72nd Awards Dinner, an Evening of Shared Emotions

Awards Dinner Videos are now on the OPC YouTube channel >>

The 72nd Annual OPC Awards Dinner was punctuated by the highs and lows of an audience that grieved collectively for the deaths of photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, who were killed just eight days before while covering the conflict in Libya. The dinner brought people together, many of whom for the past week were in sorrow over the deaths and provided a platform for those gathered at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York to reluctantly accept that the world and journalism community lost two of its finest.

The evening began with a cocktail reception sponsored by Microsoft on the thirty-fifth floor with views of Central Park and an intermittent gray sky, which seemed to fit the fluctuating mood of the evening. Once guests filed into the ball room, a video tribute of Hetherington and Hondros played. Often during the pre-awards ceremonies, there are clanks of silverware and glasses heard throughout the room. This time there was silence as the audience turned their full attention to watch the work of Hetherington and Hondros projected on the big screens and one video clip that showed Hondros accepting 2003 The John Faber Award for his series “Chaos Enveloping: Liberia’s Deadly Summer.” During the speech he relayed a story from Liberia where both sides of the fight asked him, “‘Why do they shoot at us? We want peace.’ We all want peace, don’t we? To all of the real victims of the wars that we cover, they deserve way more attention than they get, even from us.”

Columnist and international public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues Mona Eltahawy lit the Press Freedom Candle in memory of the 44 journalists who were killed in 2010 and spoke about her own experience of losing a colleague and friend, Palestinian cameraman for Reuters Mazen Dana, while he covered a story in Baghdad in 2003. Dana was shot by U.S. forces outside of Abu Ghraib who thought he held a rocket-propelled grenade, but in fact it was his camera. “The only people I could think of to call and share the terrible pain I was feeling was fellow journalists because it’s difficult to explain to ‘civilians’ what it’s like to lose a journalist friend,” she said. “When a journalist dies, something in our hearts just stops because journalists are not supposed to die in war or revolutions because they are supposed to be our eyes and ears.”

Journalist and novelist Scott Anderson gave a speech and read a tribute from his brother, writer Jon Lee Anderson, in honor of Hetherington and Hondros. He said a group of photographer got together at a bar soon after learning of their deaths. “These things always look a bit reckless in hindsight. Certainly never worth the price that’s been paid,” he said. “It may sound trite or naïve, but part of what drives all those who do this kind of work is a secret ambition to change the world. Perhaps not in any grand way…but underneath it all is the hope, the belief that the images we capture or stories we tell might touch the conscious of the outside world and lead to something better. So why Misurata? Well, why Tai Bin, the hamlet in Vietnam where Robert Capa died? Why Road Berry Junction in Sierra Leone? Why Goma? Why Grozny? Why not just sit back and accept whatever government spokesman or rebel leaders choose to tell us? Because at the end of the day, it is all Misurata. And none of it changes unless there are people like Tim and Chris to document it.”

NBC sent Lester Holt to cover tornadoes in the South, so CBS News reporter Lesley Stahl stepped in at the last minute and presented the awards. She gave a brief introduction saying, “We do journalism because we’re idealistic; it’s so much damn fun and they pay us. But nothing makes us feel better than to be recognized by our peers and that’s what makes the OPC awards so special.”

Some of the most poignant acceptance speeches of the night came from the photographers, whose awards were distributed at the top of the evening. Lynsey Addario, who won The Olivier Rebbot Award for her series, “Veiled Rebellion: Afghan Women,” said, “The last six months have been difficult. From Joao Silva losing his legs to my six day detention in Libya to the devastating loss of Tim and Chris last week,” she paused, turned away from the podium and was led back and supported by Stahl. “They were dear friends and we will miss them and I am honored to share this award with Tim.” Hetherington’s book Infidel received the The Olivier Rebbot citation. “When the announcement of winners was posted online, congratulatory e-mails started coming in. One was from New York Times photographer Joao Silva who wrote: ‘If I had legs, I’d be dancing for you.'”

Tense moments were broken by eventual laughter, especially at the frequent mention of the royal wedding in London the next morning. The John Faber Award winner Daniel Berehulak followed Addario. He came from New Delhi to accept the award for his work covering the floods in Pakistan. “I want to say thank you to the OPC for holding this event tonight and making it physically impossible for any of us to cover the royal wedding.” Then the room quieted down and his mood shifted, between tears he dedicated the award to Hetherington and Hondros. He said, “In light of last week’s tragedy, we’ve all been asking ourselves: is this worth it? I spoke with Chris in January and he said, ‘without people like us, these stories would not be told. It is our duty.'” Berehulak and Hondros both work for Getty Images.

Richard Engel, winner of the David Kaplan Award with his NBC Nightly News team for their work on three reports from Afghanistan, accepted his award via a recorded video message with a tongue-in-cheek beginning saying, “I’m here in Benghazi, the unofficial rebel capital in Eastern Libya…covering the conflict and also the reaction here to the Royal Wedding. The bets are on that she’ll be wearing a long dress and the rebels are incredibly excited for the young royal couple.”

Thomas Nast Award winner Mike Peters’ slideshow of his cartoons also lightened the somber mood in the middle of the award presentations. He brought some cartoons that were not relevant to international reporting but said his job was to make people laugh and he did, especially with a cartoon that depicts Dick Cheney’s granddaughter asking if he could teach her puppy a trick. The next cell depicts Cheney holding the puppy at the neck pouring water down its throat saying, “Speak, speak!”

Stahl was also this year’s Edward R. Murrow Award winner with her 60-Minutes team, which focused on Middle East conflicts in Israel-Palestine and Iraq. Since Stahl could not present the award to herself, the OPC called on Sandy Socolow former executive producer of the CBS Evening News.

The five new online awards were split between ProPublica, for Online General Excellence and Best Online Investigation of an International Issue or Event, and two for nytimes.com for Best Online Coverage of Breaking News and Best Use of Video for Adam B. Ellick’s “Contradictions in Pakistan.” The Council on Foreign Relations website, CFR.org, won the Best Use of Multimedia Award for its for Crisis Guide: Pakistan and The New York Review of Books won for Best Online Commentary, which the judges wrote: “Just by choosing their subjects, the authors are commenting on otherwise overlooked issues in overlooked corners of the world. But above all, they are all gripping reads.”

The evening concluded with OPC President David Andelman bestowing the OPC President’s Award on New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller for distinguished service in the field of journalism. Keller is a former Times foreign correspondent in Moscow and Johannesburg. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for his coverage of the Soviet Union and the Armenian earthquake.

Keller has made headlines since he started a column in The New York Times Magazine that often stirs debate within the journalism community, challenging the notion of news aggregators — Arianna Huffington’s website The Huffington Post, specifically — Rupert Murdoch and FoxNews, and Julian Assange the founder of Wikileaks. In the most recent issue he writes about “The Inner Lives of Wartime Photographers” where he speaks with Joao Silva and Greg Marinovich about what animates and terrifies combat photographers.

To accept the award, Keller said he feels most at home among the “tribe of foreign correspondents.” He went against the conventional wisdom of sounding the alarm of dire times for foreign news, saying that the OPC Awards Dinner was not the occasion and “I am not the guy, since The New York Times foreign desk is as large as it’s ever been. This in fact is a glorious time in foreign reporting. What we have in North Africa, the Middle East, Japan, Ivory Coast are amazing, rich consequential stories. The ‘Arab Spring’ is the kind of story that makes journalists say, ‘I can’t believe they pay me to do this.’ It’s thrilling because these are big, complicated unpredictable events demanding attention, investigation and explanation. In other words, demanding journalism.” (Read his entire speech.)

The evening concluded with a Meet the Winner’s party in the ball room foyer. There were 474 entries in this year’s competition and a record count of 26 awards to honor the best in international reporting.