Obituary: NICK CORNISH, quintessential war photographer
ROME -- When top war photographer Nick Cornish received an impossible assignment from the Sunday Times during the Libyan civil war he resolved three things — to take the pictures, to get out of Libya alive and never to work in a battlefield again. He managed all three objectives, accompanying writer Hala Jaba on a nearly suicidal final job that was typical of the kind of thing armchair generals on the foreign desk in London demanded, as was underlined brutally when the American war reporter Marie Colvin was killed in Syria a short time later while working for the paper.
Nick’s sage decision climaxed an extraordinary two decades working for the Sunday Times in a constellation of conflicts including Kosovo, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Iraq and Syria.
I had the pleasure of working with Nick for the Sunday Times Insight team periodically in the mid 1990s, investigating western companies such as Ikea and Levi’s employing Rumanians and Bulgarians in appalling conditions for starvation wages. In Bulgaria Nick photographed a Greek manager who sexually abused Bulgarian women employees at a factory making Levi blouses. The manager only knew he had been snapped during our interview when he opened the paper.
In Rumania we found families living like beasts while working for a furniture factory supplying Ikea.
Nick enjoyed such stories as a respite from covering wars but never became overly emotional or let me kid myself the stories would make much difference. Insight was a shadow of what it had been under the great crusading editor Harold Evans and the paper’s editors would lose interest in its stories soon after commissioning them, meaning they ended up being cut to a limited space. Later we saw each other over drinks between assignments and agreed on who were our favourite colleagues to work with such as Sunday Times star Jon Swain and those who were prima donnas.
Some of Nick’s finest work was done in Afghanistan, often with reporter Stephen Grey. In December 2007, Nick and Grey were embedded with the men of B Company, 2nd Battalion (Green Howards), the Yorkshire Regiment, as they joined hundreds of other British, American and Afghan troops in Operation Snakebite to take what was then a Taliban stronghold. They were standing close by when a B Company platoon sergeant, Lee “Jonno” Johnson, was killed in a mine blast, one of three Nato soldiers who died in the battle.
Nick recalled afterwards that “As we approached a hamlet on the outskirts of Musa Qala we were ambushed by Taliban fighters. During the battle I photographed a Taliban fighter killed in the skirmish and another taken captive. At some point I took cover behind a wall.”
“There I met Sergeant Lee "Jonno " Johnson who told me with a smile that he had cancelled his leave in order to stay with his men during the battle. He was very friendly. Only hours after an afternoon of fierce fighting with the Taliban Sergeant Johnson was killed when his vehicle drove over a land mine. We continued on to Musa Qala.”
Nick always played down the hazardous nature of his Afghan jobs. “There’s always a wall you can hide behind when the shooting starts,” he would say.
Nick wrote last year about his time in North Africa, ”I got the call to go to Libya on a Tuesday night and packed my bags thinking I'd be gone for about 10 days. I flew to Cairo where I was to meet up with Hala Jaber, the incredibly talented Sunday Times journalist with many years experience of war reporting in the middle east.”
“We got to the border with Libya late on Friday night. All communication inside Libya was down and the only way to know what was happening was to driving across. Driving into a possibly hostile environment at night is never a good idea, but the next day was Saturday and we needed to be on the ground to start reporting for Sunday's paper.”
“Our first destination was Tobruk- we didn't pass anyone on the drive there and the streets were empty as if everyone knew it wasn't a good idea to be outside. As we entered the town we were stopped by a group of young men with guns. We explained who we were and they offered to take us to a very small hotel where we would be safe for the night.”
“As we were handing over our passports a commotion started at the door. I grabbed a camera and went outside. There was a man being dragged out of a car covered in blood. The men who had obviously given him a beating were claiming he was a Gaddafi spy and he was shouting they were going to kill him. The men pulled him back into the car and drove off.”
“I went back into the hotel and continued to check in . We had been in the country for no more than a few hours and I remember thinking, 'if this is what it's like after a couple of hours, what are the next couple of weeks going to be like?' In the end we were there for two months, and no, it didn't get any better."
It was ironic that Nick should die at the age of 51 from leukemia, after surviving a long career doing the riskiest work in the toughest shitholes. In his last years he showed another side to his mastery of photography with haunting studies of the Italian countryside where he and his wife had settled near Orvieto.
Nick bore his final illness with the same cheeky cockney cheerfulness that was his trademark on the front line.
Sunday Times picture editor Ray Wells said, “he was not just a wonderful photographer, he was the most gracious and self-deprecating of men, always surprised that anyone would know his name.”
He is survived by his wife, SImona, his two sisters, family and his many friends.
Nicholas Cornish, War photographer, born London, Oct. 6, 1965. Died: Jan. 18, 2017.