Hammerl was killed in pursuit of his passion

2011-05-21 15:50

The group of people – predominantly South African, mostly journalists – gathered at dusk in a church in London’s Fleet Street seemed uncharacteristically optimistic for what can at best be ­described as a cynical bunch.

“Next time we meet, it will be with champagne,” we reassured each other, with talk of a welcome home party for South African ­photojournalist Anton Hammerl.

His wife, Penny Suhkraj, was ­serene in white at the vigil, despite the fatigue and worry after his disappearance in Libya.

She was cradling baby Hiro and guiding their seven-year-old son Neo in lighting a candle for his ­father.

Sukhraj did not know Hammerl had been shot in the stomach on April 5 in the Libyan desert by Muammar Gadaffi loyalists, that he had cried out for help and had last been seen bleeding into the sand.

She did not know he had most probably been dead for almost a month at the time of the ­vigil in early May.

Her hope for his safe return was shared by family, former colleagues and friends alike.

This confidence was cruelly fed by the scraps of false information on Hammerl’s whereabouts filtering through, which we now know was a combination of blatant lies by the Libyans and South Africa’s shambolic diplomatic efforts.

Hope was also based on the fact that Hammerl was a consummate professional, a seasoned journalist who not only cut his teeth in the violence of early 1990s South Africa, but worked in strife-torn areas such as Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Hammerl had been to Libya ­before. He had contacts there and had even photographed Gadaffi’s son, Saif.

Besides, nobody wanted to ­believe that anything so horrible could happen to someone so ­universally liked.

A close friend, Sarina Potgieter, described him as “unassuming and fascinating”, and an individual who stood out in a crowd.

Eccentric, sharp-witted and eloquent, Hammerl was the epitome of bohemian cool with blue-tinted glasses, changing hairstyles, black leather pants and “soul patch” ­facial hair.

When he agreed to work with me on a story in London last year, I hadn’t seen him for more than 10 years.

It was a Clapham gig by foul-mouthed Afrikaans rapper Jack Parow, attended by outrageously dressed youngsters in signature elongated caps.

In his black bowler hat he ignored an adoring posse who had mistaken him for a stylish celebrity. The photos were ­brilliant.

Journalist Peta Krost Maunder, who was a member of the launch team of the Saturday Star and Sunday Independent along with Hammerl in the mid-1990s, describes him as a phenomenal artist and perfectionist.

“Anton got involved in every assignment. His pictures did not need words; they told the story. He was a master of his craft.”

Born and raised in Johannesburg (he went to King Edward VII School and Roosevelt High), military conscription had a profound effect on the young Hammerl.

“I didn’t get a taste for the ­photography, I got a taste for the injustice,” he told journalism ­students at Leeds Trinity University College in a guest lecture two years ago.

“I was caught up on the wrong side of history. The way I worked through it was to get straight back into it,” he said.

Hammerl joined The Star in 1991 where the legendary Ken Oosterbroek became his mentor. (Oosterbroek was killed in Thokoza on the East Rand in 1994).

Awards soon followed: the 1997 World Press Photo Joop Swart Masterclass, the Abdul Shariff Humanitarian photographer of the year award 1997 and 1999, Mondi Shanduka photographer of the year 2005 and the Fuji Africa News image of the year in 2006.

But the world had lost interest in Africa, Hammerl later told the journalism class in Leeds. He and Sukhraj, also a journalist, moved to London five years ago.

Here, he did corporate work and focused on portraits: international stars such as Christina Aguilera, Ashton Kutcher, Eddie Grant and Bono, Virgin’s Richard Branson, playwright Athol Fugard, Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu, former president Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama.

But he was becoming increasingly frustrated with the corporate work.

Bronwyn Friedlander, a friend, said Hammerl saw the Libyan trip as a way back into what he loved to do.

Journalists who saw ­Hammerl in Libya before his death talk of his passion and ­commitment.

“The Anton I know would have been in his element in the last days of his life,” Krost Maunder said. “He was doing what he loved most.”

» Hammerl is survived by his wife, Penny, 10-year-old daughter Aurora and sons Neo (7) and Hiro (14 weeks), as well as his mother Freda, father Ludwig and brother Alex

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