going to pay the five-figure tuition that is also required of fellows. She hemmed and hawed and said she didn’t really know. She shared the story later, laughing, and said it had been an awkward moment. Buffet, for his part, had been amused and wrote her a check.
Life was good to Anja Niedringhaus in the same way that she was good to the people she knew. And that was no small number. She often looked after people — after colleagues, after me, after injured people in a helicopter and after an AP photographer who had been arrested as a suspected terrorist. She even flew to Baghdad to negotiate his release.
Sometimes she spent weeks or months at a time in some of the world’s darkest places, photographing soldiers, the injured and the victims of attacks, like the time when a grenade hit a car filled with people in Sarajevo. “The remains of an entire family were splattered on the car windows,” she would later recall in an interview.
When she wasn’t in a war zone, Anja would disappear into the opposite extreme, like the farm near Kassel, Germany, where she lived together with her sister. She spoke with tremendous joy of the finer aspects of rural living, even sharing recipes for ham and sauerkraut. And she defended with verve the fact that she kept a second apartment in luxurious Geneva, the official site of her employment, even though she only visited it for short periods of time. The city might be a little sedate, but that’s not the worst thing you could say about a city, she said. “A deathly boring city? Magnificent!” Then she gave one of her big, liberating laughs, that seemed to come from the depths of her soul.
A Love for Afghanistan
In one of the last emails she sent to me this winter, Anja wrote that she wasn’t interested in going to Syria, saying the country was too fragmented. “With the exception of a few breaks, I was in Afghanistan for most of the past year and I want to go back home this spring. Somehow I just can’t get away.” It’s a tough country, but Anja liked Afghanistan — it was a place that could become loveable at unexpected moments, especially when she had a chance to get beyond the German or American troops and experience the people. She only barely escaped an explosive on a street last fall and yet she still maintained her fondness for the place.
A few weeks ago, she returned to Afghanistan to photograph people in the run-up to Sunday’s presidential election. She took shots of women registering to vote, nervous policemen with tea kettles, school children under a campaign poster, a man holding up a framed carpet depicting President Hamid Karzai.
At the time of her death, Anja had been traveling together with AP’s longtime Afghanistan correspondent in a convoy carrying election workers to Khost in the far eastern part of the country. They weren’t there to cover war — they were there to report on the peoples’ fragile hope that normal life might someday return to the region.
In the Tani district, where election ballots were to be distributed, they waited at the entrance to a police compound, part of the routine. Anja often photographed Afghan police, these poorly armed men in blue-gray uniforms who were charged with keeping order in places where it doesn’t even exist. Officers who, in numerous instances in recent years, have opened fire or foreigners out of hatred.
At the post, a policeman lifted his Kalashnikov, cried out “Allahu akbar” and began firing at the car carrying the journalists. Kathy Gannon, 60, survived, but Anja died instantly.