Mohamed Messara seems enveloped by calm, which is surprising given his occupation. The year 2011 was a very dangerous one for photojournalists. Revolutions present opportunities for dramatic pictures, but the risks for conflict photographers like Messara are immense. Five journalists died in the uprising in Libya, and twenty have been killed elsewhere covering the Arab Spring.
One afternoon last May in the city of Sirte, Messara, 36, chief Middle East photographer for the European Pressphoto Agency, was shot. The bullet pierced his collarbone. “I was trying to cross a road, and though there was high water, up to my knees, there was no clear danger,” he recalls. “Then I heard a ‘pfffft,’ and that was the bullet.”
Messara’s professionalism and bravery yielded some of the most memorable images of the fall of the Gadhafi regime. One shows a Libyan rebel carrying the body of a bloodied comrade, which the New York Times published the next day. Many of his pictures capture combatants engaged in street fighting at a chilling close range. We see the ground around them littered with spent shells although Messara, the journalist, is defenseless.
Messara’s photographs, along with pictures taken by his colleague Amr Abdallah, of Reuters, were exhibited recently in Libya: The Road to Freedom at the Photographic Gallery at the American University in Cairo. Messara is an Algerian who became fascinated with photojournalism as a boy flipping through the pages of Paris Match.
Messara covered the harrowing Libyan uprising against Muammar Gadhafi from the beginning. Even when the bullets weren’t flying, there was the risk of run-ins with Gadhafi’s secret police. He recalls the bizarre scene when a Libyan woman naked under her abaya and screaming that she had been raped by Gadhafi loyalists ran into the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli, where the regime was keeping the visiting foreign press under a tight watch. Gadhafi’s thugs pushed journalists away and broke a few cameras, but Messara managed to get shots of the badly bruised woman by sneaking out a tiny point-and-shoot camera.
Along with many colleagues, Messara broke loose from his minders once the regime began to disintegrate. He made his way to Sirte, where rebel forces captured and killed Gadhafi in October. Messara’s image of the dead dictator’s corpse laid out on the floor of a storage freezer appeared on front pages around the world. This was five months after Messara’s own brush with death. His bulletproof vest had saved him that day, and he was back on Sirte’s mean streets again within twenty-four hours. His best guess is that a sniper shot him at short range from the second story of a nearby building.
So, why does he do it? “My work is really just to show people what is happening,” he explained, speaking in an interview at EPA’s Cairo Bureau. I’ve been asked if seeing all this made me want to pick up arms, or, if this was happening in Algeria, would I feel differently. But I see my role as a documentarian.”