Seeking the truth about Anton Hammerl

It’s been a decade since the photographer died alone while working in Libya. His family and colleagues have renewed efforts to find answers about his murder and get his remains home.

Anton Lazarus Hammerl went to Libya as a freelance photographer 10 years ago. It was during the fight for control of the oil-rich country, with foreign powers like Nato, the United States and Canada meddling to “help” dethrone dictator Muammar Gaddafi. 

Anton didn’t return home from that assignment. He was shot and killed on 5 April by troops loyal to Gaddafi. The whereabouts of his body remains unknown.

Anton was more than a just fine photographer, he was a mensch. It was said at the time that he was doing what he loved and that he was pursuing his passion on the day he died. I do not agree entirely with this sentiment. For Anton, life was his passion. His family was his passion. His photography and creativity were outlets for this. 

He was a seamless person, a conflict photographer, fashionista, family man, nature lover and artist – simultaneously and without contradiction. Anton was particular about his style and appearance, and he carried it all off without the burden of ego.

He has been described variously as under-recognised and one of South Africa’s best and most original photographers. His long-time friend Thys Dullaart, who studied with Anton at the then Pretoria Technikon and worked with him at The Star, is still firm about his quote made to Maureen Isaacson in 2011: “Without a doubt he is, from my perspective, the greatest South African photographer for a long time.”

1 April 2011: A Libyan boy holds a national flag while standing in front of an anti-Gaddafi mural. Hammerl took the picture four days before his own death on 5 April. (Photograph by Anton Hammerl)

I worked with Anton and TJ Lemon at The Sunday Independent and Saturday Star in the mid-1990s. It always seemed to me that although many were convinced of his talents, Anton wasn’t as sure. He could be somewhat self-deprecating. 

Anton was assigned to cover Nelson Mandela’s Christmas festivities at his Qunu home in the Eastern Cape in 1995. He managed to get images of Mandela with his grandchildren, but it was the opportunity of going with the old man on his early morning walk that excited him more. But capturing that moment wasn’t a great success: it was still quite dark and, to complicate matters, misty. 

“Just my luck, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity…” was something of a refrain for Anton at times like these, but he also could not quite hide the excitement of the overall experience.

Searching for truth

Anton was driven to seek the truth, and not purely in the interest of his photography. This was shaped by his time as a conscript in the apartheid army, something all white men of a certain age group were subject to at the time. Anton was an operational medic and spent some time seconded to Koevoet, the notoriously brutal arm of the police in the war in Angola. 

He never spoke much about this experience but did relate a harrowing story that affected him profoundly. While he was on patrol with Koevoet, they killed what they called an insurgent and tied his body to their bush vehicle, probably a Wolf Turbo, a Casspir-like machine. The unit had driven around like this for about three days when Anton eventually persuaded them to cut the body loose and bury it. He had to use his position as a medic to make an argument about hygiene to persuade the Koevoet members because they could not be moved by any argument stemming from humane principles.

Not unlike the experiences of some of the young men conscripted into the imperialist war in Vietnam the horror of what he witnessed in Angola drove Anton to a deep questioning. He developed a drive to reveal what he could of the truth of other wars to come.

Undated: A montage of scenes from Johannesburg. Clockwise from left, a mugger has the tables turned on him; an image titled Towering Man; a traumatised family whose car window has been smashed; and shattered glass. (Photographs by Anton Hammerl)

On the day he was killed, Anton was heading toward the front line of fighting between the rebels backed by the US and other western powers and forces loyal to Gaddafi. He was with fellow journalists James Foley, Clare Morgana Gillis and Spanish photographer Manu Brabo. reported that Anton and the others had gone to spend a night with the rebels at a camp to the east of Brega. Foley related how they had barely got out of their car when the rebels fled the approaching Gaddafi forces, leaving them stranded.

“It all happened in a split second. We thought we were in the crossfire. But eventually we realised they were shooting at us. You could see and hear the bullets hitting the ground near us,” Foley said. With bullets hitting the ground around all four of them, Anton was closest to the fighting. Foley asked him if he was okay and the reply was no. More shots were fired, and Anton was silent.

As the surviving trio were assaulted and put inside a truck and taken away with their heads forced down, Anton was left behind, his life drained away in the sand. Foley recalled: “Once I saw Anton lying there dead, it was like everything had changed. The whole world has changed. I don’t even know that I felt some of the blows.”

Lies and obfuscation

After the attack, Libyan authorities misled Anton’s family for about 45 days, claiming that he was alive. Family and friends held a collective breath, living on scraps of hope and fed lies by the Libyan authorities. Not knowing that Anton was dead, people took part in “Free Anton Hammerl” protests, including a night vigil. 

The Department of International Relations and Cooperation described it as “unfortunate” that then-president Jacob Zuma, who was visiting Libya at the time, did not appeal for Anton to be released. When four foreign journalists who had been held by Libya were released on 18 May 2011, a community’s heart sank when Anton was not among them. The numbness and despair became unbearable, and his fate was still unclear. The Libyan officials denied holding him. Friends and colleagues made plans for a small delegation to travel to Libya to look for him.

3 May 2011: Colleagues and friends of Anton Hammerl hold a candlelight vigil in Parktown, Johannesburg, after he has been missing for 29 days. (Photograph by Gallo Images/ The Times/ Alon Skuy)

Anton was confirmed dead only once those he was with on the day he was killed were safely in Tunisia and could, for the first time, speak openly of what had happened and what they had seen, without fear for their own wellbeing. It was reported that, shot in the stomach, Anton’s injuries were of such a nature that there was no chance of his surviving without immediate and sophisticated help. 

Given his experience as a medic in a war situation Anton probably knew there was no hope.

Anguish of uncertainty

His former colleague, picture editor Robin Comley, describes the anguish his fellow journalists and friends felt in those days before his death was confirmed. “I was a little surprised to hear he had gone to Libya, but at the same time I thought of how profoundly he’d capture the chaos unfolding there. As always, the underlying anxiety when one of our friends goes into a war zone stayed unspoken, and we chuckled at TJ Lemon’s comment: ‘Best-dressed man on the frontline!’

“While we were still under the delusion that he was alive, The Times [Johannesburg] newspaper led the strongest campaign for his release. We lived with our hearts in our throats for days and weeks… Then at around 2am on May 20, I saw Anton’s friend Peta Krost’s name flashing on my phone, and I knew. 

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“Penny [Anton’s wife] had phoned her. I called Paula Fray and Des Latham – Des had been one of the first people to know of Anton’s disappearance and was packing to go to Libya to search for him. 

“Time blurred, disbelief, unbearable pain, for Penny and the children, for Anton’s much-loved father Ludwig, who we all knew from the local camera shop. It seemed impossible that our gentle, wry friend’s life could have ended this way. And it is his aloneness, left dying in that desert, that haunts many of us to this day.”

Comley always sensed a solitariness in Anton, despite his having many friends. “Anton operated on a plane above and outside the rest of us. Even in a crowd, he seemed to move alone, but perhaps this was the embodiment of his unique talent and distinctive style.

“Graceful, elegant and a master of his profession, he could capture anything, anywhere, beautifully, from haute couture to conflict savagery. His understanding of light and motion was exquisite.”

23 March 2011: Fighters opposed to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi near the town of Brega, the site of several fierce battles during the war. (Photograph by Anton Hammerl)

Justice for Anton

Shortly after receiving the news of Anton’s death, his family released a statement. “Words are simply not enough to describe the unbelievable trauma the Hammerl family is going through. From the moment Anton disappeared in Libya, we have lived in hope as the Libyan officials assured us that they had Anton. It is intolerably cruel that Gaddafi loyalists have known Anton’s fate all along and chose to cover it up. Thank you so much for your love and support.” 

His wife, Penny Sukhraj-Hammerl, travelled to South Africa from London to attend a memorial service at His People Christian Church in Rosebank, Johannesburg, with Anton’s daughter Aurora and his children with Penny, sons Neo and Hiro. Anton had been only 41 at the time of his death and his youngest son was mere months old at the time. 

3 April 2011: A scene from the conflict in Benghazi, Libya, during the country’s bloody war. (Photograph by Anton Hammerl)

After a decade of no action, no answers and no accountability, a #JusticeForAnton briefing was held on 1 April at the Doughty Street Chambers in London. Two key concerns were raised: first, his body has never been located, and second, there has been no investigation into the circumstances of his death, or the aftermath, either by the Libyan, South African or United Kingdom authorities or any other law enforcement or investigative bodies. State actors, with a focus on the Libyan government, were asked to step up to resolve this. 

Sukhraj-Hammerl said: “It’s been 10 years since our lives were torn apart. We were just an ordinary family, and we trusted the governments involved to help us bring Anton home and investigate his death. None of that has happened. It is unacceptable that anyone should lose their lives the way Anton did without any sense of culpability. Ten years on, we ask you to help us get justice for Anton’s killing. Someone needs to answer.”

Jacket required

“For fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” quoted those who criticised Anton’s decision to go to Libya. But Anton was no fool, especially in volatile situations. He had taken photographs in violence-wracked Thokoza on the East Rand in the early 1990s and other volatile places after that. Unai Aranzadi, who took the last photograph of Anton in Libya, said: “In the battlefield he moved very well. He was not scared. He was brave but balanced.” 

In David Lynch’s 1990 film, Wild at Heart, the main character, Sailor Ripley (played by Nicolas Cage), who wears a snakeskin jacket, says: “Did I ever tell ya that this here jacket represents a symbol of my individuality, and my belief in personal freedom?” 

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Anton had such a jacket and always delivered the quote word perfect. It was as true for him as it was for Sailor. The Anton I knew was an artist – a hugely talented photographer with photographic interests as diverse as his wardrobe (he was involved in fashion with links to the Strangelove label of his best friend, designer Ziemek Pater). He once told me that he loved few things more than wandering up and down a river “with a fishing rod and a sandwich in my pocket.” He had an enduring love of creepy crawlies and reptiles, snakes in their own skins.

At Anton’s memorial service in Johannesburg, he was described as a gift to us all. Pater was there, wearing Anton’s snakeskin jacket in his honour. “It fits perfectly,” he said with a sad smile.

His friend and one-time colleague Maureen Isaacson wrote a piece for the Sunday Independent with numerous quotes by friends and colleagues. Adjectives were abundant: original, brave, avant-garde, stylistic, funky, gentle, quirky, sophisticated, edgy, special, sensitive, artist, creative, and so on. None of these was used gratuitously. Anton brought these numerous qualities to bear in his life and, naturally, his photography. 

(Clare Morgana Gillis and Manu Brabo are still practising their craft. James Foley was abducted in 2012 while working as a freelance journalist in Syria; he was beheaded in August 2014. His mother Diane Foley, president and founder of the James W Foley Legacy Foundation, was part of the #JusticeForAnton briefing)

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