Dispatch

A Day Under Fire with Anton

A Day Under Fire with Anton

View a slide show of Anton Hammerl’s final photos in Libya.

I met the photographer Anton Hammerl early in the morning on April 3. At least I think it was April 3. I have to guess at the date because I don’t have my notebook with me now; even if I did, I wouldn’t be able to find a reference I never thought I was going to need.

I was reporting for La Vanguardia in Benghazi and staying at the Al-Wahat hotel, which stands right next to The Africa, the hotel where Anton was living. He was with two colleagues and old friends, Samuel Aranda and João Pina, freelance photographers like him. They were looking for a ride to the front, where the ragtag rebels were battling forces loyal to Muammar al-Qaddafi. Ryan Calder, a sociologist from the University of California, Berkeley, and I had a car, a wonderful Ford Flex SUV. We offered to take them along.

Hussein, our driver, was behind the wheel — flying down the two-lane highway at 100 miles an hour. He was a volunteer and native of Benghazi whom we met at the media center. He didn’t charge us any money for taking us down to Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad the previous days. That day, however, he wanted payment, $100, but he was too proud to ask for it. It took Ryan and me almost two hours of awkward negotiation with him at the media center before we left to figure out what he was hinting at. Anton, Samuel, and João waited, taking pictures of Maiden al-Jarriya (Freedom Square).

It was around midday when we finally departed. The SUV had three rows of seats. Anton sat in the back, his equipment in a small backpack on his lap and his legs too long for the tiny space. He smiled and said it was fine.

I didn’t know Anton before that day in Benghazi, but he and Samuel were friends — and I’d been working with Samuel in Tunisia during the revolution. Anton was an easy person to get along with from the moment I met him, not only because of his great politeness, but, above all, because he gave the impression of being always on your side.

After about an hour on the road on our way to Ajdabiya’s western gate, we stopped for egg and tuna sandwiches. We ate the sandwiches standing around the car and kept moving.

We stopped at a metal green arch above the highway — the main entrance to Ajdabiya from the west. Dozens of pickups and private cars were piled full of rebels. Some were coming from the front, looking tired but not defeated. I watched Anton move through the chaos, taking pictures of rebel fighters who didn’t know how to fight. He seemed to float 3 feet above the ground, moving without making a noise, invisible in the chaotic mix of pickup trucks, anti-aircraft guns, and hundreds of young Libyans firing at enemies they couldn’t quite see — eager to show the world how brave they were. The smell of rotten food and excrement was overpowering.

We lost touch with Anton for a while inside that filthy bubble of disoriented testosterone. He emerged while Ryan and I were talking to Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Gutrani, an old man trying to organize a Pancho Villa’s army in the Libyan desert. Anton took the general’s picture and wrote down his name; and then we drove off toward Brega, where we had heard the fighting was intense.

About 30 minutes later, we saw the front line and stopped on a hill, about 10 miles east of Brega. Qaddafi’s forces were shelling the oil town. The road was full of cars. Rebels were reading the Quran out loud, shouting "Allahu akbar!" against the deep sound of the shelling.

The sun was still high, the light too flat. It was fine for asking questions but not so good for taking pictures. Anton, Samuel, and João did what they could. The incoming fire, though, was getting a bit too close — Grad rockets, and we were in range. Yet we felt relatively secure, as the artillery shelling was still rather light. It was interesting to see how much more powerful Qaddafi’s forces looked, compared with the innocent rebels, with their old guns, old shoes, and old jerseys from European soccer teams. Anton huddled alongside them; they were glad a foreign photojournalist was there making something big of their own private bravery.

After Anton had taken some photos we met again atop the sandy hill, standing side by side, watching the artillery battle, listening to the fighting in the distance. We couldn’t see the enemy from our vantage point. We started talking about our families. I told him about my three kids; Anton looked at his watch and said that if he were home in London he would be picking up his elder child from school.

Suddenly, the Grad rockets starting landing closer; everyone decided to retreat. Dozens of cars filled the road; we followed in the scrum. Anton sat in the front seat, the better to take photographs out the windows. We drove back past the western gate and reached the Ajdabiya hospital. We looked for casualties from the war zone, but it was quiet.

Anton tried to talk with the Bangladeshi janitors there, but they didn’t know any English. All they wanted was a Thuraya satellite phone for calling home, but Anton didn’t have one to give. He was full of sympathy for them: he spoke of the long trip these poor janitors had taken to be here, now trapped by war, with no other choice but to remain at that hospital. We felt lucky to be able to be on the storytelling side of life.

It was getting late. I had to file before 9 p.m. But Anton, Samuel, and João wanted more time on the ground: The sun was going down, and the light was perfect for photographs.

It was dark when we reached Benghazi. The wind rolling in from the north was blowing an unpleasant spray off the sea, but we wanted to try a little fish restaurant by the corniche. Two sharks were hanging from their tails outside. They served a great lobster soup, squid, and a grilled catch of the day. The place was full of journalists and a few locals. The TV was on. The light was bright; the beer was alcohol-free. Anton didn’t talk much. Like most of us, he looked tired, relaxed, and happy; and like not so many of us he had so much more to tell.