Many journalists have died covering the Arab uprisings.
Last year, 17 were killed in Syria.
One of them was award-winning French photojournalist Rémi Ochlik.
He was only 28-years-old.
Ochlik documented the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.
Then last year, he headed out to Syria.
He made it to Homs late one night, as the city was under heavy shelling.
The very next day, on February 22, Ochlik was killed when a rocket hit the house he was holed up in with several other journalists.
American reporter Marie Colvin also died in the attack.
Ochlik is remembered by his colleagues as someone who felt invested in his mission: to tell the stories of the people at the heart of the conflicts.
One of his friends and colleagues is Belgo-Tunisian photojournalist Karim Ben Khelifa.
He runs a crowd-funding platform for visual journalism called Emphasis and has just published a book of photographs by Rémi Ochlik.
It’s called “Révolutions” and features Ochlik’s images of the Arab Spring.
Karim Ben Khelifa says it’s difficult to explain the urge many photojournalists like him have to risk their lives in war zones.
And in spite of the hardship of losing such a young and talented friend, Ben Khelifa says Ochlik’s decision to go to Syria was not a mistake.
“It is sad, but this how he decided to live and this is how he decided to die. And I think we can only be inspired by the commitment he had to the people.”
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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. Many journalists have died covering the Arab uprisings. Last year, 17 were killed in Syria alone. One of them was award winning French photojournalist Remi Ochlik. He was 28 years old. Ochlik documented the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, then last year he headed out to Syria. He made it to Homs late one night as the city was under heavy shelling. The next day, on February 22, Ochlik was killed when a rocket hit the house he was holed up in with several other journalists. American reporter Marie Colvin also died in the attack. One of Ochlik’s colleagues is photojournalist Karim Ben Khelifa. He’s just published a book of Remi Ochlik’s photographs from the Arab Spring. It’s called Revolutions. Ben Khelifa describes himself as a conflict photographer.
Karim Ben Khelifa: I’ve covered a lot of countries the last 15 years and like most of us doing this job, I think Remi had a sense of purpose. He’s been photographing with a lot of emotions and managed to channel those emotions into his photography. He was someone good, he was someone young, passionate and compassionate. And as I explained for Remi, I think that’s valid for a lot of us is the remediation we have there is very unclear, but we feel we need to go there. We feel we need to photograph. We have this ability to transport people into stories, into realities. And photography is such a strong medium that you can speak to people in Japan, in Africa and here in the US. You can speak to basically anyone with photographs. So I think it’s very important to record and document what’s happening in the world and not everyone is able to go to war. So for the people who have that ability, they should do it. They should do it for the sake of the others.
Werman: Now you spoke with Remi a lot about what motivated him. If you had to describe him, what kind of guy was he?
Ben Khelifa: Someone very shy, someone very humble, extremely humble. He would hate to be in the center of the attention. As a star, Le Monde was contacting journalists on the ground in Libya just to see where the experience there. Le Monde is a big, big newspaper in France, very serious. And when they called Remi Ochlik to give his account he just said is it to talk about me or is it to talk about the Libyans? And it was about him, about his experience. And he said sorry, I’m here for the Libyans. So if you want to talk about them, I’d be happy…so it shows that the young photographers would pull out this kind of opportunities to talk about himself and his work, it was about the people and I think that’s a quality you need to have to do that.
Werman: Now this exhibit at the Art Institute of Boston and book of Remi’s photos, they depict the Arab uprising, the Arab Spring. It’s called Revolutions and you kind of get the sense that he began shooting the revolution in Tunisia as it began, and then he got caught up in it…on to Tahrir Square in Cairo, then Libya and finally Syria. What did he make of the uprising?
Ben Khelifa: I think the uprising no journalist has predicted what would have happened. And the domino effect of all those countries. So he tagged along that story and sticked to it in a very beautiful way. He was with the people. He was feeling their aspiration. He has been through you know, a tremendous experience and huge amount of danger, but he sticked to that story because he wanted to tell the story of those people…and paid the dearest price, his life.
Werman: We’ve seen so many photographs that have come out of the Arab uprising from Instagram to portraits, but what’s really striking with Remi Ochlik’s pictures is his dedication to the craft of photography. I think of the victorious Libyan rebels on the tank, it’s kind of like the light in that picture makes it feel like a painting. Or the man in the violent protest in Tahrir Square on his knees and fingers aloft in peace signs. How much was he journalist, how much was he an artist?
Ben Khelifa: Oh, there is no line there, you know. Art is something that is perceived by the others. It depends on your own motivation. I would never assume that Remi would think of himself as an artist. He was a journalist, he was a witness. Now, if people decide to look at it and find art, and find emotions and classify it this way, it belongs to the people. It doesn’t belong to him.
Werman: Now, there are three photos in the book that were actually recovered from Remi’s camera just after he was killed. They were recovered by photographer William Daniels who was also in Syria. So here are the pictures, I mean these were shot February 21, last year, and on February 22 Remi was hit by a rocket and killed instantly. When you look at these pictures now, Karim, what do you see knowing what you know would happen 24 hours later?
Ben Khelifa: It’s, it’s, it is terrible to put the fate of Remi with his photographs. I don’t think he would have liked people to kind of imagine the story that could go with that, that yes, this is a photograph of a funeral and that his last photograph was photographing other people dying for a cause.
Werman: This one features like 20 men hands crossed just looking at this coffin in the night.
Ben Khelifa: Yeah, and it is a tribute to himself.
Werman: This one, man in a kathia[?5:08] , a red kathia in the dark. You see just the head of his rifle kind of popping up over his shoulder. It’s almost like a ghost.
Ben Khelifa: Yeah, yeah, the last photograph Remi actually did, very haunting for anyone who knew him or anyone who knows that story.
Werman: I mean anyone who knew Remi was deeply disturbed by his death. He was young, a rising star, they say fearless; and many said the future was his. This for example, is from William, photographer William Daniels, who wrote “His death affected me a lot. He was becoming a little famous and I was sure he was about to work with magazines he dreamed of working for, like Time. We were excited about getting to Syria. I thought okay, we’re here, we’ve come for this to be inside Bab Amir, there was no time to think maybe we’d made a mistake coming.” So Karim, what do you think, was it a mistake for Remi to go there to Homs, to Bab Amir?
Ben Khelifa: No, it wasn’t a mistake. I mean everyone going at a war knows he can get injured, can get killed. It’s part of the decision. Remi was definitely not unaware of the danger. It is sad, but this is how he decided to live and this is how he decided to die. And I think we can only be inspired by the commitment he has to the people. He paid with his life, but no, it was definitely not a mistake.
Werman: Karim, thank you very much.
Ben Khelifa: My pleasure.
Werman: The book is title Revolutions. It’s by the late photographer Remi Ochlik. We were speaking with his friend and photojournalist, Karim Ben Khelifa. Thank you very much for coming in, Karim.
Ben Khelifa: Thank you very much to you.
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Rémi Ochlik’s photos of the Arab Spring are on exhibit at the Art Institute of Boston until February 22nd.