Anja Niedringhaus faced down some of the world’s greatest dangers and had one of the world’s loudest and most infectious laughs. She photographed dying and death, and embraced humanity and life. She gave herself to the subjects of her lens, and gave her talents to the world, with images of wars’ unwitting victims in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia and beyond.
Shot to death by an Afghan policeman Friday, Niedringhaus leaves behind a broad body of work – from battlefields to sports fields – that won awards and broke hearts. She trained her camera on children caught between the front lines, yet who still found a place to play. She singled out soldiers amid their armies as they confronted death, injuries and attacks.
Two days before her death, she made potatoes and sausage in Kabul for veteran AP correspondent Kathy Gannon, who was wounded in the attack that killed Niedringhaus, and photographer Muhammed Muheisen.
“I was so concerned about her safety. And she was like, `Momo, this is what I’m meant to do. I’m happy to go,'” Muheisen recalled. And then they talked, and argued. Mostly, they laughed.
Niedringhaus, 48, started her career as a freelance photographer for a local newspaper in her hometown in Hoexter, Germany, at the age of 16. Her coverage of the fall of the Berlin Wall led to a staff position with the European Pressphoto Agency in 1990. Based in Frankfurt, Sarajevo and Moscow, she spent much of her time covering the brutal conflict in the former Yugoslavia.
She joined The Associated Press in 2002, and while based in Geneva worked throughout the Middle East as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan. She was part of the AP team that won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography for coverage of Iraq, among many journalistic awards and honors for her work. In 2006-07, she studied at Harvard University under a Nieman Fellowship.
“What the world knows about Iraq, they largely know because of her pictures and the pictures by the photographers she raised and beat into shape,” said AP photographer David Guttenfelder. “I know they always ask themselves, `What would Anja do?’ when they go out with their cameras. I think we all do.”
Niedringhaus captured what war meant to her subjects: An Afghan boy on a swing holding a toy submachine gun. A black-clad Iraqi giving a bottle to her baby as she waits for prisoners to be released. A U.S. Marine mourning the loss of 31 comrades.
Other images showed life going on among the killing: A Canadian soldier with a sunflower stuck in his helmet. A young girl testing her artificial limbs, while her sister teasingly tries to steal her crutches. A bearded Afghan man and grinning boy listening to music on an iPod borrowed from German soldiers.
“Anja Niedringhaus was one of the most talented, bravest and accomplished photojournalists of her generation,” said AP Vice President and Director of Photography Santiago Lyon. “She truly believed in the need to bear witness.”
She didn’t stop caring when she put down the camera. In 2011, she photographed a Marine who had been evacuated from Afghanistan with severe injuries. She wanted to know what happened to him, and after six months of searching she found him. She showed him her photos from that day, and gave him a piece of wheat that had stuck to his uniform when he fell; she had plucked it and saved it when she was done taking photographs.
“I don’t believe conflicts have changed since 9/11 other than to become more frequent and protracted,” she told The New York Times in a 2011 email exchange. “But the essence of the conflict is the same – two sides fighting for territory, for power, for ideologies. And in the middle is the population who is suffering.”
Niedringhaus was injured several times on assignment, including having her leg badly broken in the Balkans after narrowly escaping an ambush. She suffered severe burns to her leg in Iraq, and received a shrapnel injury while on patrol with Canadian forces in Afghanistan.
There were many more close calls; after one, in Libya, she took up smoking again five years after quitting.
“Benghazi was hell today,” she wrote a colleague from Libya in 2011. “The tanks came in while I was brushing my teeth.” In the days to come, she sheltered with a local family, sleeping on the floor. When the gunfire in front of the house kept her awake, she listened to music on her iPhone.
While she rejected the idea that she was fearless, she made colleagues feel safe in danger zones. She insisted on local freelancers getting the same protections that visiting staff photographers had.
She was as stubborn as she was caring.
“If she believed in something, she was convinced she was right and there was almost nothing you could do to dissuade her,” said former AP reporter and editor Robert Reid, who met Niedringhaus in Kosovo in 1998 and worked with her in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said she was determined to cover the U.S.-led military presence in Afghanistan to the very end, even as the world’s interest waned.
She captured victory too – on Olympic podiums, at World Cups, at Wimbledon and beyond. And world diplomacy, solar airplanes and cow-fighting contests.
And she found fun in it all.
AP photographer Jerome Delay, who met her in Sarajevo in the 1990s, remembered playing ping pong with Niedringhaus on a dining table at the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad. Back home on another continent that might have been another planet, he wrote, “we raced our motorbikes around Lake Geneva between G-7 photo ops and riots.”
This summer, after covering tennis at Wimbledon, she planned to swim the width of Lake Geneva.
Anywhere, everywhere, she laughed – a wide-mouthed, head-thrown-back laugh that could wake an army and infected everyone nearby.
At an exhibit of her work in Berlin in 2011, she said: “Sometimes I feel bad because I can always leave the conflict, go back home to my family where there’s no war.”
That family includes her mother, two sisters and an aunt. Several years ago the family bought an old house in the central German town of Kaufungen, where she liked to spend time with her niece and nephews.
Her teenage niece and goddaughter won first place in a riding competition Friday and dedicated the victory to her.
Niedringhaus is the 32nd AP staffer to die in pursuit of the news since AP was founded in 1846.
“This is a profession of the brave and the passionate, those committed to the mission of bringing to the world information that is fair, accurate and important,” said Gary Pruitt, the AP’s president and CEO. “Anja Niedringhaus met that definition in every way. We will miss her terribly.”
Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.