There is a generation of war correspondents out there, and every fall a few of them arrive at Harvard University as part of the Nieman Foundation’s fellowship. They come from assignments in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere and many land with a sense of unease.
They are veterans of covering combat who typically use this special moment in their lives to sort out their experiences, dig for deeper understanding of the chaos they chronicle and struggle with personal decisions whether to return to far-flung conflicts, to once again bear witness to the tragedy of war.
At the end of the fellowship year, it is often the case that their passion for the story has been sharpened by the Harvard experience. The lure is undeniable; more conflicts to cover, more stories to tell, more heartbreak to record.
As we watch the combat journalists return to a life they have come to love and fear, the apprehension grows that something some day might happen to one of them. And Friday it did.
Anja Niedringhaus, a Nieman Fellow in 2007 and a photographer for the Associated Press, was shot and killed Friday by an Afghan policeman. She was murdered while sitting in the back seat of a car with AP reporter Kathy Gannon. She was 48.
The two journalists were traveling in a convoy of election workers who were delivering ballots from the center of Khost to the outskirts of the city, in Tani district. The Afghan National Army and Afghan police had been assigned to protect the convoy.
In 2012, Nieman Reports, the foundation’s quarterly magazine, published an essay of Anja’s photographs. She described the images in these words, “For me, covering conflict and war is the essence of journalism. My assignment, regardless of the era, is about people — civilians and soldiers. The legacy of any photographer is her or his ability to capture the moment, to record history. For me, it is about showing the struggle and the survival of the individual.”
Anja understood that her job was to tell the human side of conflict. Melissa Ludtke, the editor of Nieman Reports who helped put the essay together, noted the sensitivity of Anja’s work: there is a woman or a child in each of the images.
Kathleen Carroll, executive editor of the AP, said that Niedringhaus “has long been recognized for her expertise in gaining a subject's trust and photographing them with a style that is immediately recognizable. Her attention to detail, composition and light come together to not only tell insightful stories but also to create works of art.”
Before coming to Harvard in the fall of 2006, Anja had covered fighting for more than 20 years; in the Balkans in the 1990s, Kuwait, Iraq, Libya, Gaza and the West Bank. She was the only woman on a team of 11 AP photojournalists that won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in the breaking news category for its coverage of the Iraq War.
Last November, The Atlantic published a series of her photos with this commentary: “Documenting a decades-long story like the Afghanistan War is a challenge for any photojournalist, from simple logistical issues, to serious safety concerns, to the difficulty of keeping the narrative fresh and compelling. Niedringhaus has done a remarkable job, telling people's stories with a strong, consistent voice, an amazing eye for light and composition, and a level of compassion that clearly shows through her images.”
Anja had such a warm heart and could light up a room with a laugh that seemed both hearty and naughty. In the international environment at the Nieman Foundation, she was comfortable being German while thriving in a new culture.
Anja infused her Nieman class with a joy of life, affection for one another and a professionalism we admired. One evening, she shared her photos; one astonishing image after another. So many of them were the result of fearless instincts that put her in harm's way to tell the story. She continued this courageous work in the time following her Nieman year. In countless violent encounters, she captured the tragedy of the victims as well as dramatic images of the chaos of combat.
Anja was incomparable. She could not turn away, especially from the women and children whose tragedies she was driven to document. As she wrote at the end of her Nieman Reports essay, “With war, the story never ends. It keeps me coming back.”
Robert H. Giles is the former Curator of the Nieman Foundation and is currently the Commentary Editor for GlobalPost.