Afghanistan, with its stark landscapes, indigo skies and diverse population, has always been a photojournalists’ dream assignment. Ever since the sandaled mujahidin first used their rocket propelled grenades against the invading Soviet army, photographers have been infected with the country’s eerie beauty, sucked back time and again as the story cycled through civil war, the Taliban era, the American war and finally a fragile peace capped by presidential elections that promised at least a glimmer of stability.
And no one has covered that story as well as German photographer Anja Niedringhaus, a dedicated correspondent who lost her life on April 4 covering preparations for those elections, when she and her Associated Press colleague Kathy Gannon were shot by a uniformed Afghan police officer in Khost Province. “In Afghanistan of all places. It is just so tragic that this would have happened to her there,” says an old friend and fellow photojournalist Moises Saman. “She was just really committed to that country in particular. You could see it in the sensitivity of her work, her understanding of that country.”
Gannon, 60, has undergone surgery and is likely to survive, according to the Associated Press, but Niedringhaus, 48, died instantly. Both were veteran Afghan hands who had worked together for years, lending a deep, nuanced take on a country that resists superficial explorations. “I have never met journalists more passionate about the people of Afghanistan than Anja and Kathy,” says a colleague, who asked not to be named pending permission to comment from AP. “They visited more of the country than any other journalist, and Anja showed a side of Afghanistan that few have ever seen. It’s just a devastating loss.”
Afghanistan, once a relatively safe place to work, has become increasingly deadly for journalists in the run up to the elections. Just last month Swedish-British radio reporter Nils Horner was shot dead in downtown Kabul. Days later Sardar Ahmad of the Agence France Press was gunned down, along with his wife and two children, in an attack on a luxury hotel in Kabul. His youngest son, two-year-old Abuzar, survived several gunshot wounds.
Nor were Gannon and Niedringhaus taking unnecessary risks. They were traveling with election officials in a convoy guarded by government soldiers. Like most correspondents out in the provinces, they took basic precautions against roadside bombs and Taliban ambushes. “They followed the best case scenario for going to tricky areas,” says Saman. “They were experienced combat reporters. But how can you prepare for the time when someone who is supposed to be protecting you turns on you? It’s impossible.”
Niedringhaus, who shared a Pulitzer Prize for her work covering the Iraq war, always stood out for her infectious enthusiasm and good cheer, “even under the darkest of circumstances,” says AP Vice President and Director of Photography Santiago Lyon. “She consistently volunteered for the hardest assignments and was remarkably resilient in carrying them out time after time. She truly believed in the need to bear witness.” She also believed, say friends, in making the best of a bad situation, and could always be counted on to travel with a stash of good cheese, chocolate and wine even to the most remote of locations. And she would share her provisions generously.
Her laugh was loud, and contagious. It didn’t matter if she was traveling with someone new to Afghanistan or a veteran, say friends. She treated everyone she met with the same kindness, generosity and humor.
Even though Niedringhaus made her name as a combat photographer, she didn't really fit the stereotype, says Saman. “When you say ‘war photographer’ the first image that comes to mind is someone crazy for the bang bang. Not Anja. She was an artist. She used her sensitivity and sense of understanding to access the human side of war.” And she never let the darkness of her work turn her bitter and cynical, sometimes a hazard of the occupation. “She was just so hungry for adventure, and I was struck by her directness and her utter fearlessness,” says former Islamabad correspondent for the AP Nahal Toosi, now deputy political editor at Politico. “I thought, 'Wow, I could follow this woman into battle!'” Many did, and benefitted from the experience.
This post was updated at 12:30 p.m. EST on April 4.