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French photographer, 28, killed in Syria

Associated Press

PARIS (AP) – Remi Ochlik didn’t waste any time celebrating after he won one of photojournalism’s most prestigious prizes two weeks ago. Hours later, he was on a plane headed back to work in Middle East danger zones, a friend recalled.

On Wednesday, the promising 28-year-old French photographer was dead, killed in a barrage of gunfire and shelling by government forces in Homs, Syria, where he had arrived just the night before.

The death of Ochlik and veteran U.S. war reporter Marie Colvin, announced Wednesday by the French government, prompted new international calls for an end to 11 months of bloody repression by President Bashar Assad’s forces.

Colleagues remembered Ochlik as careful and experienced despite his young age, but driven to cover a string of conflicts that won him a reputation as one of the world’s best young photojournalists.

At just 20 years old, Ochlik got his professional start covering riots in Haiti in 2004. The next year he set up photo agency IP3 Press and covered sports, society and politics. When the “Arab Spring” erupted last year, Ochlik was all over it: In Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Egypt, and most recently, Syria.

On Feb. 12, his 12-photograph series titled “Battle For Libya” won the first prize in the general news category of the prestigious 2012 World Press Photo contest. He will miss the April 20-21 award ceremonies in Amsterdam.

Ochlik, whose work appeared in publications like Paris Match, Time and The Wall Street Journal, had wanted to return to Syria for Paris Match last week _ but its editors said it was too dangerous, friends and colleagues said.

But he went anyway on his own, after joining up with medicine smugglers and nongovernmental organizations in neighboring Lebanon to cross a border combed by Syrian forces seeking to keep out foreign journalists.

Paris Match correspondent Alfred de Montesquiou, who worked with Ochlik in Libya last year _ notably covering the death of Moammar Gadhafi _ said he received an e-mail from Ochlik late Tuesday night from Syria.

“I just arrived in Homs, it’s dark,” Ochlik wrote, de Montesquiou told The Associated Press. “The situation seems very tense and desperate. The Syrian army is sending in reinforcements now and the situation is going to get worse _ from what the rebels tell us.”

“Tomorrow, I’m going to start doing pictures,” he added.

Ochlik had noted there was no telephone or Internet satellite phone service and “a little Internet in the house of the head of the free army, who are housing journalists,” the e-mail said, according to de Montesquiou.

De Montesquiou called Ochlik “a perfectionist” and “a cool-headed guy” and recalled how the photojournalist, after learning that he’d won the World Press Photo prize, almost immediately set off towards Syria.

“He never celebrated. He left a few hours afterward … without even seeing his girlfriend,” de Montesquiou said. “He wasn’t the kind of guy who would gloat for winning a prize. It was the kind of thing that made him work harder.”

The French lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, paid tribute to Ochlik (pronounced Osh-LEEK) before opening its public session Wednesday.

Ochlik knew the job’s dangers: He was a friend of Lucas Dolega, a photographer with EPA agency who died in January last year after being hit by a tear gas canister while covering Tunisia’s revolution.

“He was very serious, he didn’t take risks,” said Yoan Valat, an EPA photographer who worked and traveled with Ochlik in Morocco and Tunisia. “While he was young, he had a lot of experience.”

While Paris Match didn’t commission Ochlik this time, he still went back to Syria _ on his own agency’s dime: “He went back because he felt his work wasn’t done,” Valat said.

Olivier Laban-Mattei, a photojournalist for Neus Agency, worked with Ochlik in Libya and recalled how his unassuming colleague had almost passed over the photos in the award-winning package as not good enough.

“That’s Remi in all his grandeur, and reserve as well,” he said, wiping away a tear as he looked at some of Ochlik’s photos. He told AP Television News that Ochlik was unlucky _ not imprudent.

“I am persuaded that he did not take unnecessary risks,” Laban-Mattei said. “He was caught in between bad luck and ballistic reality. That’s it … He was doing his job and he did it well.”


Jeffrey Schaeffer contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)