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Pulitzer Winner Urges COM Grads to “Bear Witness”

Photographer Tyler Hicks: focus on experience, not paycheck


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In the slideshow above, see Tyler Hicks’ photographs of the uprising in Libya. Photos below by Winslow Martin

Despite technological sea change, journalism still beckons the principled and the passionate, and promises a chorus of new voices a chance to bear witness in increasingly troubled times, combat photographer Tyler Hicks reassured the 511 budding communicators assembled at Agganis Arena Sunday afternoon for the College of Communication convocation.

As a staff photographer for the New York Times Hicks (COM’92) has covered conflicts in Kosovo, Congo, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. He acknowledged that this year’s graduates belong to the generation “when journalism—reportedly—died.” A 41-year-old with a salt-and-pepper buzz cut and beard, Hicks, who landed his staff job at the Times after traveling as a freelancer to war-ravaged Kosovo in 1998 at his own expense, spoke to the graduates’ worries about finding jobs in an down economy. “Yes, it’s very bad,” he said of the current job market in journalism and communications. “I can tell you, though, it’s never been easy. This is a tough industry…but where there’s need, there’s opportunity.”

His speech to the 101 film and television, 126 journalism, and 250 mass communication majors and 34 master’s recipients was prefaced with a show of his images from the recent conflict in Libya. Looming above the crowd on the Jumbotron, the photographs, set to a mournful Arabic soundtrack, tracked the escalating battle from those first, triumphant street protests to the mayhem and smoldering aftermath of battle. The photos spoke volumes about the impact journalists can have in the digital age.

Tyler Hicks (COM’92)

Hicks was one of several journalists held hostage and brutalized for four days in mid-March by Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces in the rebel-controlled city of Ajdabiya, Libya. He told the graduates that soon after he and his colleagues were ambushed—their driver and friend is still missing—he heard one of his captors say in Arabic, “Shoot them.” Hicks and his colleagues’ lives were spared, but just a month later he learned that his longtime friend and fellow photojournalist Chris Hondros had died in an explosion in Misurata, the western capital of Libya. As Hicks told the graduates, it was Hondros he replaced when he took his first staff photographer job at a small newspaper in Troy, Ohio. “I appreciate my life in a way I never would have understood without witnessing how quickly everything can be taken away from you,” he said.

Born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Hicks began working for the Times as a contract photographer in Kenya in 1999 and was hired as a staff photographer in 2002. He was named Newspaper Photographer of the Year in 2007 by Pictures of the Year International. He has won an Infinity award from the International Center of Photography and in 2001 took third prize, news stories, in the World Press Photo Contest. He was a member of the Times journalism team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for “masterful, groundbreaking coverage of America’s deepening military and political challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” He is known for images both poignant and riveting, from a Haitian girl in a bright dress against the backdrop of a post-quake wasteland to war tableaux that seem to put the viewer in the center of choatic firefights.

Hicks said these are exciting times for communicators, who have “an enormous responsibility” and whose work should not be about “vanity or awards.” He advised the graduating class to begin modestly, explaining that his first job, in Ohio, was at the only paper that offered him a position after he’d sent “about 100 embarrassingly lame portfolios around the country.” In a field often romanticized and often characterized by outsized ambitions, the big story won’t land in your lap, he said. “Don’t wait for someone to give you a dream job, or even an assignment, because there’s a good chance that’s not going to happen until you’ve proven yourself,” said Hicks, who now lives in Istanbul. “Find a place where there’s something going on that’s relatively interesting, move there, and live cheaply.”

Near the end of his comments, Hicks addressed a question he often faces, from himself as well as from others. It was a question he was asked at Hondros’ funeral by a relative of the dead man: “Is it worth it?” Hicks replied, “Of course not.” “Then why,” the man asked, “do you do it?”

This is the question, Hicks told the graduates. “Why do we feel compelled to do things that are counter to what we are told to do, what we are expected to do?” For him, the answer is the satisfaction of having his photographs published and the influence they often have. As for Hondros, “the last photographs he took before his death are a testament to the personal sacrifice he made to show the world what was happening in Libya.” He told the graduates that, like Hondros, they have the ability to make a difference in the world.

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In the video above, watch Tyler Hicks' COM convocation address. Video courtesy of Agganis Arena

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