PARIS: French photojournalist Remi Ochlik, killed in Syria on Wednesday at the age of 28, was a passionate professional who won praise for getting as “close as possible” to the story.
In his short career, Ochlik covered fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2008, the 2010 presidential election and cholera epidemic in Haiti and the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
Ochlik was “very humble, full of energy, very curious,” said Franck Medan, head of the photo agency Wostok Press, where Ochlik interned in 2003 while still a student at the Icart Photo school in Paris.
“Even at 20 years old, he was already a great photographer who wanted to be as close as possible to the event,” Medan told AFP.
Barely out of his teens and still a student, Ochlik set out alone for Haiti in February 2004 to cover the riots surrounding the fall of president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, eventually earning a prize for young reporters.
The head of the Wostok Press photo agency at the time applauded the photographer for his “extraordinary talent”.
“Journalists as talented as him are rare,” said Slavica Jovicevic at the international photojournalism festival Visa Pour l’Image, which displayed Ochlik’s Haiti photos.
Upon his return from three weeks in Haiti, Ochlik said “war is worse than a drug”.
“You’re 20 years old and don’t really want to die, you’d give everything to be far, very far away and to have never come,” said Ochlik, who was born in the eastern French region of Lorraine.
But once the danger has passed, he said, “there you are with only one desire, one obsession: to return, again and again”.
In 2005, Ochlik co-founded photo agency IP3 Press to cover Paris news and global conflicts, and it was for the agency that he had gone to cover the Syrian conflict.
Ochlik was killed Wednesday when a shell crashed into a makeshift media centre set up by anti-regime militants in Homs, the flashpoint city in a nearly year-long conflict in Syria.
His photos have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Time magazine, Le Monde and others, and he won first prize in general news at the 2012 World Press Photo competition for his coverage of Libya.
His online portfolio (www.ochlik.com) includes many of his compelling images of war, along with his coverage of protests at home and the 2007 French presidential election.
Marie Colvin, an American who worked for Britain’s Sunday Times, was also killed in the Homs shelling.
Ochlik had wanted to return to Syria for Paris Match last week — but its editors said it was too dangerous, friends and colleagues said.
But he went anyway on his own, after joining up with medicine smugglers and nongovernmental organizations in neighboring Lebanon to cross a border combed by Syrian forces seeking to keep out foreign journalists.
Paris Match correspondent Alfred de Montesquiou, who worked with Ochlik in Libya last year — notably covering the death of Moammar Qaddafi — said he received an e-mail from Ochlik late Tuesday night from Syria.
“I just arrived in Homs, it’s dark,” Ochlik wrote, de Montesquiou told The Associated Press. “The situation seems very tense and desperate. The Syrian army is sending in reinforcements now and the situation is going to get worse — from what the rebels tell us.”
“Tomorrow, I’m going to start doing pictures,” he added.
Ochlik had noted there was no telephone or Internet satellite phone service and “a little Internet in the house of the head of the free army, who are housing journalists,” the e-mail said, according to de Montesquiou.
De Montesquiou called Ochlik “a perfectionist” and “a cool-headed guy” and recalled how the photojournalist, after learning that he’d won the World Press Photo prize, almost immediately set off towards Syria.
“He never celebrated. He left a few hours afterward … without even seeing his girlfriend,” de Montesquiou said. “He wasn’t the kind of guy who would gloat for winning a prize. It was the kind of thing that made him work harder.”
The French lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, paid tribute to Ochlik (pronounced Osh-LEEK) before opening its public session Wednesday.
Ochlik knew the job’s dangers: He was a friend of Lucas Dolega, a photographer with EPA agency who died in January last year after being hit by a tear gas canister while covering Tunisia’s revolution.
“He was very serious, he didn’t take risks,” said Yoan Valat, an EPA photographer who worked and traveled with Ochlik in Morocco and Tunisia. “While he was young, he had a lot of experience.”
Olivier Laban-Mattei, a photojournalist for Neus Agency, worked with Ochlik in Libya and recalled how his unassuming colleague had almost passed over the photos in the award-winning package as not good enough.
“That’s Remi in all his grandeur, and reserve as well,” he said, wiping away a tear as he looked at some of Ochlik’s photos. He told AP Television News that Ochlik was unlucky — not imprudent.
“I am persuaded that he did not take unnecessary risks,” Laban-Mattei said. “He was caught in between bad luck and ballistic reality. That’s it … He was doing his job and he did it well.”