By David Fong
Regional Sports Content Manager
NAIROBI, Kenya — In a career filled with close calls, death-defying escapes, kidnappings and the constant threat of danger, Sept. 21, 2013, was supposed to be a quiet, relaxing day for Tyler Hicks.
It didn’t turn out that way.
That day, Hicks — a former Troy Daily News photographer — was running errands in Nairobi, Kenya. Hicks — who now works for the The New York Times and lives and works out of Kenya — was in a small shop purchasing frames for some of his photographs when he heard about a commotion taking place at the upscale Westgate shopping mall, just blocks from where he was. He had no clue an international incident was about to break out within walking distance from the shop.
“I was just running some errands,” Hicks said in a telephone interview with the Troy Daily News. “I was at a shop close to the mall getting some photographs framed to give as gifts. It was a frame shop close to the mall. When the shooting started, I was within walking distance of the mall.
“In the city I’m living in now, there’s not typically a lot of unrest. It’s not like living in Cairo or Beirut. Outside of street crime, things like that usually don’t happen here. When I first heard about it, it sounded like a robbery gone bad. Street crime is not that uncommon, so I was sure it was some kind of shootout, which is rare at an upscale mall filled with tourists, but not necessarily unheard of. I figured it was something that had happened hours ago and when I went over there, there would be nothing to see. But when I walked out into the street, I saw hundreds of people running away from the scene and no cars were moving. That’s when I knew it was something much more than a robbery.”
It was, in fact, a terrorist attack at the mall that resulted in at least 67 deaths and more than 175 wounded in the mass shooting. The Islamist group al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack, which it claimed was in retribution for the Kenyan army’s deployment in Somalia.
With bullets flying, blood flowing and chaos in the streets, Hicks did what he has done so many times throughout his career as an internationally acclaimed war correspondent — he grabbed his camera and headed into the heat of the battle. Hicks’ photographs from the attack were used by news agencies around the globe — and Monday, Hicks found out he had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography, the journalism industry’s most prestigious honor.
“It really is a huge honor,” said Hicks, who also was a part of a New York Times team that won the award in 2009 for International Reporting for its coverage of the conflicts in Pakistan and Afghanistan. “Obviously it’s a big recognition that everyone in our industry hopes to get some day. It’s a great honor that my work in Kenya was recognized.”
For Hicks — who is based in Kenya but continues to travel the world for The New York Times — it truly was a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
“Just the odds of me being in town when this was happening were pretty remote — I’m traveling to other countries on assignment at least 70 percent of the time,” Hicks said. “For something like this to happen right around the corner from me is really pretty amazing. These were pretty unusual circumstances. Usually I travel thousands of miles to be where the story is happening. When I go to someplace like Afghanistan, Syria or Libya, it usually takes several days or even a week to reach places like that.”
Hicks has become one of the top photographers in the world based on his willingness to travel into the heart of conflict. Since leaving the Troy Daily News in the early 1990s, he’s worked in Syria, Libya, Pakistan, India, Iraq, Russia, Bosnia, Lebanon, Israel, the Balkans and numerous countries in Africa. His work has won numerous national and international awards in addition to his pair of Pulitzer Prizes.
On March 16, 2011, Hicks was reported missing while covering the revolution in Libya for The New York Times. Six days later, Hicks — along with fellow journalists Anthony Shadid, Lynsey Addario and Stephen Farrell were released by pro-Muammar al-Gaddafi forces. Less than a year later, on Feb. 16, 2012, Shaddid suffered a fatal asthma attack while covering civil unrest in Syria alongside Hicks. Hicks assisted in carrying Shaddid’s body across the border to Turkey.
“If you were going to make up a fictional story about Tyler Hicks, they would probably send it back to you because no one would ever believe it,” said former Troy Daily News executive editor David Lindeman, who hired Hicks as an intern — and then as chief photographer — in the early 1990s. They would say it was too far out there. Tyler is the master of being in the right place at the right time. I remember after he left here and went to North Carolina, he sent us a picture of him standing on a dock in the middle of a hurricane. That’s just how he is. He’s going to throw himself into situations like that. He’s like a superhero photographer.”
Despite his coverage of nearly every major conflict in the past 20 years, however, Hicks said the terrorist attack at the Westgate shopping mall presented dangers to which even he was not accustomed.
“It was a situation where the danger level was very high,” Hicks said. “We were going into a place where we didn’t really know what to expect. A lot of things were unclear. We didn’t know how many terrorists to expect or who they even were. We didn’t know if they had guns or explosives or had set up tripwires or booby traps or anything like that.”
While he may not be afraid to enter dangerous situations, Hicks said he is never reckless when entering a war zone — and has spent his entire adult life learning how to deal with dangerous situations from some of the best and most experienced journalists in the world.
“It’s not something I would think about doing with prior exposure to those types of situations,” he said. “I’ve been in a lot of places where conflict is going on and worked around other experienced journalists, observing them. A lot of them have been at it a long time and been successful at doing it. You pay attention to how they do that. A lot of what you learn from them factor into the decisions you make when you are entering a place like the Westgate mall.”
One of the journalists Hicks learned from was former Troy Daily News chief photographer Chris Hondros. Following Hicks’ graduation from Boston University in 1992, it was Hondros who hired him as a TDN photo intern. When Hondros left the Troy Daily News, Hicks took over as chief photographer and would spend a year in Troy. Like Hicks, Hondros would go on to become one of the top international war correspondents, taking photos in many of the same war-torn locations as Hicks.
Hondros’ work appeared on the cover of magazines such as Newsweek and on the front pages of newspapers such as The New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. Hondros was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. He was killed in a mortar attack on April 20, 2011, while covering the Libyan civil war.
“I didn’t know Chris prior to coming to Troy,” Hicks said. “But after I had graduated from Boston University, I was living with my father in New York City, looking for post-graduate work or internships. Chris called me and told me to come on out — and I loved it in Troy. When Chris moved on, I took his job for a year. Our careers would end up following very parallel paths, as we both worked covering a lot of the same things.”
Both Hicks and Hondros are part of a long lineage of award-winning former Troy Daily News photographers. Spencer Platt also covered a number of foreign wars for Getty Images. Chris Usher is a Washington, D.C.-based photographer who has covered national politics — including several U.S. presidents — for a number of years. Vince Musi is a photographer for National Geographic. Rick Wilson is a Florida-based sports photographer who has won dozens of national awards, particularly for his photos the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars. J.D. Pooley is a frequent contributor to national newspapers and magazines. Troy resident Jim Witmer has won dozens of awards for his photography.
“The TDN has a pretty long line of amazing photographers come through there,” Lindeman said. “This current line started with Witmer, who basically won every award in the universe. He kind of started that string of people, then once you get that in place, it kind of builds upon itself. They all rub off on each other. They all learn from one another.”
When Hicks left the Troy Daily News, Pooley — who currently works in Bowling Green — replaced him. He fondly remembers many of the lessons he learned from Hicks.
“The one thing I remember about Tyler in Troy was how passionate he was, no matter what he was shooting,” Pooley said. “I remember him talking about how it was his goal every day to get one great feature photo for the front page for David Lindeman. He was driven to get great photos. That’s something that really resonated with me and it’s something that has stuck with me as I’ve been in the business for 20 years now.”
Hicks said that while he has traveled the globe, he’s still proud of his roots and remembers Troy fondly.
“I think Troy has been gifted with many talented photographers with extraordinary talents over the years,” he said. “It’s pretty incredible some of the photographers that have been through the Troy Daily News — I know a lot of papers would be happy to have had that many, let alone a smaller paper like Troy. I’m thankful to have had the chance to work there and work with some of the photographers I did.”
Contact David Fong at (937) 440-5228 or firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @thefong