‘The gunmen were willing to do anything to get their message across,’ says World Press Photo winner Tyler Hicks

Tyler Hicks of The New York Times won Second Prize in the Spot News Stories category for his coverage of the Nairobi Westgate massacre in Kenya. He speaks to BJP

Gemma Padley — 17 February 2014

Massacre at a Kenyan Mall. Second Prize Spot News (stories): A woman and children hiding in the Westgate mall. They escaped unharmed after gunmen had opened fire at the upscale Nairobi mall on 21 September 2013. At least 39 people were killed in one of the worst terrorist attacks in Kenya’s history © Tyler Hicks, USA, The New York Times

Massacre at a Kenyan mall. Second Prize Spot News Stories: A woman and children hiding in Westgate Mall. They escaped unharmed after a gunmen had opened fire on Nairobi's Westgate mall on 21 September 2013. At least 39 people were killed in one of the worst terrorist attacks in Kenya’s history © Tyler Hicks / The New York Times

“Before I arrived, I initially thought it was a robbery,” says American photographer Tyler Hicks of the massacre that took place at Nairobi’s Westgate shopping centre on 21 September last year. “Nairobi has a high rate of crime, and it’s very common for there to be robberies and shoot-outs in certain parts of the city. But when I reached the mall, I saw a large number of people running out terrified. I could see that many of them had what appeared to be gunshot wounds. It was then that I realised this was clearly an execution… Those responsible were willing to do anything to get their message across.”

American photojournalist Tyler Hicks won Second Prize for his images of civilians caught in gunfire at the Nairobi shopping mall. 39 people are thought to have died in what is one of the worst terrorist attacks in Kenya’s history.

Hicks, who works as a staff photographer for The New York Timeshas been based in Nairobi since 1999. He recounted his experiences of the shooting in a phone conversation with BJP . “I initially wasn’t planning to go inside as there was so much going on outside. I was moving around in front of the mall taking photographs [but] then I decided to go inside. I saw people running out so my assumption was that this was a relatively safe corridor to enter. It was clear the militants were still inside; there was a lot of shooting going on. It was a balance between trying to document what was going on around me, but also doing my best to watch out for my personal safety.”

Hicks explains how he took a picture of a woman and two children who were hiding from the gunmen. “I was photographing from a balcony, but it was a very exposed position from all sides. I took some pictures and then retreated.” The woman and children later escaped unharmed.

Receiving the World Press Photo award is “a great honour”, he says. “It’s a privilege to work for a newspaper that reaches such a wide, diverse audience. You never know what’s around the corner – there is always something new.”

Of the photojournalism industry, Hicks comments on some of the difficulties facing photographers today, including a lack of resources and assignments. ”It’s definitely a different world out there than the one I experienced coming up in the 1990s as a freelance photographer,” he says. “One difference is the landscape of how wars are fought – this has really changed. It’s also extremely difficult and dangerous when people work without the resources they deserve. Even a photographer with all the resources in the world will have a lot of difficulty working with any level of safety, so for people who are trying to cover these stories without that backing, it is an even bigger challenge. The lack of assignments and money makes it really hard. It takes even more ambition and hard work to accomplish what you want to do, but those who stick it out will be rewarded with the stories they tell.”