Friends, colleagues remember Rémi Ochlik

Rémi Ochlik
Rémi Ochlik was killed in Homs, Syria on 22 February. Friends and colleagues tell BJP what made the young photographer one of a kind - "a man who knew better than take unnecessary risks."

When Paris Match asked Rémi Ochlik and writer Alfred de Montesquiou to leave Syria as their security became an issue, the 28-year-old freelance photographer looked at his photos. "He wasn't happy," writes de Montesquiou. "He wanted better.

He wanted images that truly showed the tragedy and the violence being waged against the Syrian people." But before going back on his own, using a network of fixers and militants, Ochlik took an insurance policy.

"He knew better than going into Syria on his own without preparing for all eventualities," says photographer Olivier Laban-Mattei, one of Ochlik close friends and co-workers. "He knew what he was doing."

Everyone who knew Ochlik agree that the young French photographer was a very serious young man, who never took unnecessary risks. "He knew when to keep his distances and when he needed to get closer," says Gregory Boissy, who worked with Ochlik at the IP3 Press agency. "When he felt that he could get something good, he would go for it. He was determined, but cautious. He wasn't a kamikaze. He always thought about everything before taking pictures. He had this capacity to control himself, and I think that's why everyone respected him. And also, we knew that he would always come back with amazing images."

Ochlik started his photographic career in 2004 - to much acclaim. He covered the fall of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti, coming back with a set of images that would put him on the map in the highly competitive world of photojournalism. "I was astonished," says Jean-François Leroy, recounting the first time he saw Ochlik's images. "It was his first reportage, but it wasn't a first reportage. His work was already really mature. At 20, you already felt that Rémi was an accomplished photographer."

The director of the Visa Pour l'Image festival showcased Ochlik's work that same year. "He was the revelation of the year. And to everyone who said that photojournalism was dead, Rémi had proven them wrong."

Off of his unexpected success, Ochlik took the unusual decision to leave his agency - Wostok Press - and start, with the help of Christophe Bertolin and Boissy, his own organisation. IP3 Press was founded in 2005, and for the following three to four years, Ochlik would put all his time and energy in the agency. "It wasn't easy," Boissy tells BJP. "We had no experience in business and everyone kept on telling us that we would fail, that it wasn't the way to go. What we did, in the end, was to ignore them. Rémi spent a lot of time focusing on IP3. As a result, he didn't have the necessary funds to continue his work overseas. But Rémi was like that, when he started something, he went through with it. From the beginning to the end."

To make ends meet, Ochlik started covering social and political issues in Paris. He covered the French National Assembly on a regular basis, student protests, as well as the campaigns of presidential candidates such as François Hollande and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, often with Laban-Mattei and Corentin Fohlen. "Rémi was one of the first professional photographers I talked with when I was starting," Fohlen tells BJP. "We covered the Parisian demonstrations together, and he helped me join the Wostok agency. But beyond that, he was a friend."

In Paris, Ochlik never lost sight of what he really wanted to do - to cover international affairs. "When I asked what he was doing, a few years ago," Leroy remembers, "he told me: ‘Don't worry, I'll be back.'" He was true to his word.

In 2008, Ochlik left Paris for the Democratic Republic of Congo, covering the brutal war that has been consuming the country for years. In 2010, he was back in Haiti, turning his camera on the devastating effects of the cholera outbreak that killed more than 6000 people. "He had to go back to it," says Boissy. "I think he needed to go back to actual stories. I'm not saying that he didn't take his work in Paris seriously, he still applied his time and talent to his social work, and his images were published, but I think he needed to tell greater stories. Because, in the end, Rémi was a storyteller; a very rigorous storyteller."

In 2011, Ochlik was one of the first photographers to cover the Tunisian uprising - determined to cover what he felt was an important part of history. But, his first days in Tunis were marked by tragedy. On 14 January, his friend and colleague Lucas Dolega was hit in the head by a tear-gas canister, causing devastating injuries to the 32-year-old photographer, who died three days later. For Laban-Mattei, that was the end of it. "I had to leave, to go back to my family, but also to bring back Lucas's body. But, Rémi told me one evening in our hotel: ‘Don't take it personally, but I'm going to stay here. I can't go back to Paris. We have to continue Lucas's work because if we all leave, who will tell this story.' Rémi was like that, and since Tunisia, he continued telling the story."

From Tunisia, he went on to cover the historic demonstrations in Egypt and the conflict in Libya, and quickly, his friends realised that Ochlik's photographs were different. "You could see it right away," says Pierre Terdjman, another photographer who had met Ochlik in Paris. "Already in Tunisia and in Egypt, you could see that his work was different. And when he went to Libya, he was amazing. He was so much better than most of us," he tells BJP. "I don't know if it had to do with the fact that he hadn't seen too many atrocities before - that he still had fresh eyes. I wouldn't know how to explain it, but I believe that it also had to do with the fact that he had a lot of time to think about what he wanted to do."

Ochlik's friends are quick to point out that Rémi never bragged about his work. On the contrary, says Laban-Mattei, he was very humble and constantly doubted himself. "I'm not saying that to make him look good, but he was very reserved and soft-spoken. He tended to think that his images were not that good. In fact, he sometimes doubted himself so much that he would leave out amazing images from his edits. He believed that there was always something that he could have done better." And that's what made him a great photographer, says Leroy. "Rémi wasn't like these young photographers who brag every time they receive a nomination or a prize. Rémi didn't take it too seriously - he didn't expect anything from it."

His work in Libya was mainly published in France, with some images ending up in other European countries and in the US. "It's hard to compete in this industry," says Leroy. But, a few days ago, when Ochlik won a World Press Photo in General News Stories, one of the most important categories of the annual contest, the young photographer dreamed of finally being able to get his work in front of international picture editors. "I don't know if it will help," he told BJP in a phone conversation on 10 February. "But that would be nice."

When we spoke on the phone, Ochlik was getting ready to go to Syria. "That was the next chapter," says Boissy. "He had been thinking about Syria for weeks. It made sense for him to go," so he could finish the story he had started in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya; a story that was rewarded at the Scoop festival with the Grand Prix Jean-Louis Calderon.

But, Ochlik didn't go unprepared. He travelled with some of the most experienced journalists - including the Sunday Times foreign correspondent Marie Colvin, who lost her life in the same attack that killed the young photographer. "Just like all of us, Rémi wanted to go to Syria to cover this horrible story and to get things moving on the international stage," says Terdjman. "He was not suicidal or hot headed. He knew the risks."

"He wasn't looking for trouble," adds Laban-Mattei. "When things were getting too dangerous, he would always walk away, understanding that in these kinds of situations, he wouldn't be able to take photos anyway. You could see that he had quickly understood how things work in this industry; how you behave when you're covering a war."

"He was a reporter to his core," says Fohlen. "He lived for his work. He knew what he was doing; he knew the risks; and will have lived his passion all the way, with talent."

In the end, the question wasn't "Why would he want to go to Syria?" but "Why couldn't he stay in Paris?", Laban-Mattei tells BJP. "I think he felt that he had a role to play, that he could help." And, as de Montesquiou writes in Paris Match, Ochlik had a story to tell - that of the violence being waged day and night against the Syrian people.