Her pictures went around the world. Her hometown Höxter, in which she was born in 1965, Anja Niedringhaus has always remained connected. In 2014, she was shot dead in Afghanistan in an assassination attempt.
Focus on People
In Commemoration of the Photographer Anja Niedringhaus (1965 – 2014)
“We had such a good laugh”, Kathy Gannon describes the moments before the shots were fired thereby destroying the life of the journalist. In spite of all the tragedies she documented Anja Niedringhaus had kept the ability to laugh. “People might think that we cried all the time – no,” she said in an interview for her book “Photowarrior” talking about her work during the war in Jugoslavia 22 years ago. “I have experienced a good sense of humour, a lot of black humour which I love, a lot of hope and extreme honesty, directness, because one knows that everything could come to an end the next day”.
„That one drop of water in the ocean that is meant for you, you‘ll only find once in your life.“
Her life ended on the 4th April, 2014 in Banda Khel which is situated in the province of Chost in the east of Afghanistan. “I am so happy ” was one of Anja’s last sentences, remembers her colleague who was sitting next to her in the rear of the car when the Afghan policeman started shooting. While the Canadian female reporter who saw the policeman approaching them was able to react by raising her arms, the photo journalist from Höxter was unaware of what was happening and was hit in the head by bullets from the killer’s kalashnikov. Kathy Gannon (60) was seriously injured. Anja Niedringhaus (48) paidfor her commitment for the people of Afghanistan and other parts of the world where war dominates every day life with her own life.
They were an experienced team and both had been working for the American Associated Press Agency for years. Anja Niedringhaus mentioned once that she had learned a lot about Afghanistan and its culture from Kathy Gannon who had lived in the region for more than 25 years and who is married to a Pakistani. “We somehow looked for one another and found each other”, Anja Niedringhaus said. The car with the two women was part of a convoy of Afghan security forces and election assistants who were distributing ballot papers. The photographer was pleased because she had decided which subjects were relevant for the articles concerning the approaching presidential election in Afghanistan and when she wanted to have the photos done by. She did her job and she did it well without much fuss, so well that she had been awarded numerous important international prizes for her work.
After her death, a handwritten note with the following words was found among her belongings : “The one drop of water which is destined for you is found only once in a lifetime”. This is a quotation originally made by the medical doctor Hope Bridge Adams Lehmann, the first woman who studied medicine and qualified as a medical doctor in Germany and in so doing fighting for a profession thus far reserved only for men. Anja Niedringhaus also had to fight for her position in a field traditionally dominated by men. She managed to get to the very top.
She knew what she wanted early on in life. When she was 7 years old, her grandfather showed her a globe. She tried hard to find Höxter on this globe — without success ! “That is when I discovered how big the world is “, she remembers. She wanted to see the world with her owneyes. And she wanted to capture what she saw – with the help of a camera !
Even during her school years in Höxter she had a precise aim : “I have wanted to be a photographer since I was 12 years old”, she says. Her first camera was her grandfather’s old one. Later, a local photographer’s shop enabled her to pay off a more demanding piece of professional photographic equipment at a monthly rate of 50 Deutsch Marks. Years later she said thank you by offering her signed photobook called “At War” which comprises a selection of her photos taken in various war zones.
She started taking photos for the school magazine of the local grammar school (the König-Wilhelm-Gymnasium =KWG) during a skiing holiday for example. Bärbel Werzmirzowsky, a former neighbour and now manager of the Jacb Pins Society in Höxter saw Anja’s photos and recommended her to the local newspaper (the Neue Westfälische). Anja Neidringhaus was 17 years old when she was told to report about the farewell party of a much respected town clerk in Bad Driburg. She was told that the newspaper’s car keys were waiting for her. Being a glider pilot she had some car driving experience, since she sometimes drove the car which propelled the gliders into the air by means of a steel rope. So she sat in the car and drove the 30 km to Bad Driburg and back again. “I was so excited that I felt sick. I thought if I do not go they will not ring me up again. It’s now or never ! But everything worked out okay. The photo even appeared on page 1 in the paper and from tne on I was a freelance reporter.
After receiving her school leaving certificate (Abitur) at the KWG she went to India to work for an organisation somewhat like “Save the Children”, called “Kindernothilfe”, before studying German, philosophy and journalism at Göttingen university and working for the local newspaper in Göttingen, called “Göttinger Tageblatt”. She soon came to the conclusion that she could express more by using photos instead of words, she remembered in 2005 when she received the “Courage in Journalism Award” of the International Foundation for Women in the Media (IWMF). Her photos of the fall of the Berlin Wall were instrumental for being the first woman getting a permanent position at the European Press Photo Agency (EPA) in 1990. When the Balkan war broke out she was 26 years old. “I want to go there”, she said to her chief editor. “He thought I was crazy”, she remembered. She wrote a letter to him on her typewriter every day for six weeks. In the end he said : “Well, you go “. That is how she remembers the situation. “He and my colleagues were sure that Niedringhaus would ring up after 2 days wishing to return. I stayed for 5 weeks. Altogether I have spent 5 years in Sarajevo”, the photojournalist tells Michael Kamber who interviewed her about her book “Picture Warrior”.
In 2002 Niedringhaus changed jobs and started working for the US news agency AP for which she reported from the Gaza Strip, from Israel, Kuwait, Turkey, Libya, Pakistan and Afghanistan. She took photos during the battle of Falludsha, the bombing of the headquarters of the International Red Cross in Baghdad, from the Abu Ghraib prison, the G-8 summit in Geneva, the terror attack in Madrid, but also during the international football competitions, the Olympic Games and several times from Wimbledon. She did not only want to be called a “war photographer”. She confirmed her colleague’s (Don McCullin’s) statement that he hated the title “war photographer” by adding “so true” (= so wahr).
“I take photos of what happens in the world”, she emphasized. She said that, after all, she did not inly work in war zones and areas of tension, but that she also reported about sporting events, preferentially about light athletics and tennis. “When working in Irak or Afghanistan for a longer period of time it is important to have a change sometimes, to change perpespective. The contrast is hard sometimes, reporting about American MedEvac forces in Afghanistan one day and reporting about a Wimbledon tournament the next day. Sitting in the helicopter airlifting the dead and the wounded then flying to London at 6 o’clock in the morning and being on the Centre Court in the afternoon. I thought : can this be true ?!”, she said. Her sports photography helped her develop her ability to report from war zones. Both fields of activity have in common that fractions of a second count, she said.
Sporting events and her two places of residence (Geneva and Kaufungen near Kassel) were the complete opposite of war. She, her sister and the sister’s family had renovated an old forester’s house. That was where she enjoyed life surrounded ny nature, animals, her nieces and nephews. She had consciously decided not to have children of her own : “Shall I tell them that Mummy is off to Libya ….. ?”.
Again and again she was drawn towards Afghanistan. “I somehow fell in love with this country. The people there are wonderful”, she said. The aim of her photos was to help us to understand these people’s lives and culture better. “I am not looking for this `bang-bang`, because I think that a different kind of photography can convey much more. Being able to show how the civilian population manages to survive in a long-enduring war for years, organizing daily life”, she explained in a radio interview in 2011 ( for Deutschlandradio Kultur).
She always represented the victims who show the true face of the war. Impressed by people’s ability to cope with the consequences of war, she documented every day life under conditions which make everyday activities look absurd. The boy on the roundabout who holds a toy machine gun in the air ; men who hold a wake at the side of the road ; women carrying their children, rescuing them from burning villages. Empathy and respect for those who suffer because of the conflicts characterize her photos which do not only show disturbing scenes but also convey poetic impressions of a world which seems to be exotic and unusual for European eyes.
The special quality of her photos which apart from their documentary value also transport emotions and tell complex stories was acknowledged in 2011 by the awarding of the Abisag-Tüllmann Prize for artistic photojournalism. The journalist “has succeeded in discovering and showing humane aspects with both courage and a high degree of sensitivity in spite of all the fear and horror”, was the jury’s judgement.
In plain words Niedringhaus explained why she dedicated herself to this work which only few people would be able to do. “One tries to understand and take photos of what one sees, reporting on what happensin a war on behalf of all those thousands whon suffer”, she said. She saw herself as an eye witness. “If I do not take photos of this or that it will not get known”, she added. Her work in the various war zones made her become a pacifist. “Tanks do not solve problems”, she said.
Her driving force was to find out the truth. When official sources wanted to restrict admission to information and places, she did not accept this. In September 2009 she was the first to take a photo of the petrol tanker in Kundus, the bombing of which had been ordered by Colonel Georg Klein. Occasionally she poked fun at the German press officers who preferred to show her a chapel in the camp instead of letting her accompany them on patrol.
Her working equipment also acted as a kind of protection for her because it created distance. “I am glad that I have got a camera which can give me a certain feeling of distance or evenn a feeling od security ; a possibility for me to concentrate. It is sometimes far more difficult to cope with situations when you put the camera down”, she said. There were moments in which she did put down the camera in order to administer first aid spontaneously. In Sarajevo she drove wounded people to the hospital. She realized only afterwards that she had not taken any photos.
She was fully conscious of the danger of her work. Several times she was lucky not to have been killed. “That can happen – you always have to reckon with the fact that you can be killed when you spend years in such regions”, she commented when injured by the explosion of a grenade in southern Afghanistan. “I have been very lucky up till now and I hope that it will stay like that”. That was her wish. According to one of her last interviews, she asked herself whether it had been worth it when good colleagues had just lost their lives, adding : “None of my friends whi I have lost would tell me to stop my work. Not a single one !”. She insisted that she would not have liked to do anything else. “I would say that I am a very happy person”, she said.
“You could not be sad with Anja around”, an AP colleague commented to the newspaper ( the Neue Westfalia). Her sense offun helped her to cope with the horror of wars. Once, when being driven in a taxi along one of the most dangerous roads in Afghanistan, the two women, Anja and Kathy Gannon both of whom wore local dress, enjoyed trying out if it was possible to smoke a cigarette under a burka, Niedringhaus said with a laugh.
She was very much appreciated by her colleagues. “Anja was the strongest competitor you could have”, Kai Pfaffenbach, a photographer at Reuters told the ‘Frankfurter Neuen Presse’ in an interview. “Whether at Wimbledon or at the Olymics, it was motivating to compete against her and to be determined to take the better photo on that particular day. In spite of the competition she was the first to come and say ‘fantastic photo’, patting your back. She was the best photographer in the world”, he said. “No-one was able to touch her “.
In 2005 she was awarded the ‘Oscar for journalism’ together with 9 other AP colleagues : the Pullitzer Prize for her reporting about the Irak war. Her works were shown in many exhibitions, for example in the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt, in the Kasseler Kunstverein (Art Centre Kassel), in the International Forum for Visual Dialogue C/O Berlin, in the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. In 2013 the Forum Jacob Pins in Höxter and the Kulturverein ARTD Driburg (located in the castle at Dringenberg) showed the exhibitions ‘Anja Niedringhaus at war’ and ‘Anja Niedringhaus at sports’ at the same time.
The death of the prominent photojournalist caused shock and sorrow worldwide. Friends and colleagues from New York and London, from Kabul and Berlin came to Höxter to participate together with her family in a memorial service in the abbey church of Corvey. Her family chose a photo of Anja showing her with a camera, laughing, to be put on her grave stone on the cemetary ‘am Wall’ in Höxter. She had had the wish to be buried in Höxter. Born as the middle sister of three sisters in Höxter, Anja did not want to lose the contact with her place of birth where she grew up.
In 2006 she signed the ‘Golden Book’ in Höxter. In 2008 when being awarded the media prize ‘The Golden Feather’ for her outstanding work as a female reporter in areas of conflict, she said to the newspaper ‘Die Neue Westfälishe’ : “Someone like me who is mostly working abroad is very pleased not to be forgotten at home “.
Anja Niedringhaus will never be forgotten ; because of her photographs; because of the Anja Niedringhaus Award for courageous journalism initiated by the IWMF. The award will be granted once a year to female photojournalists who continue Anja’s work. The award was initiated by a donation of 1 million US dollars by the Howard Graham Buffet Foundation.
H.G.Buffet is the son of the American multi-millionaire and sponsor Warren Buffet who was so impressed by Anja’s personality and by her work, that he invited her to his hime in Omaha/Nebraska and in 2007 financed her an academic year at Harvard University where she tookpart in the prestigious Nieman progamme. The philanthropist H.G.Buffet whois a photographer himself told the IWMF : “For me, Anja was a friend and was exemplary in the field of photo journalism. The award should make sure that Anja’s work will be continued. Her voice may have been silenced but we hope to be able to intensify the voices of all those whoshare her passion”.
by Christine Longère, Translation by Regine and Ian Gatfield