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Anja Niedringhaus: Remembering the war photographer

Katarzyna Domagala-Pereira
April 3, 2024

It's ten years since Anja Niedringhaus was killed in Afghanistan on April 4, 2014. With her photography, the Pulitzer laureate chronicled wars and crises around the globe.

An Afghan boy flies his kite on a hill overlooking Kabul, Afghanistan, May 13, 2013. Photo by Anja Niedringhaus
In a photo by Anja Niedringhaus, an Afghan boy flies his kite on a hill overlooking KabulImage: Anja Niedringhaus/AP Photo/picture alliance

Banda Khel, Afghanistan, April 4, 2014. Anja Niedringhaus texts "I am happy" to her best friend, the photographer Muhammed Muheisen. That day, one of her photos appeared on the front page of the New York Times.

Niedringhaus is traveling through the eastern Afghan province of Khost, along with a friend, the Canadian reporter Kathy Gannon. The two journalists are an experienced team, reporting on the presidential elections in Afghanistan for the US news agency Associated Press.

 In this April 7, 2005 file photo, Associated Press photographer Anja Niedringhaus poses in Rome
Anja Niedringhaus (in a photo from 2005) focused on the people affected by warImage: Peter Dejong/AP Photo/picture alliance

Their trip has been well-prepared and is considered low-risk. They're traveling in a convoy with police, military personnel and election workers. Niedringhaus wants to take photos of villagers registering to vote, the convoy has just stopped at a well-guarded police station. Niedringhaus and Gannon are in the back seat of their vehicle, talking and laughing. Suddenly, a young policeman opens fire on the car with a Kalashnikov, shouting "Allahu Akbar!" ("God is great!"). Anja Niedringhaus is killed immediately. A seriously wounded Kathy Gannon is taken to a hospital.

"She loved Afghanistan"

Niedringhaus' family could not believe that the photojournalist was dead. "Deep inside, I thought that it wasn't true," says Elke Niedringhaus-Haasper, Anja's older sister, in an interview with DW. "My sister loved Afghanistan and the people there. She was inspired by their hospitality," she adds. The photographer never told her family about the dangers she encountered while working, says her sister. "She told us about the nice things that some of her photos show."

Those are captured moments such as a smiling boy, with a dark mountain range behind him as he jumps up to fly a homemade kite. Kite-flying had been banned under the Taliban regime. Another photo shows three burqa-clad women with a baby, their robes fluttering in the wind. And yet another is of little boys on a carousel ride at an Eid al-Fitr festival celebrating the end of Ramadan, one of them holding a toy gun.

Afghan women beg in the street for money in the center of Kandahar, Afghanistan, Wednesday, March 12, 2014. Photo by Anja Niedringhaus
Three women in Kandahar who have to beg to feed themselves and their familiesImage: Anja Niedringhaus/AP Photo/picture alliance

Courageous and Determined

Anja Niedringhaus believed in the power of photographs. She wanted to show them to the world, in the hopes they would help end wars. "But in Yugoslavia, she realized that photos are not enough to end a brutal war," says Christine Longere, a former editor at the Neue Westfälische daily newspaper, and co-founder of the of the Forum Anja Niedringhaus in Anja's Westphalian hometown of Höxter. There, in the newsroom of that local paper, is where Longere met the then-17-year-old Niedringhaus, who was working as a freelancer.

Niedringhaus‘ first assignment was to report on the retirement of a town hall employee in Bad Driburg, 30 kilometers away. "She was 17 and did not yet have a driver's license, but when the secretary asked if she could drive, she truthfully answered yes. As a glider pilot, she had often driven a car to the airfield. So she grabbed the keys to the company car and set off," relates Longere. She still has the first photo Niedringhaus took for the Neue Westfalische, which appeared on the front page. The former colleague adds, "Even then, she was incredibly courageous and determined. She knew what she wanted."

Four war photographs hang on a black wall. In the center of the photo, a damaged black camera sits inside a glass case.
Photographs by Anja Niedringhaus in a German exhibition, surrounding the damaged camera she was carrying when she was killedImage: FAN/Silja Polzin

First war reporting assignment

The young photojournalist was still very inexperienced when the European Press Agency (EPA) sent her to cover the war in Yugoslavia in 1991. In an interview for the book "Bilderkrieger," she said: "A war in the middle of Europe? What am I doing here? And I immediately went to my editor-in-chief and said, 'I want to go there.' He thought I was crazy. 'What experience do you have, anyway?' I had none, I was only 26 years old. But I wrote him a letter on a typewriter every day for six weeks until he finally said, 'Then go.' He and my colleagues were sure I would call after two days and want to go back. I stayed for five weeks that time. I then spent a total of five years in Sarajevo."

"She told me a lot about the war, about Sarajevo and the moments when her photos were taken," recalls Anja's mother, Heide Ute Niedringhaus. Moments such as the one in a Sarajevo courtyard: it was snowing, children were sledding and she thought how nice it was that these children could forget the war for a moment. Suddenly an mortar shell landed and killed a girl. "Her name was Emine. She had long dark hair. Anja said she looked like Snow White. The girl's parents and her father's brother came running out of the house. They held their hands over Emine's head. The photo went around the world. A sad and moving picture," says Heide Ute Niedringhaus.

Seen from behind, a U.S. Marine carries a GI Joe mascot for good luck in his backpack, Iraq, Nov. 14, 2004. Photo by Anja Niedringhaus.
G.I. Joe as a lucky charm: Anja Niedringhaus also documented the emotional side of the warImage: Anja Niedringhaus/AP Photo/picture alliance

Sharing with the world

For Anja Niedringhaus, it was important to document and bear witness to such events and share them with the world. Her photos show women carrying their children out of burning villages, men keeping vigil at a roadside, or a woman bursting into tears at a water distribution point in Sarajevo when she learns there's no more drinking water.

Soldiers also appear as victims of the war. They are young men who have been sent to Iraq from small-town America. One of them carries a G.I. Joe doll as a lucky charm during the bloody battle for Fallujah. Niedringhaus was awarded the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for this and other photos from Iraq, becoming the first German photojournalist to win the award.

She reported from Gaza, Israel, Kuwait, Libya, Pakistan and Afghanistan, among other places. Time and again she cheated death. In 2010, she was walking through an alleyway with soldiers in Afghanistan when the man in front of her kicked a chicken. Anja captured that on film, but seconds later a mortar shell landed — she was seriously wounded by shrapnel.

An Iraqi woman carries her young child on the outskirts of Basra as she flees with others from this southern Iraqi town Sunday, March 30, 2003. Photo by Anja Niedringhaus.
People fleeing Basra in 2003Image: Anja Niedringhaus/AP Photo/picture alliance

In Falludjah in 2004, 60% of the soldiers in the unit she spent time photographing were killed. "If I'd known what I would see in those two weeks, I would not have done it, no," she's quoted as saying in "Bilderkrieger."

Yet she returned again and again to regions gripped by conflict and crisis. She said, "We have a journalistic mission; we have a societal obligation."

Paying the ultimate price

Anja Niedringhaus was just one of dozens of journalists who are killed each year while fulfilling that obligation. According to figures from the organization Reporters Without Borders, 50 journalists were killed around the world in 2023. Other organizations cite even higher figures due to different methods of reviewing individual cases. The Committee to Protect Journalists says 99 media representatives were killed in the past year, more than three-quarters in connection with the conflict between Israel and Hamas.

Some 80% of such crimes against journalists remain without consequences for the perpetrators. "Where there is no plaintiff, there is no judge," says Christopher Resch from Reporters Without Borders. "It is often only international organizations such as ours that denounce the violent deaths of media professionals. In the countries concerned, these cases are often not investigated for various reasons," he explains.

A decade since her death

The killer of Anja Niedringhaus was apprehended and brought to trial. He claimed to have acted out of revenge for the deaths of family members in a bomb attack by NATO troops. A Kabul court sentenced him to death. Knowing that Niedringhaus had opposed the death penalty, her family fought the harsh sentence. The Afghan Supreme Court reduced it to 20 years in prison. Two years later, the perpetrator's influential family began pushing for his release. "Now he is probably at large," says Heide Ute Niedringhaus.

On April 4, the tenth anniversary of her daughter's death, she will lay white flowers on her grave and place heart-shaped lights next to a photo of her.

The Forum Anja Niedringhaus in Höxter is showing photos of Anja's courageous missions in war zones in the exhibition "The Power of Facts."

On the same day, friends of Anja will open an exhibition of her work at the Bronx Documentary Center in New York. Elke Niedringhaus-Haasper and Christine Longere will also be there to "keep Anja's memory alive."

And later that evening at the Bronx Documentary Center, the International Women's Media Foundation will present the Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award to honor the work of courageous female photojournalists worldwide. As courageous as Anja, who used her camera and her heart to report on people in crisis areas.

This article has been translated from German.