The last thing I told Rémi

by Gert Van Langendonck

 

The last thing I told Rémi Ochlik was: "Be safe, OK? You've already won your World Press Photo."

That was on a Wednesday, one week before Rémi was killed in Homs, together with Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin and countless Syrians.

Rémi had just returned from a hair-raising trip to Syria with Paris-Match journalist Alfred de Montesquiou when we spoke on Skype.

"We were in this valley when it was cut off by the Syrian army,” he told me.

“The rebels ran for the hills, abandoning us, except for one guy who hid us under some blankets and drove us to a village. There he pointed to a star. Follow that for five hours and you'll be in Lebanon, he said. This is at night. No guide. No roads. Syrian border patrols. Hezbollah patrols. I still don’t know how we managed to escape."

Paris-Match ordered de Montesquiou and Rémi, even though he was freelance, back to Paris.

It would have been a good occasion, perhaps, for Rémi to take a break, to go to dinner with friends, swap war stories, spend time with his girlfriend.

Rémi was never good at taking breaks.

We first met in Tunis right after the fall of dictator Ben Ali. Rémi had just lost one of his best friends, photographer Lucas Dolega, who had been hit at close range by a tear-gas grenade fired by one of Ben Ali’s policemen.

Friends and colleagues had been telling him he should take some time off after what happened, but Rémi wouldn’t hear of it.

We took off to Kasserine, the heartland of the Tunisian revolution, our first assignment together.

It was easy to make friends with Rémi.

As Jerome Huffer, a photo editor at Paris-Match, told The New York Times’ Lens blog this week, “You could make friends with Rémi after just one cigarette.”

When Egypt followed on the heels of Tunisia, Rémi was not far behind.

“I bought a ticket for Cairo,” he emailed me, “but my friends are asking me not to take it. It’s true that I am emotionally and physically weakened. So I may come later, or not at all.”

The next day, another email: “Finally changed my mind, I’ll be in Cairo at 4 a.m. tomorrow.” 

Following the Arab Spring from Tunisia to Morocco, Egypt, Libya, it became natural to see Rémi pop up, sooner rather than later.

He was usually in the company of a bunch of young, mostly French photojournalists who took to calling themselves “the A-team.”

I remember sitting with a bunch of them in a restaurant in god-awful Ben Guerdane on the Tunisian-Libyan border in February 2011. Rémi asked if anyone knew a good laundry place.

“Yes, I guess that would be important for you guys, what with the scarves and all,” I remarked.

Making fun of photojournalists and their fashions statements is a constant source of amusement for us print journalists.

Everybody laughed, except Rémi who looked nonplussed. “What do you mean?" he said, "I use my scarf to polish my lenses, and for the sand.”

“Rémi, haven’t you noticed that we all have them?” said veteran photographer Bruno Stevens.

“Oh,” said Rémi after looking around the table.

He was lucky in a way. Coming of age at a time when photojournalism is fighting for its very survival, the Arab Spring allowed people like Rémi to live the photojournalism dream as if the internet and the economic crisis had never happened. 

When the Arab Spring began I was involved with starting up Emphas.is, a crowdfunding platform set up to help photojournalists like Rémi realize their personal projects in an age of diminished budgets and increased indifference.

When I told Rémi about the project, he said, “Well, actually, I’m doing OK. I’ve never had so many of my pictures published in my life.”

He added, “You know, this might seem strange, but I don’t really have a personal project. I think it’s not my thing.”

And yet, his favorite picture, the one he used as the cover of his self-published book Révolutions, was not a “bang bang” picture. It is a shot of a block of flats, I think in Ajdabiya, Libya, with a huge gaping hole in it from a mortar round. There is no action, there are no people in the picture, but it has a melancholy to it that somehow brings home the feeling of what war is like.

I believe that, sooner or later, Rémi would have come up with a personal project of his own.

For now, he was happy just to do his job and chase the story wherever it took him.

I was honored when Rémi asked me to write the introductory text to his Arab Spring book, and ashamed when I allowed the deadline to lapse.

At the time I was in the Western Mountains of Libya with another photographer friend, Caroline Poiron, whose husband, TV reporter Gilles Jacquier, would be killed in front of her on January 11, 2012 in the same city of Homs.

“Don’t worry about it”, he said sweetly when we met again.

People who didn’t know him may think of him as a boisterous, macho daredevil for doing the work that he did. 

He was quite the opposite.

Ikram El Ghinaoui, a mutual friend in Morocco, recalled a message Rémi sent her just before he went to Homs.

“Hey, little bird,” it said, “I’ve been meaning to give you a big kiss for a while now! So here you go: big kiss!”

Inevitably, some people will say that Rémi had it coming, that he was reckless.

Was it irresponsible to go into Homs in the middle of the onslaught by the Syrian army?

When is it ever responsible to go into a war zone?

If I had been with Rémi – I was waiting for the green light from my paper when we last spoke – would I have persuaded him not to go in, or would he have persuaded me to go in?

In March 2011, I dragged part of the A-team – Rémi and US photographer Holly Pickett – reluctantly back from Cairo to Libya, which they had left only two days before.

It was the day that Colonel Qaddafi’s troops were massing around Benghazi, and the foreign press corps had fled the city.

When we reached the border crossing at Saloum, it was Rémi and Holly who gave me that much-needed push to go in.

A lot of factors go into the decision to enter a war zone or not. Experience is one thing, but it takes a certain amount of bravado to go into places that most people run away from.

Rémi had bravado to spare.

“He was one of the bravest people I’ve ever seen working. He thought he needed to be close to be able to tell the story,” Holly told The New York Times this week.

“I’m furious with him,” Bruno Stevens told me in an email on Wednesday. “I had warned him several times that he could not go full speed ahead like this forever. I’ve had serious discussions about this with him. Each time, he would listen, he would understand, and then he would leave more determined than ever to push the envelope.”

“Isn’t it a bit insane to go to Homs right now?” I asked him last week. 

“Well, it’s not the same thing,” he said. “In the area we were just in we were the first journalists there, and the rebels didn’t control the situation. In Homs, they’re more experienced and we will be in a liberated area.”

In the end there are no guarantees.

Sunday Times reporter Marie Colvin was in many ways Rémi’s opposite, a 55-year-old veteran journalist who had covered conflict in Kosovo, Chechnya, East Timor.

Marie wore a distinctive black patch ever since she lost sight in her left eye in a shrapnel accident in Sri Lanka in 2001.

This made her slightly intimidating on a first encounter, and I didn’t really get to know her in Libya.

After reading Sarah Topol’s description of her on Foreign Policy I wish I had made a greater effort.

Lately, a bunch of us have been exchanging information about Syria in a closed section of a closed Facebook group for journalists.

The camaraderie that existed among journalists throughout the Arab Spring was faltering in Syria. Things were tough, and journalists were hoarding their contacts again rather than sharing them.

Not Marie, though. She had a beef with publications that revealed their route into Syria because this threatened not only our way in and out, but also the medical supply route.

Other than that, she just wanted as many people to know about what was happening in Homs as possible. 

Her last communication with the group was to ask if anyone had the technical savvy to “climb over the Sunday Times paywall” and repost her last article.

“I rarely do this,” she wrote, “but getting the story out from here is what we got into journalism for. If anyone can figure out how, you have my permission to post it. I will take the firing squad in the morning.”

When a colleague commented on what he thought was her safe return from Homs, she replied, “I think the reports of my survival may be exaggerated. In Baba Amr. Sickening, cannot understand how the world can stand by and I should be hardened by now.”

Also, inevitably, as we remember Rémi and Marie, we will be criticized for using the media to talk about our own losses.

In my experience, this kind of criticism comes almost exclusively from Western audiences in the comfort of their homes, not from the people on the ground.

In Homs on Wednesday night, hundreds of people risked their lives to stage a dabke (traditional dance) demonstration to honor the memory of Rémi, Marie and Ramy al-Sayed, the Syrian citizen journalist who was responsible for many of the YouTube videos of the siege. Ramy was killed by a sniper on Tuesday as he was livestreaming the latest assault.

Ironically, on Wednesday #mariecolvin and #Rémiochlik were trending worldwide on Twitter, though not #syria or #homs.

I would have liked to have asked Rémi when he changed his “About” on Facebook in, “In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni” (We wander in the night and we are consumed by fire.)

And to tell him that I swear I only just saw the message he sent me on Skype last October.

“Gert!!!! Can you save my life? I’m in Tunis, and I left my jacket with my driver’s license in the car of my driver in Tripoli.”

I’ll be sure to look for it next time I’m in Tripoli, Rémi.