The story of the Sunday Times’ photojournalist Robin Hammond’s recent ordeal in Zimbabwe is a startling reminder of the risks faced by journalists when they’re trying to cover human rights issues.
Trying to photograph would-be refugees and migrants attempting to leave Zimbabwe for South Africa, he was arrested, accused of operating illegally as a journalist and thrown into a crowded, insanitary prison cell. There were hostile interrogations and he says he saw another man being badly beaten with a broom handle in front of him (“They beat him so hard the broom they were using on his back broke in two”, says Hammond).
It’s a powerful, unsettling story, well told in the Sunday Times (behind the paywall, but well worth a look if you can). The situation was riddled with irony. Here was a seasoned, award-winning journalist suffering a 25-day ordeal of the kind he would normally be recording and reporting, not experiencing for himself. “It was as if I was in one of my own photographs”, he says.
It was, if you like, an occasion where the division between photographer-as-agent and external subject broke down. “Camera” comes from camera obscura (“dark chamber”) and you could - slightly fancifully - take this a step further and say that when Hammond was banged up in a prison cell (“measuring 15ft by 30ft with 38 other prisoners, each shivering under filthy, lice-infested blankets”) he was himself placed in a pretty dark chamber.
Anyway, Hammond is now free and back in his home in Paris with his partner, and I wish him well. He’s shortlisted for an Amnesty media award this year, having already won awards in the past. Hammond - and others who do work like his - are unquestionably at the other end of the spectrum from the journalists who have hacked phones and emails, blagged private records and generally brought journalism in the UK into disrepute.
Not all hacks are hackers and for proof of this check out the shortlist for this year’s Amnesty awards. The winners will be announced on 29 May. I’ll be blogging about it then.
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