The Picture Show
Thu April 24, 2014
Tyler Hicks Tells The Story Behind His Pulitzer-Winning Nairobi Mall Photos
A few days after winning a Pulitzer Prize for his photos of a 2013 terrorist attack in a Nairobi mall, Tyler Hicks received an email. It was from one of the women he'd photographed that day — sheltering her two young children on the floor of a cafe. She had heard about the Pulitzer and seen her photo on The New York Times website.
"It's very rare to have access to people in chaotic scenes like this," Hicks tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "You take someone's picture, it's this amazing scene and then you never find out what happened to them. ... I called her and we had a Skype video talk and it was incredible. She showed me her children, a 2-year-old boy and a 10-year-old girl, and told me the whole story: how they laid there for five hours. ... They could smell the smoke from the gunpowder and she told me how they got through this."
The attack at Westgate Mall was the work of Islamist extremists, killing more than 65 people and injuring many more. Hicks rushed into the mall after the attack began and took pictures as the story unfolded.
Hicks is a photographer for The New York Times and has risked his life many times to cover war and conflict in such places as Kosovo, Chechnya, Congo, Ethiopia, Sudan and Iraq. He first went to Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks and has returned every year since. The Pulitzer citation commends his skill and bravery.
Hicks was held captive in Libya for nearly a week, along with three other journalists, including New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid. Less than a year later, Hicks and Shadid sneaked over the Turkish border to cover the civil war in Syria. Later, as they tried to sneak out of Syria, Shadid died of a severe asthma attack, and Hicks, who was in shock, had to figure out how to get Shadid's body back across the border into Turkey.
On coincidentally being near the Westgate Mall after the attack began, and deciding to go inside
I didn't just blindly run in. I first believed this to be a robbery gone wrong, and that wouldn't be something I'd normally take risks for — that's not a big, important news event. There are a lot of violent robberies in Kenya and it's something that you just stay away from. When first I approached the mall I could see ... hundreds of people running in terror away from that building, through the parking lot out onto the street — really spilling out onto the street. I knew immediately that this had to be something more serious than just a robbery.
As I got up closer to the mall, I could see ... people coming out, clearly who had been shot. People with blood splattered on their faces being pushed out of this mall by other civilians in shopping carts, literally using shopping carts as gurneys and wheelchairs for people who couldn't walk.
A little bit later, about 45 minutes later, after I had seen that ... some people had been killed, their bodies laying on the front steps of the mall ... it was clear to me that this was something far bigger and serious enough that it warranted the attempt to get inside to see what was happening.
On how he ended up taking the photo of the woman sheltering her children
It's a very exposed vantage point so I didn't spend a lot of time there. But I looked down and saw this incredible scene of a young woman with two children hiding on the floor of a cafe. You could see shell casings all around them from bullets and they were just petrified, they were completely still and ... to me, that photograph really sums up what happened there. Outside of the frame, all around them and on the floor of this mall were bodies, a man next to an ATM ... a woman still holding a shopping bag who had been killed, and they somehow managed to avoid that.
On how the woman kept her kids quiet for five hours throughout the attack
The music that plays in the shopping mall — just kind of this tranquil music — was still playing throughout this whole thing, so amidst the gunfire and all the action that was happening, you had this kind of mall music that played throughout the entire attack. She actually was singing along with those songs to her children to keep them calm and quiet — especially the young boy who she said rarely can sit still for five minutes and she had to keep him calm and quiet for five hours.
On being kidnapped along with his driver and three other journalists in Libya
The thing that I really thought about the most and will for the rest of my life is taking risks that affect other people — that have consequences for other people. In this case, the 21-year-old driver [who was killed], that's on my shoulders forever. And that is a lesson that I hope that will protect myself and the people that I work with for the duration of my career.
And that's what I can take out of that, as small as that is: to know when enough is enough, to know when to leave, to listen to the people around you — local people who know more about the place than you do. If they say it's time to go, then go, because if you stay and something happens to them, that's a horrible, horrible thing that's not reversible. ...
[We were] driven across the Libyan desert in the back of open pickup trucks — bound and blindfolded and beaten — and I actually watched a guy at a checkpoint just come up and closed-fist punch [New York Times photographer] Lynsey Addario in the face. She had pieces of her hair pulled out. We got pretty roughed up on that trip, both physically and emotionally, and it does take a lot out of you. None of us would ever want that to happen again.
On how covering war has affected him
I think in the moment — meaning in that time that you're there, whether it's a week or 10 days or two weeks, whatever it is — you can kind of tuck that aside and continue to do the work. I find that it's more after that you realize how much you're shaken in these things.
I remember not long after [an assignment in Afghanistan] I was back in the states, I was in Connecticut with my sister and we were just going for a run. We were down by the beach in my hometown and there was some work being done on a house and there was a hydraulic nail gun that they were using and it really sounds a lot like incoming gunfire with this thing. As we were running they put a few nails in and I literally almost hit the ground and my sister's reaction was like, "Oh my God, you should look at yourself, man. You totally thought you were just being shot at."
And it's true; you can't deny that that's a natural protective instinct that you gain through these things.
On being with reporter Anthony Shadid when he died from an asthma attack while sneaking across the border between Turkey and Syria
Anthony and I organized a trip to cross into Syria from eastern Turkey and to do that was pretty difficult at the time — having to link up with smugglers, this pretty rough-cut group of people who bring you at night across the border; you have to climb through barbed wire fences, run across fields; some of them are on horseback, they're also bringing guns and ammunition across. It was very surreal to be with them and to be crossing at night like this. ...
He had told me beforehand that he had asthma — he couldn't be around dogs, and these kind of things, but I didn't know a lot about asthma.... [Shadid had had an asthma attack on his first trip across the border and] both Anthony and I were both concerned about the horses and him having another attack. He was more prepared on the way out with antihistamines and inhalers and a [scarf] that he bought there to cover his face. We told the smugglers on the way out that we did not want to have any horses near us — that we would just do everything by foot and within 10 minutes of starting the journey back down the mountain Anthony started to have the same type of reaction that I had seen him have on the way up.
He was still talking, I had my arm around him, helping him walk. There were dogs barking. This is a route that you have to move quickly on, there can be any number of people out there to get you, so the dogs are an alert. ... We walked probably another minute or so and he stopped — there was a boulder on the side of the trail, he put his hands up on the side of the boulder to rest and just collapsed and that was it.
He died there on the trail, not too far from the Turkish border. I performed CPR on him for about a half an hour and it was clear that he was gone. The smugglers who were with us, of course didn't speak English, I don't speak Arabic, so then I lost my ability to communicate. ...
Anthony's wife and his son were in Turkey waiting for him to return from this trip, where he was planning to write, so that was really the saddest thing I've ever had to do in my life was to face his wife and his young boy and explain to them what happened.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Last week, my guest, Tyler Hicks, won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography for coverage of the 2013 terrorist attack by Islamist extremists on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. At least 67 people were killed and over 175 injured. Hicks rushed into the mall after the attack began and took pictures as the story unfolded. Hicks is a photographer for the New York Times and has risked his life many times to cover war and conflict in such places as Kosovo, Chechnya, Congo, Ethiopia, Sudan and Iraq.
He first went to Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks and has returned every year since. The Pulitzer citation commends his skill and bravery. He most certainly is brave. New York Times war correspondent C.J. Chivers wrote about Hicks, quote, "I've watched him survive firefight after firefight and seen him get peppered with dirt and rocks by a bomb that killed another man," unquote.
Hicks was held captive in Libya for nearly a week along with three other journalists, including New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid. Less than a year later, Hicks and Shadid sneaked over the Syrian border to cover the civil war. Later when they were trying to sneak out of Syria, Shadid died of a severe asthma attack, and Hicks, who was in shock, had to figure out how to get Shadid's body across the border into Turkey. I spoke with Tyler Hicks yesterday.
TYLER HICKS: Tyler Hicks, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on the Pulitzer. The first Pulitzer that you won as part of a New York Times team reporting on Afghanistan and Pakistan, when the prize was announced, you were embedded with American troops in Afghanistan, where there wasn't electricity. So you didn't even get the message until 24 hours later. And from what I read, it sounded like you couldn't really celebrate because one of the soldiers had just died. You were not, and the soldiers were not, in a celebratory mood. How did you hear this time around?
This time around, I was in Nairobi, where I've been living for the last about two and a half years and also where the photographs were taken that won the Pulitzer. So I was actually was at my home in Nairobi.
GROSS: So let's talk about some of those photos that won the Pulitzer, and this was for covering the siege of the mall in Nairobi, a siege by members of the extremist Islamist group Al-Shabab. You happened to be picking up some photography supplies at a store near the mall when the extremists attacked it?
HICKS: Yes, actually I was getting some photographs that were gifts framed, just down the street. And shopping malls in Nairobi are kind of a place that foreigners can go and get lots of things done at one time. It's - Nairobi is, it's a city with a lot of crime, a lot of traffic. It can be chaotic. So it is convenient to go to these types of places to get things done.
So I was actually at an adjacent mall to Westgate when the attacks started.
GROSS: So when you realized that the mall was under attack, your reflex apparently was to run in and start taking photographs just as shoppers were doing their best to run out and escape the shooting and the mayhem. Does it ever go against your instincts, your self-protective instincts, to run into the danger instead of away from it?
HICKS: Yes, that's always a judgment that you make. I didn't just blindly run in. I mean, this is something that I first believed this to be a robbery gone wrong, and that wouldn't be something I'd normally take risks for. That's not a big, important news event. There are a lot of violent robberies in Kenya, and it's something that you just stay away from.
However, when I approached the mall, I could see that, you know, first, hundreds of people running in terror away from that building, through the parking lot, out onto the street, really spilling onto the street. So I knew immediately that this had to be something more serious than just a robbery. And as I got up closer to the mall, I could see that then people coming out, clearly who had been shot, you know, people with blood splattered on their faces, being pushed out of this mall by other civilians, (unintelligible) shopping carts, literally using shopping carts, like, as gurneys and wheelchairs for people who couldn't walk.
About 45 minutes later, after I had seen that some people had been killed, their bodies laying on the front steps of the mall and vehicles, it was clear to me that this was something far bigger and serious enough that it warranted the attempt to get inside to see what was happening.
GROSS: You tried to stay with police and soldiers once you were inside, as they made their way through, looking for the terrorists and also trying to, you know, help people who were trapped. Why was that your strategy?
HICKS: Well, it's always good to try to attach yourself to someone who can help you and assist you through a place like this. I mean, you don't want to be running around in a place like that alone, not only because you could run into the people waging the attack, but also you could be mistaken for one of them by authorities, when these kinds of situations are chaotic, they're confusing, and in the case of Kenya, you know, the first responders might not be the more kind of heavyweights who have experience with this.
So, you know, in the first moments of this, you don't really know what the training is of the people in there. You just want to kind of get with a group that at least can provide some small bubble of protection. The problem with that is those very people may not want you to be there and will try to throw you out. And that happened to me numerous times, where I'd be with one group that would be OK with having me along, and then we'd run into another group of authorities, and they'd say what are you doing here, escort me outside of the mall or just the edge of it, and I would then wait for them to get busy again and then reattach myself to another group.
GROSS: One of your photos is of a man, I think he's dead, I am not sure. He's all bloodied. He's next to a statue of an elephant that was considered the mall's mascot. Blood is smeared all around him on the floor, but the smearing of the blood, it almost looks like a finger painting in the way that it's smeared, and that made me think that his body had been moved out of the way, creating those smears.
Can you talk about that photo and why you took it?
HICKS: Yes, this is at the entrance of a supermarket called Nakumatt, and it's a big, modern supermarket. It's the type of place you can get any kind of, like, western type of imported goods. This was right at the entrance, and this was close to the end of my time there. I ultimately was kicked out definitively by a soldier, but as I was coming out of the mall, I saw this horrific scene of this man who'd been gunned down, kind of a circular smear of blood.
And there's a Kenyan soldier running past him as he's running into the supermarket. I questioned why there was this pattern of blood and so much of it smeared around like that. And interestingly, there's actually closed-circuit TV footage of this man being shot that I saw. It's really hard to watch. He's shot and then struggling on the ground. He's actually kicking and moving around in circles in pain.
The militant then returned and shot him in the head to finish killing him. So this particular victim really suffered a very painful and unfortunate death.
GROSS: Another photo you took during the siege of the Nairobi mall was of a woman trying to hide and to hide two children. I assume that she's their mother, but I don't really know. I'm not sure if you know. And she has her body covering one of them and is lying close to the other. And oh, gosh, you just feel for them, you know, in this photo.
HICKS: Yes, it's interesting. The shopping mall is very much like any shopping mall you'd find in the States. It's kind of a center atrium with various floors. So by walking to the edge of the wall, where I took this photograph looking down, it's a very exposed vantage point. So I didn't spend a lot of time there. But I looked down, and I saw this incredible scene of this - you know, a young woman with two children hiding on the floor of a café.
And you can see shell casings all around them from bullets, and they were just petrified. They were completely still. And it really - to me that photograph really sums up what happened there. Outside of the frame, all around them on the floor of this mall, were bodies, you know, a man next to an ATM machine, a woman, you know, still holding a shopping bag, who'd been killed. And they somehow managed to just avoid that.
This woman actually contacted me. I received an email from her just about a week ago. She actually heard about the Pulitzer Prize that I had won for these photographs and had seen her photo on the New York Times website and various other places. So I immediately wrote back to her because, you know, it's very rare to have access to people in chaotic scenes like this.
You take someone's picture, it's this amazing scene, and then you never find out what happened to them. I don't have any way of contacting these people. In this case, she contacted me, and I called her, and we had a Skype video talk, and it was incredible. I mean, she showed me her children, a two-year-old boy and a 10-year-old girl, and told me the whole story how they laid there for five hours.
GROSS: Oh gosh.
HICKS: And a woman just next to her was gunned down. You know, they could smell the smoke from the gunpowder. And she told me how they got through this. And one of the things, an observation that I had made that she brought up, which - the music that plays in the shopping mall, just kind of this tranquil music, was still playing throughout this whole thing.
So amidst the gunfire and all the action that was happening, you had this kind of mall music that played throughout the entire attack. So she actually was singing along with those songs to her children to keep them calm and quiet, especially the young boy, who she said, you know, rarely can sit still for five minutes, and she had to keep him calm and quiet for five hours.
GROSS: Do you remember the mall music? Were you aware of that?
HICKS: Absolutely. Yeah, that was kind of one of the ironic things of it. And the thing about - in any kind of combat situation, or you're in a firefight or an ambush or these things, there's the gunfire and the smells and the sounds and all these kind of things that you don't experience in the still photograph. But there always seems to be some strange thing that you remember from it, whether it's looking over and seeing a child, or it could be anything, and often that's kind of the trigger that reminds me of it. For example, hearing mall music might remind me of this attack.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tyler Hicks, he's a photojournalist for the New York Times who has reported from many warzones, including Afghanistan, various countries in Africa, and he just won a Pulitzer Prize for his photographs of the siege of the Nairobi mall in 2013. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tyler Hicks. He's a New York Times photojournalist who is usually in one warzone or another. He just won a Pulitzer Prize for his photos of the siege of the Nairobi shopping mall, a siege by Islamist extremists from Al-Shabab. You've traveled a lot with New York Times journalist Chris Chivers, C.J. Chivers, in warzones. And I want to read something that he wrote about you, and this is an excerpt of an article he wrote about you in 2009.
Traveling by Tyler Hicks' side, I've watched him survive firefight after firefight and seen him get peppered with dirt and rocks by a bomb that killed another man. I've gently tried to calm Afghan soldiers or police, nominal allies underwritten by the United States, after they threatened to kill him for perceived infractions, once as minor as photographing a pickup truck at a checkpoint that carried, among other things, a veiled woman.
Once, an 82-millimeter mortar round landed beside Tyler, 15 feet away. A Marine with seasoned reflexes shoved him to the ground as it screamed down from the sky. The blast so shook that he pushed himself up and bolted, groaning and grunting, until he reached me, perhaps 50 feet away, and dove to my feet. A shot deer can sprint 100 yards and hit the dirt dead. Was Tyler still alive? We tore off his shirt and looked for holes, four hands running over his back as he curled up and shouted the nonsense of a frightened, disoriented man.
I told him there were no holes, that he'd not been hit. He was gasping. He nodded. A few minutes later, while the mortar attack continued, he was composed and dressed again, taking pictures of the semi-conscious Marine who had saved him as medics treated him on a gurney. The only sign of what Tyler had survived was his constantly twitching legs, which bounced whenever he sat for hours.
And then Chivers goes on to describe how the editors suggested it's so dangerous, you should get out, and you refused. You said your work is not done. So after that mortar went off, and you thought maybe you were wounded, but you weren't, but you were incredibly shaken, how hard was it to just go on and just keep taking photographs?
HICKS: I think in the moment, in the moment meaning in that time that you're there, whether it's a week or 10 days or two weeks, whatever it is, you can kind of tuck that aside and continue to do the work. I find that it's more after that you realize how much you're shaken in these things, like you - I remember not long after that assignment, I was back in the States, I was in Connecticut with my sister, and we were just going for a run.
We were down by the beach in my hometown, and there was some work being done on a house, and there was a hydraulic nail gun that they were using, and it really sounds a lot like incoming gunfire with this thing. And as we were running, I put a few nails in, and I literally kind of like almost hit the ground. And my sister's reaction was like oh my God, you should look at yourself, man. I mean, you totally thought you were just being shot at.
And it's true. You can't deny that these - that's a natural protective instinct that you gain through these things.
GROSS: It sounds like your instincts are more in synch with war at this point than they are, you know, in an American city or suburb.
HICKS: Yes, but when you have this kind of visceral reaction, that then numbs down as you spend more time. I mean, even, I mean, Chris and I have talked about this. I mean, even just walking around in your yard when you get home, you're kind of looking where you're stepping, you know, as far as could there be an IED here. It's just something that then goes away. It may take a week or a month or whatever it is, and then you start to feel normal again.
GROSS: You were in Libya with three other journalists, Anthony Shadid, Lynsey Addario and Stephen Faro, when you were kidnapped, handed off to different sets of kidnappers, beaten repeatedly. What was the story you were hoping to get in Libya? And this was during the uprising against Gadhafi.
HICKS: When I first arrived in Libya, this was just more of an uprising. The war hadn't started. And then - but very quickly it descended into a full-on war. In the case of when we were captured, we were in a small city called Ajdabiya, and it was under the rebel fighter control. So I was able to work alongside them. They welcomed journalists, for the most part. They wanted their fight and their cause to be seen.
So as long as you were with them, you know, you were safe. And then the Libyan forces came, and they, the government army, first shelling the city and then moving in with vehicles, armored vehicles, pickup trucks, armed soldiers, and it was clear that the rebels were going to lose this town, that they were going to lose control of controlling this place.
And we worked for a certain period of time there. It was very intense, rocket fire that then became small arms fire. So we started to hear incoming fire shot be, you know, actual people that are - which means they're close. And that's when - that was our cue to leave. Just on the edge of the city, we decided to stop one more time. There were some - a group of men that we wanted to - I wanted to photograph.
Anthony Shadid, who was there, did a quick interview. Our driver, a 21-year-old Libyan engineering student who was kind of doing it not so much for the money but for the cause, it was his contribution, was very eager to leave. He was very scared, telling us it's time to go. I feel like - you know, I take responsibility for staying too long. We - I was in the moment, and really this was a rare situation that I really wanted to get as much as I could as we were pulling out of that place.
GROSS: What happened to the driver?
HICKS: As we were driving out of the city, you know, we were with friendly forces. We literally drove around the corner and right into enemy forces. They had a makeshift checkpoint that had just popped up. They'd flanked the city. It was a small group of fighters. They pulled guns on our vehicle, pulled us out of the vehicle.
They immediately shot our 21-year-old driver and killed him, and in that same moment, the rebel fighters, who we had just been with, attacked the very checkpoint that was capturing us. So at the same time of being captured by enemy forces, we were being attacked by friendly fire from the people we had just been with.
I briefly managed to break away from the person that was pulling me out of the vehicle, just kind of let him have my cameras and ran not to try to get away because we're out in the desert, but there was a small building that I wanted to get behind, like a little guard shack that was cement, and I just wanted to get behind that because there were so many bullets flying around.
Literally I could hear the bullets hitting our car. They were, you know, going into the trunk of the car at my feet. I just knew if I stayed there that I was going to get shot. In this exchange, not only our driver but two other people were killed. So that kind of - you know, it shows you how quickly things can go badly.
GROSS: Tyler Hicks will be back in the second half of the show. Last week he won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography for his photos of the terrorist attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with New York Times photojournalist Tyler Hicks. Last week he won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography for his photos of the terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya. He's taken many risks to cover conflict and war in Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Chechnya, Congo and Ethiopia.
When we left off, he was describing how he and three other journalists - including fellow New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid - were taken captive by soldiers in Libya during the uprising against Gadhafi in 2011.
So there was a moment, or at least one moment, when one of your captors held a rifle to your, to the back of your head. You probably did not know whether he was going to pull the trigger or not. What goes through your mind in a moment like that - a moment that you don't know if that's going to be your last?
HICKS: I would say that the worst moment of that entire experience, which lasted for a week, was just after we were all together again, me and Anthony, Lynsey and Steve, in the desert. They demanded that we lay on our stomachs and at gunpoint. And we all just thought that was it, they were going to have us lay down and shoot us. That's kind of the classic execution set. You know, I remember looking over at Anthony, he was on his knees. He's the only Arabic speaker among us, and he was pleading with them and trying to explain we're journalists, you know, Americans. And you know, his lips were like almost white. I could see how he felt the same thing I was feeling, that we all thought that was it. It was just, it was almost a strange calm that came over us, it's like this release that this was going to happen. They did force us down and I remember seeing just a hand carrying some cable and some rope and things like that passed me and that gave me some hope. I thought I really hope that this is just that they're going to tie us up, that means we're not going to be shot. And in fact, that's what they did, they tied, you know, our hands very tightly behind our backs, they tied our feet and completely bound us and put us into several vehicles out in the middle of the open, where we were actually, you know, continued to come under friendly fire attack.
GROSS: So fortunately you were all released. After being beaten you were all roughed up, but you were released with the help of the intervention of The New York Times and with Turkish authorities who worked on your behalf. During your approximately week of captivity, did you make any deals with yourself that if you escaped alive and in reasonably good health, that you would or would not do anything again? Do you know what I mean? That you'd never do this again or that you'd continue doing this for years or you'd take more risks or take fewer risks or...
HICKS: The thing that I really thought about the most, and will for the rest of my life, is taking risks that affect other people, that have consequences for other people. In this case...
GROSS: Like a driver? Yeah.
HICKS: Yes. In this case, the 21-year-old driver, that that's on my shoulders forever, you know. And that is a lesson that I hope that will, you know, protect myself and the people that I work with for the duration of my career. And that's what I can take out of that, as small as that is. To know when enough is enough and to know when to leave, to listen to the people around you, you know, local people who know more about the place than you do. And if they say it's time to go, then go, because, you know, if you stay and something happens to them, that's a horrible, horrible thing that's not reversible. I didn't think about whether, you know, throughout the actual experience of being driven across the Libyan desert in the back of open pickup trucks, bound and blindfolded and beaten and, you know, I actually watched a guy at a checkpoint just come up and closed fist punch Lynsey Addario in the face, you know, she had pieces of her hair pulled out. You know, we got pretty roughed up on that trip, both physically and emotionally. And it does take a lot out of you and it, you know, none of us would ever want that to happen again.
And it's, you know, I've been in touch with the driver's brother and his family and I went back to Libya and I met with them, and that was a really difficult thing, not only for me but for them. There's, you know, explaining to them what happened. They were angry, totally understandably. But I'm now friends with his brother, we communicate still, and his brother's body's never been found. You know, a lot of people are still buried out in desert or, you know, under a piece of wood or whatever it is. It's a big place and, you know, hundreds and if not thousands of bodies were discarded out in the desert.
GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is photojournalist Tyler Hicks. He just won a Pulitzer Prize for his photos of the siege of the Nairobi mall in Kenya, the siege by extremist Islamists from al-Shabab. Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is photojournalist Tyler Hicks. He works for The New York Times and just won a Pulitzer Prize for his pictures of the siege of the Nairobi mall in Kenya, the siege by Islamists extremists from the group al-Shabab.
Well, we were just talking about Libya, where you were kidnapped for nearly a week and among the three other photojournalists with you was Anthony Shadid, who had been the Lebanon bureau chief for The New York Times. You were very close. You traveled together in war zones. Eleven months after the incident in Libya, where you were held hostage, you traveled to Syria with Shadid. And you couldn't get in legally at this point so you crossed the Turkish border illegally with a group of smugglers who helped you in. What was your reporting goal on that trip?
HICKS: This was in the early stages of the war when the Free Syria Army, has been fighting to overthrow the Assad government, was really just forming. It was also a much more fluid time when the country, there are no front lines, there were no barriers, it was just the Syrian Army posts or patrols that were moving all over the country. At the same time the Free Syria Army groups moving all over the country and occasionally clashing, and so it was a dangerous time to be moving around on those roads. And it continues to be dangerous but in a lot of different ways now. So Anthony and I organized a trip to cross into Syria from Eastern Turkey and to do that was pretty difficult at the time. It was having to link up with smugglers who were, you know, these pretty rough cut group of people who bring you at night across the border. You have to climb through barbed wire fences, run across fields, some of them are on horseback, they're also bringing guns and ammunition across. It was very surreal to be with them and to be crossing at night like this.
GROSS: And the problem you run into is that Anthony Shadid turned out to be allergic to the horses.
HICKS: Correct. He had a severe asthma attack on the way in. He had told me beforehand that he had asthma. He couldn't be around dogs and these kind of things but, you know, I didn't know a lot about asthma then. I just, you know, I know that people have inhalers and that, yes, it can be dangerous, but I didn't know how severe his case was. Very shortly after we crossed into Syria at night, it's also, you know, physically very difficult running uphill with all of our gear on foot and in the company of horses on a trail that was very frequented by horses, because this is a regularly traveled route. Anthony immediately started to have, you know, wheezing breath, shortness of breath, and it got to the point where he couldn't move anymore. The smugglers, who were supposed to escort us up to our contact at the very top of this mountain, which would take roughly two hours to reach by foot, just left us. They just kept going on horseback with all of their equipment. So I found myself at night with Anthony hiding in some bushes in Syria with him unable to move and barely be able to talk. Eventually he after a couple of hours, really, he got himself under control. Somebody from up top came down. I was able to kind of find him and we were able to get Anthony up to the top. It was too late to actually turn back. There had been some Turkish patrols that had passed below us, so we were really locked into continuing with the trip at that point.
GROSS: And then you really ran into trouble on the way home. He had another asthma attack, again because of the horses.
HICKS: Yes. And on the way back, both Anthony and I were definitely concerned about the horses and him having another attack. He was more prepared on the way out with antihistamines and inhalers and a Kafiya, kind of a scarf that he'd bought there to cover his face. We told the smugglers on the way out that we did not want to have any horses near us, that we would just do everything by foot and within 10 minutes of starting the journey back down the mountain, Anthony started to have the same type of reaction that I'd seen him have on the way up. He was still talking, I had my arm around him, helping him walk. There were dogs barking that kind of, this is a route that you have to move quickly on. There can be any number of people out there to get you, so the dogs are in alert that we wanted to get away from. And I said, you know, Anthony, let's walk a little bit further just to get away from where these dogs are barking and we'll take a long break. He said OK. We walked probably another minute or so. He stopped. There was kind of a boulder on the side of the trail. He put his hands up on the side of the boulder kind of to rest and just collapsed. And that was it. He died there on the trail not too far from the Turkish border. I performed CPR on him for about a half an hour and it was clear that he was gone.
The smugglers who were with us, of course, didn't speak English, I don't speak Arabic, so then I lost my ability to communicate. I tried to persuade them to continue to get his body out of Turkey. They refused. They actually brought me and Anthony's body back up into these villages, very dangerous villages, in fact, to try to figure out what to do next and it was really - this went on all night, where a lot of negotiations had to happen. And I was brought to this house with lots of elders who had all gathered in the middle of the night, and ultimately I did, through a large payment, was able to get them to bring us to Turkey. That was a very, very difficult time. Then Anthony's wife and his son, actually, were in Turkey waiting for him to return from this trip where he was planning to write. So you know, that was really the saddest thing I've ever had to do in my life, was to face his wife and his young boy and explain to them what happened, and of course then to his family and all of his huge number of friends afterwards.
GROSS: I can't imagine what the trip out of Syria was like, escorting Anthony Shadid's body.
HICKS: It was hard. You know, I just couldn't believe that this had happened. You know, we'd just finished this incredible reporting trip. It was, you know, he had a lot in his notebooks and we weren't sending our material from there. We were waiting until we got out to send all the pictures and the stories and everything. Anthony was really happy with what he had gathered there. He was passionate about this story, about the cause. You know, this was, he was really in his element there and we were already planning our next trip to return there. And to suddenly be with him, you know, it didn't seem like he had died. You know, he was still there, I was with him and we'd just been talking and laughing and, you know, joking around in that way you do on those types of trips, and then he just wasn't alive anymore. It's really kind of hard to accept that and there's, you know, you're in shock from it as well.
Initially, we, you know, we transported him on horseback down to the bottom of the mountain and then with the help of a few of the smugglers we carried his body across the same fields that we'd run across a week earlier, passed his body through the barbed wire fences and out to a highway where a taxi driver who was part of this smuggling network kind of was waiting for us. But they didn't really know where to take us. They didn't want to be connected to this. They, you know, ultimately brought us to a fire department where the police were immediately called. They got kind of dragged into it with the authorities and everything. But that was just the beginning of, you know, then Anthony's wife, of course, and then, you know, family showing up.
And it was just really, really the most horrible thing I've ever experienced and, you know, I've never felt so terrible for those left behind as this. It was just awful.
GROSS: You've lost friends and colleagues. You lost Anthony Shadid. You lost your good friend Chris Hondros, who basically brought you onto his newspaper years ago as an intern and then you replaced him when he left. He died in a mortar attack in Libya. Your colleague at the New York Times, Joao Silva, lost his legs after stepping on an IED in Afghanistan.
What effect does - like, how do you keep doing it? How do you keep working in war zones when you know how dangerous it is?
HICKS: Well, it sometimes isn't easy. Those - you know, I think in the case of - I think, you know, Joao, who you mentioned, who - he's a double amputee now, had a lot of severe internal injuries due to stepping on an anti-personnel mine in Afghanistan, he's, you know, I think Joao's the toughest guy I know. He's very matter of fact about it. I think he kind of sums it up when he says, you know, it happened.
But you know, we talked a lot about it. You are around people. You go into their world. You experience people who are getting killed, getting injured around you all the time. You can't expect that that isn't going to happen to you. And if it does, that's just - that's something that has to be accepted. He accepts what happens to him. He doesn't feel regretful or any kind of self-pity.
He - it's, you know, he's a hardcore journalist. You know, as hardcore as they come.
GROSS: Is that like an emotional role model for you?
HICKS: I would hope it to be. I don't know if I would be able to be as strong as him mentally after that. Or physically, you know, to be able to just, you know, push through it the way he did with hundreds of operations. And, you know, it's a severely life changing injury. And, you know, it's hard to say but, you know, you never really think it's going to happen to you, really, until it does.
And in my case, you know, being captured and having these types of things happen to me, I've experienced my own, you know, the fear and the hardship and loss. And through other people, through losing friends. And it's something that, you know, you just hope that you manage to navigate your way through it and come out the other side as healthy as possible, both, you know, mentally and physically.
GROSS: But you're sticking in war zones for now.
HICKS: Not exclusively. I photograph, really, whatever assignment comes up. Sometimes that might be an election. I did last year a big story on ivory poaching in Africa. So it's not just conflict. You have to mix it up. And I think that, you know, if you just do that all the time, you're going to burn out. You have to balance it with less kinetic assignments as well.
GROSS: My guest is Tyler Hicks, a photojournalist for the New York Times. Last week he won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, my guest is photojournalist Tyler Hicks who has reported from many war zones. He's a photojournalist for the New York Times and he just won a Pulitzer Prize for his photographs of the siege of the Nairobi shopping mall, the siege by extremist Islamists from Al Shabaab.
We were talking earlier about when you were captive in Libya and you were tied up and you were blindfolded and you had a gun to your head. You've taken so many photos of people in those positions - people with guns to their heads, people who have their hands tied up, who are lying on the floor in that execution position.
When you look at those photos or when you take photos now of people in positions like that, do you have a certain empathy that you wouldn't have had before because you were literally in that position?
HICKS: Absolutely. The biggest thing that I took away from that experience really is that the helplessness that you have, being completely at the mercy of somebody else. When you're, you know, hands tied behind your back is actually very painful. You lose circulation in your arms. You can't feel your hands, you know, for hours or days at a time.
And you find yourself just kind of begging to have your hands tied in front of you, which is a lot more comfortable. That, along with being blindfolded and feet bound, you cannot be more vulnerable. And in the case in Libya, we were beaten in that situation and, like, not even being able to see the swing coming at you. Being beaten when you're blindfolded, for example, you have no way to prepare yourself for it.
So I do feel very different when I see people who are in captivity tied up. It definitely makes me feel for them in a way that I didn't before.
GROSS: How do you beg when you don't speak the language of your captors?
HICKS: I really didn't - my tactic for the most part was keeping quiet. You know, you find yourself trying to figure out how to draw as little attention to yourself as possible. And I didn't really know how to do that, but I actually found that Anthony, being the one Arabic speaker, was abused probably more than the rest of us. Because they were able to communicate with him, the focus went to him.
When they're unable to communicate with the others, I think that they tend to not have as much interest.
GROSS: Since 9/11 you've gone to Afghanistan every year to document what's going on there. Have you made your trip yet this year?
HICKS: Yes. I was there recently for the election. So I spent part of that time embedded with the Afghan army and then part of the time in Kabul covering the vote. But it's become very difficult to work there, very dangerous to - even with the, you know, being with the Afghan army or police, they also can turn on you.
So it's - and recently, you know, there have been some, you know, journalists and photographers killed, just not in combat situations but, you know, sitting in the back of a car or standing on a street corner giving an interview. So I think it's just going to become harder and harder to work there and eventually impossible to work there as a foreigner.
GROSS: Do you ever, like, risk your life for a photo and then you see the photo and you think, like, the photo just does not communicate what I saw?
HICKS: Absolutely. Still photography in war is really difficult. It's a difficult tool because you have all this commotion and noise and sound and smells and you can get back from that thinking I have this - you know, I've really captured this scene. And you look at the photographs and it just looks like a guy, you know, pointing a gun over a wall or something. It's - actually, you have to concentrate a lot in those moments to try to capture the emotion.
And this is really - to get - it could just be such a fleeting moment that really sums up that. And one example of this would be, I was in the Korengal Valley on a patrol just with a small squad of guys going on a routine patrol. And they did like a command detonated IED that killed a young soldier just in front of me. I was, you know, peppered with chunks of mud.
They then opened up with an attack from three different ridges. It was a big firefight. Fell into a river. It was just - we were out all night before we finally got back and it was just like this unbelievable scene. The photographs don't look like that much and that's what - that's what, you know, I have a soldier running. I have some guys kind of recovering from taking cover. And it just doesn't - sometimes the most intense things really add up to very little visually.
GROSS: Well, most of your photographs - the ones that are published are really remarkable. Tyler Hicks, I want to thank you for your photographs, thank you for the risk that you take to make those photographs, and congratulations on your Pulitzer Prize.
HICKS: Thank you.
GROSS: Tyler Hicks is a photojournalist for the New York Times. Last week he won a Pulitzer Prize for his photos of the terrorist siege of the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. You can see those prize winning photos on our website, freshair.npr.org. And you can hear a couple of extras from the interview, including his story about covering elephant poaching in Africa, on SoundCloud at soundcloud.com/freshair. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.