Last week, a man shot dead nine people in Hanau, Germany before killing his mother and himself, in one of the worst racist attacks in Germany since World War Two. Reuters quickly mobilized and Pictures Correspondent Kai Pfaffenbach arrived at the scene to document the aftermath, which included moving photographs and video of the crime scene and a vigil for the victims. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A, Kai gives a behind-the-scene look at covering the story.
Q: How did you end up photographing the shooting in Hanau?
A: It was about 10:30pm when my phone starts ringing non-stop. I had just come back from the opening of an exhibition showing some of my photojournalistic work in Aschaffenburg (about 35km south of Hanau), at a publishing house I had an internship at almost 30 years ago. These days – as with most of my colleagues – my gear is ready 24/7 and I decided take everything with me. Hanau isn’t a city of heavy crime. We have approximately 98,000 people living here, and brutal and fatal crime isn’t common. I rushed out of my house without knowing the detailed location but found out about addresses during the ten-minute car ride. Less than five minutes after jumping out of the car at the first crime scene (Heumarkt area with Midnight bar and La Votre café), I had transmitted the first minute-long video as our TV crew needed much longer to get to Hanau from Frankfurt. In the meantime, our German Senior Editor-in-Charge Joachim Herrmann organized somebody to live-edit at our Singapore desk so I could move around and continue sending photos and videos live out of my camera without using a laptop.
Q: What was the experience like on the ground?
A: The situation seemed unreal. Police officers were using kevlar helmets and bulletproof vests (which isn’t day-to-day business in Germany) and were kind of nervous as the gunman was still on the run when I arrived. I have covered a lot of deadly stories around the globe but facing something like that in my hometown made it emotionally different. Nevertheless, I was somehow in a “function mode” and went into a routine not to miss essential parts. General view of the crime scene, police in special gear, details, etc. – I tried to cover as many different aspects as possible as the story kept developing throughout the night.
Q: What was the hardest part of covering the story?
A: Around 3:00am (I woke up next to my unfortunately sick daughter the morning before at 6:00am) I simply felt weak and tired. Of course adrenalin kicks in, but at one point you feel the freezing cold of a February night, I hadn’t had any food or drink with me while driving between the crime scenes and when I ended up in a special Frankfurt police unit that was about to storm the house of the suspected gunman, I struggled physically quite a bit. But as I wrote earlier: Adrenalin and professionalism kick in and kept me going. I went back home for a short rest around 6:30am, but couldn’t sleep. After one hour of laying down I decided to go back to the crime scenes and follow up.
Q: What make you passionate about photojournalism?
A: My curiosity always has been a driving factor for me to travel the world and being peoples’ eyes on the ground who can’t witness those stories themselves and rely on trustworthy journalism. And I like the competition with colleagues around the world to visually tell stories best.
Q: What have been your most rewarding and most difficult experiences as a journalist?
A: The biggest reward always has been friendships with people all over the world. From Australia to South America, I’ve made friends. Whether it has been colleagues or ordinary people living in the areas – meeting, talking and learning from them is simply priceless.
On the other hand, I always find it difficult to work with those affected by a tragedy – it’s hard to see people suffering, no matter after natural disasters, wars or attacks. Seeing children crying, people hungry or in need always affects me as I am a rather empathetic character.
In terms of “Photography awards,” there have been a lot of national and international recognitions including a World Press Award.
Q: Can you imagine being anything other than a photojournalist? If so, what?
A: I started as a radio reporter after studying politics, history and journalism, but my very strong Hesse accent “prevented” a career on-air. Photography has always been my hobby; I am a completely self-educated person in terms of photography and for me it’s simply the best job I could imagine. There were magazines and agencies asking if I could imagine shooting beauty, fashion or anything like that and as much I like to shoot things like that to refresh my creativity, I would never stop being a photojournalist (at least as long my physical fitness allows me to do so).
Q: Anything else you’d like to share?
A: I am really happy and grateful for all those experiences I have had within the almost 25 years I have been taking pictures for Reuters. I have no idea how many times I’ve heard people saying, “photography is dead,” and ever since, good, creative and – most of all – honest photojournalism has become even more important. The world needs brave photojournalists more than ever.