Blog about my photojournalism work, and maybe about anything else that takes my fancy from time to time. All views expressed here are my own and do not represent those of my employers.

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Best of 2018

I meant to post this a few days ago but unexpectedly found myself away on assignment.  It’s short video clip showing my favourite pictures on the Reuters wire in 2018.

 

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One year on – and it feels like five minutes ago

October 16, 2017

 It was just another quiet day, taking things easy and getting some rest, having returned home only a few days earlier from a fortnight-long assignment out at sea on a migrant search and rescue mission.

I picked up my daughter from school at 3pm, and was back home some 10 minutes later. My computer was on, and as I often did, I had a look at Daphne’s Running Commentary blog to see what the latest was on anything concerning government corruption and the like. Just over half an hour earlier, she posted a piece about the prime ministers chief of staff going to court to argue he’s not a crook.  My wife prepared some lunch for Becs, I probably had something to eat as well. We sat down in front of the TV to watch an episode of Doctor Who on the Blu-Ray player.  We must have been about half way through the episode when my phone rang.  I saw it was my mother.  I answered it, and heard her panicking voice -“Have you heard? They blew up Daphne, they killed her!”  I thought I was hearing things, I probably asked her to repeat that. I don’t know precisely what I did next, but must have stopped the blu-ray, switched to TV news, and sure enough, saw an flash news broadcast with the news headline saying there had been a car bomb explosion and that the victim was believed to be Daphne Caruana Galizia, a fearless anti-corruption journalist, my first direct superior when I first starting working in newspapers, my friend, my cousin.  I dashed into my study, made sure I had all the right photo gear on me in my kit bag, and got out of the house, a mix of shock, horror, confusion sweeping over me.  I texted my regional chief in Paris to alert him, and then got in the car and started driving, saying to myself over and over, it’s not true, someone got this wrong but stay calm and concentrate on driving.  Along the way, I pulled over to check online news websites, both to see if there were more details and also to double check where the explosion took place.  Yes, it was Bidnija, the little village where she lived.

I think by the time I reached the location and was driving through the first police roadblock after showing my press credentials, I knew it was her, being on the road that leads to her house.

I parked behind a row cars which I recognised as belonging to other press members, and walked the last bit.  I could see them gathered behind police tape some fifty meters up the road. Whilst walking I called Mal in Paris, who hadn’t responded to my text message.  He answered right away, hadn’t seen the message as he was driving. I quickly explained what I knew so far, and told him Daphne was my cousin. He was shocked, and immediately offered any help I might need.  I told him all I needed for now was someone to wait for and edit and distribute my images. He sorted that right away and within a couple of minutes, I had an email from an editor in Paris saying he was standing by waiting for the first pictures to land as I filed images straight off the back of my cameras.

I couldn’t see much from that angle, all the police, army and medical vehicles were blocking the view. I shot a few frames, quickly returned to the car to get a bigger lens, went back up and shot what I could, then filed them straight off the camera and called the editor to let him know I’d sent him the pix, as well as to give him some basic information on what was happening and the location.

Police and forensics experts stand behind a road block after a powerful bomb blew up a car killing investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in Bidnija

A former colleague mentioned that it was possible to see the destroyed car from the other side of the valley.  I quickly worked out in my mind the quickest route to get there, got it hopelessly wrong, but eventually reached the spot from where we had a better view of what was happening.  The burnt-out remains of the car were in the middle of a field. I was trying to work fast, didn’t mention to anyone at first that Daphne and I were related.

I was shooting and filing as fast as I could, and also thinking about whether we could somehow get closer.  Could we get into this villa under construction next to us perhaps? Someone had already tried and the police threatened to arrest him for trespassing.

Everyone was in shock.  Many of the press people here didn’t like her at all, but that didn’t detract from their shock and horror.

Forensic experts walk in a field after a powerful bomb blew up a car killing investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in Bidnija

I wasn’t processing this.  I was just thinking of getting the pix out and monitoring the Reuters news pictures feed through my mobile.  Then I mentioned to one of the photographers that she was a cousin.  He was stunned, said he was really sorry, and then the others did too, and I think that was when it hit me.  This was Daphne, my friend, my cousin and a damn fine journalist to boot, the best of her kind, and she was dead.  I needed to sit down for a couple of minutes.  I needed to rest for a moment, and I felt I needed to react to what happened, somehow, anyhow.  I wanted to cry for a minute, but I couldn’t.  So I got on with the work, waiting for police officers to walk into the picture and the like. As it was getting dark, I remembered I had portraits of Daphne (shot in 2011) stored in my online archive, so I accessed them and sent those to the editor in Paris as well.

 Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia poses outside the Libyan Embassy in Balzan

It was soon dark, but activity continued on the bombing site.  The police had set up some floodlights in the area, which also enabled us to continue to shoot.  I took some pictures of forensic investigators, who then started making their way up the road towards us.  They told us we’d have to move further back, as they needed to secure the area that we were in too.

Forensic experts use lights as they look for evidence on a road after a powerful bomb blew up a car killing investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in Bidnija

I felt I had enough pictures, and wanted to get to the vigil being organized, about which word was rapidly being spread on social media.  I can’t remember if I popped home before going to the march/vigil.  I found it very hard to park in Sliema, the town in which both Daphne and I were brought up. I took that to be a good sign – it meant lots of people must be turning up for the silent walk.  I ended up in an expensive car park beneath a hotel, and walked a considerable distance to where the vigil was supposed to take place. I got there, bumped into a close friend who happened to be in Malta for a few days, and she told me that people had started walking ages ago.  There were so many people, that the ones on this end hadn’t even yet been able to start walking along the promenade.  As I tried to make my way towards the front of the march, I recognised so many faces, all drawn, solemn, shocked, stunned.  No anger, it was too soon for that.

People walk in a silent candlelight vigil to protest against the assassination of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in a car bomb attack, in St Julian's

Occasionally I would pause to shoot some pictures, and tourists, seeing me with cameras and deducing that I would know what was going on, would come up to me to ask what happened.  All appeared shocked when I told them our top investigative journalist had just been blown up in a car bomb explosion.

When I got to the Love monument at the end of the promenade, where the walk was meant to end, people were already laying hundreds of candles.  The monument was being turned into a memorial.  I remembered I’d been in this very spot the day before, under very different circumstances, photographing the start of a Doctor Klown parade, supposedly the largest-ever gathering of clowns in Malta, which was a walk in the opposite direction, towards the starting point of this one.  It felt surreal.

A woman places a candle on the Love monument during a silent candlelight vigil to protest against the assassination of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in a car bomb attack, in St Julian's

I wished I had a candle to light and place too, but I didn’t. So I just concentrated on making pictures.  I knew I would have to edit and file these myself, but I didn’t want to rush to get them out.  I decided I was going to take my time, knowing that the important images for tomorrow’s papers worldwide had already landed on clients’ desks.

I met many friends, other cousins – we were all stunned, there really wasn’t much anyone could say to anybody.

People react during a silent candlelight vigil to protest against the assassination of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in a car bomb attack, in St Julian's

I stayed long at the memorial.  By the time I decided to leave, most people had already gone.   I was now a good 45 minutes brisk walk away from my car, and started to make my way back slowly.  Then I remembered I wasn’t done.  I had to edit and file some pictures.  So I sat down on a bench and did that.  Doing so also gave me the chance to breathe and rest for a while.  I hadn’t realised up till this point that I was physically exhausted. Emotionally and mentally, hard to tell.  I still wasn’t processing things in my mind.  I was too stunned and at the same time trying to stick to working on autopilot.

A letter to investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, assassinated in a car bomb attack on Monday, is seen on the Love monument during a silent candlelight vigil to protest against her murder, in St Julian's

Pictures filed (I also dug up another file photo of Daphne I remembered I had), I continued walking along the promenade back to my car.  Being exhausted, I sat down again.

I sat there for quite a while, I really must have been knackered.  It was around 1am when two people walking by stopped and called my name.  It was hard to recognise who it was, being silhouetted against a street lamp.  Then I realised it was one of Daphne’s sisters with her husband.

 What could we say to each other? Just hold each other tight, very tight, for what seemed like forever, as she sobbed. All I could do is say “I’m so sorry, so sorry”.  They were coming from her parents.  I asked how they were – stupid question but one has to ask.

I told them what I’d seen during the vigil, the thousands of people who’d turned up, and suggested they should pass by the memorial on their way to their car which was parked in its vicinity.  They said they would.

I think we stayed there together for half an hour or so.  Once they moved on, I carried on towards my car, and once there, decided I’d drive home via the memorial, just to have another look. When I drove by, Daphne’s sister and her husband were there, reading some of the messages left.  I didn’t stop, I just drove by slowly and then carried on home. I didn’t sleep well that night, is it any surprise?

A poster carrying an anti-government message is seen on the ground after a silent candlelight vigil to protest against the assassination of investigative journalist Caruana Galizia in Malta

A lot has happened since then – I’ve been privileged to be part of the Daphne Project, working closely with other team members in their investigations into who commissioned the murder and continuing Daphne’s investigations.  I’ve travelled extensively over the last twelve months, on unrelated matters, but without exception, I’m always asked about this case.  I’ve covered the story relentlessly and intend to continue doing so.  Yet sometimes, a sense of despair does take hold as I question whether we’ll ever find out who was behind this heinous act.  Then I remember that Daphne herself would have never stopped, and so, neither must I, neither must any of us who are on the side of what is right.

 

Twenty years on

Twenty years ago today I had my first picture used on the Reuters wire, the start of an incredible experience that carries on right till the present and hopefully many years into the future. It’s been a terrific buzz, with so many people who’ve guided and mentored me over the years – David Viggers, Steve Crisp, Nigel Small, Dylan Martinez, Chris Helgren, Mal Langsdon, Catherine Benson, Simon Newman, Alexia Singh, Gabrielle Fonseca Johnson, Russell Boyce, Reinhard Krause, Rickey Rogers, Corinne Perkins, Pawel Kopczynski, Tom Szlukoveny, and so many others. Eternally grateful to each and every one of you. And a special thanks to Paul Delmar, who one fine day in 1997 thought he’d set up a meeting for me with David Viggers and Steve Crisp at Gray’s Inn Road. Together with my girlfriend Adriana, I dashed down to London from Sheffield that same evening in order to make it to the meeting the following morning.  Thinking I wouldn’t be long in the meeting, Adriana and I agreed she’d wait for me downstairs in the lobby.  I got so absorbed in things that I forgot about her waiting there, and she sat patiently for three hours before heading off to a nearby museum! (we had no mobile phones back then).

That first picture on the wire showed traffic control police waiting for a convoy of heavy vehicles driven by striking Malta Freeport cargo haulers heading towards the Maltese capital Valletta on December 9, 1997. Later that evening, once the image popped up on the wire at the Times of Malta newsroom, my late-colleague Alfred Giglio snapped a corny thumbs-up pic of me celebrating.

Pic(k) of the Best 2016

As a very eventful year draws to a close, I’ve put together a loosely edited gallery of some of my favourite images shot in 2016.  It’s by no means exhaustive, nor fully representative of all the stuff I’ve shot over these last twelve months. I hope you enjoy them.

Farewell to a friend and mentor

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A good friend passed away today.  Lino Arrigo Azzopardi, an Associated Press photographer here in Malta for many years, passed away aged 77 after a battle with cancer, a battle which destroyed his health and his body, but not his sense of humour and his joyful, funny character traits.  He was one of a kind, a chap I learnt so much from, particularly in my early days as an upcoming wire photographer.  Though we worked for competing agencies, that never got in the way of helping each other out – sometimes it might have been helping with equipment technical issues, or passing on a few image negatives when one of us missed an event, or tip-offs.

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Lino and I at the Office of the Prime Minister in 1998, waiting for the newly-elected prime minister to arrive after winning the general elections.

He’d cheated death before, having had a narrow escape in a traffic accident while he was travelling in the Maltese President’s motorcade in Bulgaria in 2001.  Recovery and recuperation took several months.  He had been working as the President’s and Prime Minister’s official photographer on overseas visits for several years – once he was out of action, he recommended that I take his place until he was well again, a gesture that enabled me to travel to some wonderful and distant parts of the globe.

Fond memories are too many to write here. But the ones which most comes to mind, something we’d often reminisce about whenever we met and have a bellyful of laughs about, was when Britain’s Queen Elizabeth visited Malta for a day in 2007 – we were on the same fixed photo position, both armed with long lenses, waiting for the Queen to walk out of a public garden and come towards us.  Hundreds of people lined the barriers along the side, waiting to catch a glimpse of the Queen.  As she approached, our view of her was totally obstructed by members of her entourage, protection detail and roving photographers and TV cameramen.  Both Lino and I started shouting and yelling for them to get out of the way.  I’m sure there was the odd bit of blasphemy thrown in as well.  People, including many tourists, were horrified – they thought we were shouting and swearing at the Queen herself.

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Myself, Paul Zammit Cordina, Lino and Stephen Gatt before the Malta vs Italy Euro 2016 qualifier

Another fond memory goes back to the day we were working on the MV Arctic Sea story in 2009.  The Maltese-registered freighter had just been handed back to its Finnish owners by Russia, just outside Maltese territorial waters, more than two months after its forces recovered it off the Cape Verde Islands. Arctic Sea had disappeared in the Atlantic after being boarded by eight hijackers in the Baltic Sea in July, causing a media storm. When the ship had anchored just outside Maltese waters, a few days before it was eventually towed into harbour, Lino and I had got on a friend’s boat and spent the whole day at sea, checking out as many ships as we could in the limited charter time we had, trying to (unsuccessfully) get some pictures of the freighter.

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Lino covers the arrival of evacuees from Libya in 2011

Perhaps one of the funniest memories goes back to 1999.  We were covering the Games of the Small States of Europe in Liechtenstein.  Our hotel was across the border in a small Austrian town, the name of which escapes me at the moment.  On our first evening there, our group of around half a dozen or so journalists walked around the town for ages, looking for a place to have dinner.  It was late, most places were closed.  Eventually, we found one restaurant which seemed to be about to close, but the owner waved us in.  As we sat inside, Lino was trying to communicate with the owner in very broken German, getting quite frustrated when they weren’t managing to understand each other.  It took a good half an hour before someone twigged onto the fact that the restaurant owner was Italian, and all of us were fluent Italian speakers.

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Myself, Lino, Matthew Mirabelli and Charles Marsh at the Games of the Small States of Europe in Liechtenstein, 1999

I could go on and on …. so many memories, but I’ll leave it at that.  So long Lino, you were larger than life.  As they say, till we meet again, old friend.

As first days go, that was really something – The Afriqiyah Airways plane hijack to Malta

I’ve been a staff photographer with the Times of Malta, the largest national newspaper on the Maltese Islands, for over 20 years.  Over all this time, I’ve had some pretty memorable and exciting experiences, and have so many memories I truly cherish that it’s impossible to count them all.  I’ve met interesting people from all walks of life in several countries, witnessed history in the making, been privileged and touched to get deeply involved while working on human stories and also done my fair share of what can only be described as very mundane coverages, all of which are part and parcel of any press photographer’s life.

Yet, some time ago I felt the overwhelming urge to move on.  Maybe I’d grown tired and felt my work was beginning to go a bit stale.  I craved new challenges, so just under three months ago, I handed in my notice at the paper at which I’d spent close to half my life.

I decided I’d freelance from now onwards, while concentrating more on the work I do for Reuters as well as my own projects.  I’ve been a contractor with the agency since 1997, and wanted to increase my input and involvement with it.  Meanwhile, I’ll continue doing some work for the Times of Malta, but this time in a freelance capacity.

Today was my first post-Times of Malta day, officially  a freelancer, something I hadn’t been since 1996.  I’d planned a quiet day, having decided to take a few days’ break till I get going again – do a spot of Christmas shopping, take my daughter to a movie, go for a long walk with the dog.

All that changed as soon as I bought my cinema tickets online. I got a call from someone informing me that a hijacked plane was about to land in Malta.  With plans instantly flung out of the window, I picked up my gear, quickly made sure that everything I might possibly need for this sort of assignment was in place (things such as lens extenders, spare battery packs, Mi-Fi units, wireless transmitter for the camera, as well as the usual basics), together with some warm clothing, jumped into the car and dashed towards the airport, heading for the spot where I knew a hijacked plane would be sent to.

I called my Reuters boss in Paris to alert him about the developing situation from the car (yes, using a hands free set of course 🙂   Traffic was light, I got there in no time at all.  The police had already blocked off access roads but waved me through when I flashed my press card at them.  I was stopped by other officers further in, and told to walk the rest of the way, which was fine.  I was less than a hundred metres from the spot I wanted to shoot from.  It wasn’t ideal lighting-wise as I would be shooting against the light, but it allowed for good images of soldiers in front of the hijacked aircraft.

The plane had been on the ground for about twenty minutes.  The important thing in these sort of situations is speed.  Getting the first few pictures out on the wire as quickly as possible is paramount.  I shot a few frames, starting wide to get the whole plane in, and then switching to a longer lens with an extender to shoot tighter images.  Using the wireless transmitter on the camera and a Mi-fi unit, I was able to send some pictures straight to an editor in Paris, who quickly editing, captioned and sent them out on the wire from which they could be retrieved by a network of thousands of clients worldwide.  That capability is essential for any wire services photographer – it enables the photographer to concentrate on taking pictures instead of having to stop shooting, switch on a laptop, download and then select and file pictures. I also shot some video clips on my DSLR for our TV clients, as my Reuters TV colleague hadn’t reached the location yet.

Maltese troops survey a hijacked Libyan Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A320 on the runway at Malta Airport

Maltese troops survey a hijacked Libyan Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A320 on the runway at Malta Airport

Maltese troops survey a hijacked Libyan Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A320 on the runway at Malta Airport

A hijacked Libyan Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A320 stands on the runway at Malta Airport

The traffic police officer who’d earlier waved me through the road block turned up on his bike, and said he’d made a mistake by allowing the media through, and that we’d have to pack up right away and leave, as we were too close (he claimed) for our own safety.  Fair enough – the hijackers were threatening to blow up the plane, and if that did happen, we might have been taken out by flying shrapnel.

We stalled as long as we could – the national TV broadcaster team were doing a live link and they begged to be allowed to wrap it up instead of interrupting it.  That gave us an extra five minutes on site.

Maltese troops survey a hijacked Libyan Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A320 on the runway at Malta Airport

Maltese troops survey a hijacked Libyan Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A320 on the runway at Malta Airport

As my images were being transmitted, I took a few calls from different news organisations, and quickly looked up some information on what was actually happening – The Afriqiyah Airways A320 with around 120 people on board had been hijacked in Libyan airspace.  The plane was on an internal flight from Sebha to Tripoli when it was diverted by two hijackers, believed to be in their mid 20s, who were threatening to blow up the plane.  A total of 111 passengers – 82 men, 28 women and an infant, all believed to be Libyan – and six crew members were on board the aircraft.

Once back in the car, I knew where I should head to. I’d once done a bit of a recce around the airport with just this sort of situation in mind.  Once I got there and parked, I decided to carry all my gear and warm clothing with me.  I knew that once I found a good spot to shoot from, I’d be unable to leave till the whole thing was over, both because I couldn’t risk missing some major development and because access might then be blocked and I’d be unable to return.  I’ll worry about food and water later, I told myself, while hoping it would all be resolved quickly and wouldn’t drag on for two or three days.

I made my way down the country lane to where I figured I’d have a decent view of the plane.  As soon as I got there, a police officer appeared and gave me and another photographer our marching orders. Trying to reason with him wasn’t going to get us anywhere – he had his orders and he wouldn’t budge.  No worries, we’d walked past a couple of farmhouses on the way in – I was certain the owners would let us onto their roofs if we asked politely.

Within a couple of minutes, we were setting up on a rooftop.  The angle was good, we were at a safe distance even if the plane did blow up, even if the picture below might make one think otherwise.

A hijacked Libyan Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A320 stands on the runway at Malta Airport

Maltese troops survey a hijacked Libyan Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A320 on the runway at Malta Airport

It wasn’t long before the same police officer came down the lane, ordering us to leave.  Of course, I stood my ground.  I know my rights in these sort of situations – I was on private property at the owner’s invitation.  Even if there was a safety issue, I was under no obligation to comply with the order, even though he said it came from the highest level.  What set alarm bells ringing in my head is he was only ordering the guys with the cameras to leave – he was quite content to leave the farmer and his buddies there.  So someone somewhere simply didn’t want pictures and footage to be shot.  He asked for my particulars which I shouted out to him from the rooftop, I took note of his service number, he got on his phone and walked away.  He didn’t bother us again.  Some soldiers tried something similar, but we ignored them too.  They do this sort of thing sometimes – it intimidates less experienced journalists who might not be too sure of their rights so they think it’s worth a try.

I shot a couple more video clips, then quickly edited all the footage I’d shot so far, called the TV editor in Rome and transmitted the edited clip.  Before long, it was playing on major TV networks worldwide.

One of the owner’s friends was listening to radio conversation between the pilot and the control tower so we had a pretty good idea of what was going on.  We were able to ready ourselves for the first disembarking of released hostages – women and children first, as always.

People disembark from a hijacked Libyan Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A320 on the runway at Malta Airport

Released women and children passengers disembark from a hijacked Libyan Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A320 on the runway at Malta International Airport

One surreal fact was occurring to me.  To the left, not far from the area where the military were stationed, was the film set of the movie “Entebbe“, dealing with the infamous 1976 hijacking of an Air France plane to Entebbe, Uganda, which resulted in the Israeli Defence Force mounting one of the most daring rescue missions of all time.  Shooting on the film set wrapped a few days ago – though already being dismantled, one could still see signs reading “Uganda welcomes you.”  But the Maltese soldiers were just a bit too far for it to make an interesting juxtaposition in a picture. (There’s further irony to the fact the film was being shot in Malta – the first movie about the hijack, which was made shortly after the actual event, was banned in Malta for several years for purely political reasons.)

Passengers were disembarking in pairs.  Everyone seemed remarkably calm.  You’d never have imagined they’d just been through a hijacking experience.  Two female crew members were also released by the hijackers.

I managed to get some pictures of the disembarking passengers, but then lost the mobile internet signal.  The farm owner told me is comes and goes in that area and was very unreliable.  I was unable to get it back as the story unfolded to its conclusion.

The chap who was able to listen to the tower conversations decided it was time for him to leave, so we no longer had any information on what was going on onboard the aircraft.  We just had to keep our eyes and lenses trained on it constantly.  We had seen a couple of crew members come out of the plane onto the top of the staircase, but suddenly a man we hadn’t seen before appeared, waving a green flag.  We knew all the passengers had disembarked, he wasn’t a crew member, and was waving what looked like a Gaddafi-era flag.  Therefore, we quickly concluded the odds were he was one of the hijackers.  So far, this was the money shot.  I had the pictures, but frustratingly, repeated attempts to transmit the pictures kept failing because of the intermittent signal.

One of the hijackers of a Libyan Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A320 waves a Gaddafi-era Libyan flag at Malta Airport

One of the hijackers of a Libyan Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A320 waves a Gaddafi-era Libyan flag at Malta Airport

We saw military armoured vehicles on the move, approaching the aircraft.  These were heavily armed special forces soldiers of the recently-set up Special Operations Unit. They drove out of our line-of-sight but it was clear that something was happening.

Maltese special forces soldiers approach a hijacked Libyan Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A320 on the runway at Malta International Airport

A few minutes later, the remaining crew members started descending from the airplane.  One of them carried the same flag the hijacker had been waving earlier.  The crew members moved off to the side, and the two hijackers came out, slowly and calmly walking down the steps.  At the bottom, one went down on his knees.  The other, the one we’d seen earlier, stepped forward, first put his pistol on the ground and then placed what looked like a document folder on the ground, and then dropped to his knees while holding his hands up.  Soldiers crept into my field of vision, cautiously approaching the two terrorists.

Two hijackers of a Libyan Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A320 surrender to Maltese military on the runway at Malta Airport

Two hijackers of a Libyan Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A320 surrender to Maltese military on the runway at Malta Airport

The two hijackers of a Libyan Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A320 surrender to Maltese military on the runway at Malta International Airport

The two must have been ordered to move apart from each other and turn away from the soldiers.  One lay down on the ground, and soldiers swooped forward to restrain him while their colleagues kept their guns trained on the other.

Two hijackers of a Libyan Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A320 surrender to Maltese military on the runway at Malta Airport

One of the hijackers of a Libyan Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A320 surrenders to Maltese military on the runway at Malta Airport

Two hijackers of a Libyan Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A320 surrender to Maltese military on the runway at Malta Airport

The second hijacker was then approached, quickly restrained, searched and pulled to the ground.  The four-hour standoff was over.

The two hijackers of a Libyan Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A320 surrender to Maltese military on the runway at Malta International Airport

Two hijackers of a Libyan Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A320 surrender to Maltese military on the runway at Malta Airport

All that remained now was getting the images out to the world.  The internet still wasn’t working.  I had to make a judgement call.  While I needed to get this pictures to the agency without further delay, I knew that if I left, I might (and in fact did) miss a good shot of the special forces soldiers embarking on the plane to conduct a full sweep of it.  A quick phone call to Paris to discuss with my editor settled it.  I would leave.  I switched the cards in my cameras, just in case I came across another police officer who’d have decided to be funny with me.  That was unnecessary as it turned out but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Once I got to the car and drove off, it didn’t take long to find an area where I could get a good 4G signal, so I pulled over and filed the images.

Later it transpired that the hijackers’ weapons – pistols and a grenade- were harmless replicas.  Luckily, all went well without a single shot being fired and no one getting hurt – a far cry from the last hijack to take place in Malta, during which some 60 hostages were killed when an assault on the Egyptair plane by Egyptian commandos went horribly wrong.

Definitely one to remember, as far as the first day on the job goes.

Rescue in the Mediterranean Sea

A migrant eats a biscuit on the Migrant Offshore Aid Station ship Topaz Responder after being rescued around 20 nautical miles off the coast of Libya

An edited version of this was published on Reuters Wider Image on July 4, 2016.

We spent the first six days at sea with nothing very much to do. The unstable weather, and the high swell, meant that boats were not departing from Libya. Of course, a 24-hour watch was still mounted on the Topaz Responder, a rescue ship of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), but no one really expected us to see any action for several days. Even when the sea was calm out where we were, the information we had was that on the coast, the swell remained high, making it dangerous for the smugglers to launch the migrants boats.

The Wider Image: Rescue in the Mediterranean Sea

We’d pass the time with lots of chats with the crew, reading, watching movies, writing emails, following the Euro 2016 finals through a couple of apps on my phone, and most importantly, practicing various rescue drills, which I also found useful on a personal level, as it enabled me to familiarise myself with operating on the small FRDCs (Fast Rescue Daughter Craft) without smashing any camera gear, never a good idea at the best of times, let alone when you’re out at sea several days away from a camera repair centre!

The Wider Image: Rescue in the Mediterranean Sea

The Wider Image: Rescue in the Mediterranean Sea

Though I’d embedded with MOAS before, this was my first time on the Topaz Responder and her two FRDCs, named Alan and Galib in memory of Alan Kurdi and his brother Galib, the two Syrian boys whose deaths made global headlines after they drowned in September 2015 while attempting to cross from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos.

We also saw what I think is the most spectacular sunset I’ve ever seen. I set myself a personal project of photographing the texture of waves – Anything to kill time, really.

The Wider Image: Rescue in the Mediterranean Sea

 

On the seventh day at sea, we finally got to do what we were out there to do. Save lives.

Every morning over the past week, I’d been waking up round dawn, at 5.30a.m., Usually only to be told that there weren’t reports of any sightings. So sometimes I’d head back into my bunk to catch up on some more sleep. Not this time round though. Over the next few hours, more and more reports would come in of more flimsy rubber dinghies packed with migrants kept coming in. From the Responder, we could count up to 21. By the end of the day, the final count, according to the Italian Coast Guard, was 42 boats carrying some 4,500 souls. Of those, one person was dead before rescuers could arrive – only one out of 4,500, but still one too many.

Several rescue ships took part in the operation – Italian coast guard and navy, British Royal Navy, MSF, Sea Watch. A Spanish SAR plane flew overhead.

The Wider Image: Rescue in the Mediterranean Sea

Camera gear was all set to go – every night I’d ensure that everything was ready to be picked up and used at a moment’s notice. I suited up in my Tyvek coveralls, waterproof boots, life vest and helmet with a GoPro action camera mounted on top.

I got into the FRDC, together with its’ three man crew, two rescue swimmers, a medic, a MOAS cameraman and two huge sacks of lifejackets. We approached the closest dinghy and began throwing life jackets to its occupants. Once all the migrants had their life jackets on, the Topaz Responder drew closer, and the FRDC gently nudged the dinghy up against the ship so that the migrants could climb aboard.

The Wider Image: Rescue in the Mediterranean Sea

That done, I returned to the Topaz Responder to photograph the goings on around the deck – the FRDC meanwhile moved away to distribute life jackets on more dinghies.

Once the second group arrived, I was able to see up close the sheer delight and palpable relief in people’s eyes once they were safely on board. Several dropped to their knees in prayers of thanksgiving, as they waited to be frisked by security personnel.

Migrants in a dinghy reach out towards Migrant Offshore Aid Station rescuers on board of the MOAS ship Topaz Responder around 20 nautical miles off the coast of Libya

The Wider Image: Rescue in the Mediterranean Sea

A collapsed migrant is assisted by Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) rescuers after boarding the MOAS ship Topaz Responder around 20 nautical miles off the coast of Libya, June 23, 2016. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

By the time the third boat arrived, the deck was beginning to get crowded. People on this dinghy appeared more tense and fearful than the ones who’d been rescued earlier. They also had several babies with them, each one not more than a few months old. Babies were being passed to a rescuer, who would hand it to another crewmember. I was the closest and this was one of those times when, though you want to take the picture, if you need to help, then you drop the cameras by your side and help. I lifted a baby out of the arms of one of the rescuer who was sitting over the side of the ship over the dinghy and rushed it towards the medical centre outside which a nurse took the baby into his arms.

A cultural mediator from Italian NGO EMERGENCY carries a migrant baby on board of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station rescue ship Topaz Responder around 20 nautical miles off the coast of Libya

There seemed to be a greater sense of urgency. Lots of pushing among the migrants to try get off before others, desperate outstretched arms and hands trying to clasp the hand of a rescuer. Among the ones getting onto the ship, I witnessed extremes of emotion – people celebrating, hugging, jumping onto one another in a way I’d not seen before, but also heart wrenching scenes of tears and loud wailing.

The Wider Image: Rescue in the Mediterranean Sea

The Wider Image: Rescue in the Mediterranean Sea

382 migrants- all Sub-Saharan Africans, the vast majority of who were from West Africa, were rescued by the Topaz Responder crew that day. Most slept throughout the afternoon, understandably exhausted by their ordeal, as the ship headed north towards Sicily to disembark the migrants.

Rescued migrants aboard MOAS ship Topaz Responder off the coast of Libya

I took a break from shooting and only carried on in the early evening, around an hour or so before sunset, when the quality of light is at its best. I was doing a series of interviews and portraits as the sunlight turned a deep orange, when suddenly, the light seemed to be moving across the migrants faces very rapidly and in a matter of seconds, the sun which had been on the port side was now to starboard. The ship had performed a very tight 180-degree turn, and was now heading south again, in the direction of Libya. Many migrants appeared confused, as was I. It was nothing to be too concerned about – orders had come down from Rome MRCC to remain in the area, as many more boats could be expected the following day. The migrants would be transferred to an Italian coast guard ship that already had some 500 on board and was heading for the Sicilian capital Palermo. Needing to get back to Malta, I opted to do the same, transferring to the coast guard ship that night around midnight to start a 24 hour journey home.

The Wider Image: Rescue in the Mediterranean Sea

A video of the rescues can be viewed here.