Remembering Anton Hammerl and His Work in Libya


15-20 km east of Brega, March 31: Libyan opposition fighters with an anti-aircraft gun. Just to the right of the windshield is Anton holding his camera.

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?

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

This article originally appeared at Revolutionology

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Ryan Calder is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently conducting field research on the revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa.

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