A photographer with a tale to tell
By John Syme
Posted: Wednesday, Apr. 20, 2011
John Syme graduated from Davidson College with a bachelor of arts degree in French in 1985. He worked as a general-assignment reporter at The Winston-Salem Journal, where he later wrote freelance travel stories during his first solo cross-country road trip in the summer of 1989. He worked as a copywriter at a Charlotte advertising agency, as a research translator at a French nutrition center outside Paris, and as a politics and education newspaper reporter in Charlotte. He returned in 2001 to Davidson, where he is senior writer, alumni editor and instigator of the "Road Trip 2009" blog, which evolved into his current blog, "Daybook Davidson."
The schedule was set months ago for Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times war photographer Tyler Hicks to visit Davidson College. It had been on my calendar since January.Then, on March 15 while on assignment in Libya, Hicks and three colleagues were captured, beaten and threatened with death by government forces. They were finally released on March 21.A scant month later on Tuesday night, when Hicks told the gritty, harrowing tale to a full house from a Davidson lectern, the photographer notably had no photographs of the harsh events he described in a steady, understated voice.Of course, no such pictures exist. Instead, a gallery of some of Hicks earlier photographs, transmitted to the Times before his capture, brightened the screen behind him with local Libyan color, from flat desert monochromes to blood-red scenes in the street.At times the grim parade of pictures also served to fill some long silences as Hicks moved from one part of the story to the next, plainly balancing parts you tell against parts you dont. At least for now. He was still integrating the brutality of the experience. Not just his and his colleagues experience, he said, but the stories of many other human beings who were captured or killed that day at the roadblock where his vehicle was stopped. At the moment of his arrest, a firefight had broken out between government forces and rebels. At present, the New York Times crews driver has not been accounted for.Read Hicks and his colleagues full account in the New York Times.Hicks told his Davidson audience he was not particularly comfortable with becoming the story, since his normal job is to report the story. By the same token, he feels obliged to give his own story, with words, the same respect of treatment that he gives to stories he tells, with pictures, about those who survive and those who dont. Especially those who dont, and the families who come to appreciate the last images of their loved ones.Hicks has covered events in Kosovo, Chechnya, Congo, Ethiopia, Sudan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan (for nine years and counting). In 2007 he was named Newspaper Photographer of the Year by Pictures of the Year International, and in 2009 he received a Pulitzer Prize for his work documenting conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan.When a student asked Hicks if he considered his photographs art, he responded, No, Im just a newspaper hack. Indeed, star photojournalist or no, he does seem most interested in getting his work out for the sake of the work itself and any good it might bring.I use the word star above advisedly, as an objective descriptor of fact. Hicks himself is full of life and stories but not full of himself, quite down to earth, a pleasant guy I got to know a bit earlier in the day over lunch at Toast along with photographer Todd Sumlin of The Charlotte Observer. He and Sumlin have been buddies since their Wilmington Star-News days together in the early 90s.One of the stories Hicks has allowed to be told about himself, recounted in the New York Times article, is that a sheikh in Libya told him he had a beautiful head then promptly announced his intention to chop it off. Everyone in the audience at Hicks presentation last night was clearly grateful that his head is still atop his shoulders.And I for one am grateful that journalists of his caliber and sensitivity are working to bring home to all Americans the stories of our military servicemen and servicewomen and the people they are fighting for and against, in the broadest and deepest possible contexts of global culture.Its the world we live in.Update: Hours after Hicks spoke at Davidson, conflict photographer and producer and director of Restrepo Tim Hetherington and photojournalist Chris Hondros, a N.C. State University graduate, were killed in Libya, and two colleagues seriously wounded.
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