Anton Hammerl was killed and his body buried somewhere in the desert. We still don’t know exactly where. The three of us who were captured minutes after he was killed cannot change these facts, as much as we’ve wished to in the year since forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi shot Anton, a South African freelance photojournalist, as he ran down the highway outside Brega, in northeastern Libya.
We—Anton, Clare Gillis, Manu Brabo, and I—were all running from two trucks full of soldiers firing wildly at us. Anton had the right idea—to get back as quickly as possible to the rebel vehicles as they retreated, leaving us behind. It could have been any or all of us. But it was the most experienced of us who was hit, Anton, who first worked as a photojournalist in the early 1990s during South Africa’s deadly township riots. Just after he fell, we were captured by the Gaddafi forces, tied up, thrown into pickups, and put into prison.
I can’t describe the pain of leaving a colleague in the field, not even bringing his body home. And I can’t imagine what it was like for Anton’s wife, Penny Shukraj, and his friends to know only that he had disappeared, missing in action with the three of us.
Clare, Manu, and I were held incommunicado for 44 days, except for one phone call to our families. We couldn’t tell Penny what really happened to Anton until we were released from Libyan captivity. Over those days she did everything possible to secure Anton’s release, hoping against hope for good news.
Since then, we’ve been trying to figure out how to help Penny and three children who lost their father: Aurora, 11, Neo, 8, and baby Hiro, born six weeks before Anton died. We’ve been back to the scene to search for clues and have lobbied fledgling Libyan ministries. We’ve received help and advice from countless Libyans and from concerned NGOs on how to try to find him. And yet Anton’s body still hasn’t been recovered. And to coordinate a search in Libya—where thousands are still missing after the war—is insanely grueling for a mother with two young children and a full-time job. (Aurora, Anton’s daughter from another relationship, lives in South Africa.)
So the question of how to help Anton comes down to, what can we do now? As Clare has often said, we were the last friendly faces Anton saw on that terrible day in Libya. That last night, Anton proudly showed me a picture of Neo, then 7, just before he Skyped with Penny and the kids. And so we realized that what Anton would want from us is a genuine effort to help his children.
Like many journalists, Anton was a freelancer with no life insurance and no employer to support him. He went to Libya on his own dime because he was excited to be covering an African event on the world stage again. He went because he was true to the calling of photojournalism and because it was his job. But there’s no doubt that if Anton—if any of us—had known what we would be putting our families through, we would never have gone to Libya. His youngest son, Hiro, had just been born when his father was killed. The best we can do now is to try to raise some money for his kids’ college fund.
The seed came from Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch, who was closely involved in the search for Anton while we were still in captivity. He suggested on a journalists’ Facebook page that photographers donate prints to benefit Anton’s family, and immediately some big names in photojournalism said they were in. David Brabyn, a photojournalist and designer, has done most of the rest, from reaching out to photographers to designing an amazing website, on an all-volunteer basis. Lydia Fenet, a senior vice president at Christie’s auction house, listened to our story then volunteered herself and Christie’s as our first real platform to try to gather funds. Christiane Amanpour, the last journalist to interview Gaddafi, has volunteered to host the auction.
Photojournalists have lost many colleagues this past year, not just Anton, but also Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros in Libya and Rémi Ochlik in Syria, among others. And the tribe has rallied around: among those donating signed prints are legendary veterans such as Sebastião Salgado, the estate of Robert Capa, David Burnett and Susan Meiselas, and many contemporary award winners, including Lynsey Addario, captured and detained in Libya, and Giles Duley, João Silva, and Emilio Morenatti, who’ve all lost limbs from explosions in Afghanistan, yet carry on with grace and courage.
Anton and Penny were both excited for him to cover Libya—they met on assignment in Johannesburg. And she understood Anton was trying to do the job he truly loved. The photo auction in New York City on May 15 is the community bringing Anton home.