The Digital Journalist
La Même Chose -
Only More So

by Peter Howe

March 2006

The watchdog organization Reporters Sans Frontieres recently issued a disturbing report on the hazards faced by journalists in 2005. The year was the most dangerous on record to be a member of this profession, with a total of 63 killed worldwide. Another grim milestone was also passed in 2005: the number of journalists that have died in Iraq since the 2003 invasion now exceeds the total that perished during the entire Vietnam War. The most recent victim, a female correspondent for the Arab television network, Al Arabiya, was gunned down with her camera operator while covering the spate of mosque bombings. The leading cause of work-related death in our job is murder, a statistic that we probably only share with crack dealers. Furthermore, the rate for the arrest and prosecution for such murders hovers around the 10 percent mark, making the slaying of a troublesome reporter or evidence-taking photographer a fairly risk-free form of censorship.

Reading the report made me think of the French proverb, "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose." Its publication coincided almost exactly with the 25th anniversary of the death by shooting of a good friend to many photojournalists of my generation, a charming Frenchman called Olivier Rebbot. I first met Olivier through David Burnett, and we worked together on several stories, during which time he proved himself to be a generous colleague and companion. He was based in New York as much as he was based anywhere, and, although freelance, he worked almost full-time for Newsweek. He would start his day by listening to the BBC World Service on the shortwave radio that he always carried, check out where the latest big story was and go there. More often then not he was there already.

Olivier Rebbot

Peter Howe
I recently found a picture that I took of him while we were both covering the Republican Convention in Detroit in 1980, and looking at it I realized how much he conformed to the public's idea of the way a photojournalist should look - the Safari jacket draped with cameras, the unruly shock of hair, and the quizzical smile that was more of a challenge than an invitation. Women found him irresistible, especially flight attendants. You never got better service on a plane than when you flew with Olivier. One time when we were going to cover the collision of two super-tankers off the coast of Tobago we rode most of the way down there in the cockpit through his powers of persuasion. This was, of course, before the days of armored doors and trolleys placed across the aisle every time the captain goes to the bathroom.

He was also an incorrigible practical joker, a hilarious example of which occurred at the same convention In Detroit. Olivier was never averse to a free canapé or a glass of wine, and so we decided to go to a party for the foreign press given by some Republican women's organization. At the time I was British, he was French, so we qualified for whatever hospitality was available. We dragged along Iris Jacobson, our token American, who was later to marry David Burnett. It seems that the rest of the foreign press weren't as keen on boondoggles as our group, for we were almost the only journalists there. The room was filled, however, with Republican lady hostesses bedecked in flowery hats and with those little stickers that say, "Hi, my name is..." One came up to us and asked me where I came from and for whom I was working. I said London and Sipa Press, and she welcomed me to Detroit and then turned to Olivier and asked him the same question. Instead of answering her he said to Iris in an exaggerated French accent, much stronger than normal, "Tell her I don't speak English." Iris, who was clearly more used to being his straight man than I was, said, without missing a beat, "He told me to tell you that he's French and he doesn't speak English." The poor, and well-intentioned Republican lady proceeded to ask all her questions using Iris as an interpreter for a full two or three minutes before she realized that, accents aside, the entire conversation was actually being carried on in English. Fortunately she had a good sense of humor herself.

If there was one thing that Olivier took seriously, however, it was his job. If you were at a media event where there were many photographers and he saw one that he didn't recognize he would ask you, "Is he a shooter?" Now in his terms you could be covered in the latest equipment from Nikon and Canon and not be a shooter, or conversely you could have one body with a 50 mm lens and make it into that sacred category. What Olivier meant by the question was, "Does this guy know what he's doing and is he serious about doing it?" If the answer was "yes" you could rely on him to help you whenever he could. If "no," you would be advised not to stand too close to Olivier for fear of a blocked view or an elbow in the ribs.

He was of the school of photojournalists that thought it was always better to ask for forgiveness than permission, and in truth he wasn't that interested in absolution at all. He was only interested in getting the pictures that told the story. When you consider the short time that he worked, just about five years, it is amazing the amount of excellent photography that he produced in that time over such a diverse group of subjects, from the Islamic revolution in Iran to child prostitution in Times Square. Although I was quite close to him, I didn't realize the breadth and depth of his work until I saw the carousel that Newsweek projected at his memorial service at the old ICP on 94th Street. The fact of the matter was that although they assigned him to cover many stories (or more accurately he assigned himself on their behalf) they published only a fraction of the work that he produced. This never seemed to bother him that much, for he looked upon the magazine as his patron, a benefactor in the mould of the sponsors of Italian Renaissance painters. He was happy to be on the road and working, and realized that his photographs would one day be the historical documents that they have in fact become. Maybe on some level he knew that they would outlive him, for he was never risk-averse, and the possibility of an untimely death was always present in the territory where he was happiest.

Because I wasn't as addicted to dangerous places as he was I never owned a bulletproof vest, but borrowed his whenever I needed one. He was working the Democratic Convention in New York when I was about to go to El Salvador. Once again he offered me the use of the vest, and as he gave it to me in the Newsweek workspace, Lester Sloan, an African-American photographer on staff for the magazine, saw the handover and asked, "Is there anything they're not telling the black people here?" It was the same vest in which Olivier was to be fatally wounded not long after. There was a gap between the front and back panels that was very pronounced when your arms were raised holding a camera, and it was through this breach that the sniper's bullet entered. He was medivaced to a hospital in Miami where he lived long enough for many of his friends to say goodbye to him. When I was sitting by his bed he told me that he was through with covering war and other dangerous foreign stories, and that when he recovered he was going to ask the magazine to let him work the White House beat. Whether he would have gone through with this plan we will never know, but I doubt it. He was too restless, too passionate, and too instinctively drawn to the disadvantaged and dispossessed of the world to be fully satisfied doing photo-ops on Air Force One. It was a nice fantasy, however, for his final days.

To mark the 25th anniversary of his death Robert Pledge, his friend and former agent, is putting together an exhibition of his work that will open in the University of Miami, the town where he died. He has also been remembered for the past 25 years through the presentation of the Olivier Rebbot Award that is presented annually by the Overseas Press Club for outstanding photographic reporting from abroad in magazines or books. The recipients of this honor read like a "who's who" of contemporary photojournalism. But the most lasting memorial we can give him, and the hundreds of other journalists who have been killed since his death, is to carry on the work to which he devoted his short life. Olivier was fortunate in one respect in that he worked for an influential magazine that is published in a powerful country. Newsweek sponsors the award, and his friends like Pledge and myself are privileged to be in a position to ensure that for at least the first quarter of a century his memory will not be dimmed. So many of his colleagues who met similar fates did so without the friends and institutions that are able to keep alive their legacies, and assure their places in the annals of journalism. When we remember any one of the journalists who have been killed while they work, we collectively honor all of them; when any one of us goes out to expose brutality, uncover injustice, or help one culture better understand another, we perpetuate the calling for which so many have given their lives. Idealism is a tarnished word today, but it is what has driven so many journalists past the point of no return.

After all these years I still miss Olivier, but every time I see the work of a young photographer facing the same difficulties he faced, and working with the same intensity that distinguished his work, I know that part of him lives on.

© Peter Howe
Executive Editor