Our Nieman class, arriving in the fall of 2006, had a contingent of journalists who came to leafy, placid Cambridge from covering Iraq and Afghanistan.
For them, the year was in large part about getting distance from war. Not having to wear a helmet. Walking down a street listening for… nothing. A passing car was just a passing car.
Anja worked hard to get her time in Cambridge, to be free—at least for a short while—from worry and horrors.
She was by no means soft spoken, as anyone who knew her can testify. She laughed loudly. She used the term “scheiße” liberally, as well as earthy English equivalents. She thought deeply about journalism and liked to debate its future, changing nature, and ethical problems. She loved hearing stories and telling them.
But she had a quiet in her too, a sadness. She carried it well, but it was always with her, floating around.
You can see it in so many of her photographs—her eyes picking out quiet moments in war’s chaos. One of my favorites, in her second book, “At War,” is of a German soldier sitting forlornly next to lighted candles at dawn while on patrol in Afghanistan. He was celebrating his 34th birthday. And children. There are lots of children in her photos, innocents wandering in the midst of violence.
As our year in Cambridge came to an end, we were all anxious and sad about going back into the world. She knew what it meant for her—more war.
On Saturday, May 26, 2007, Anja, Kate Peters of the BBC, my 3-year-old son Finn and I hopped in a car at Lippmann House and drove about 80 miles north to Canterbury Shaker Village in southern New Hampshire. We all wanted a day to get away and we talked about seeing one of the former communes of the strange, peaceful Shakers. Anja loved Shaker furniture—its simplicity, how practical and unadorned it was. It wasn’t showy, and that made it beautiful. I’m sure she wouldn’t have accepted their other tenets—including but not restricted to no drinking and no cursing—but she loved their devotion to simple living.
The weather was gorgeous that day and almost no one else was there as we wandered through old buildings, into open fields and down to a pond. Anja and Kate were great with Finn. Anja started taking photographs, in an easy, relaxed way. It wasn’t work—just Anja capturing the glorious uneventful arc of the day.
We found an old bookstore and stopped in. Finn stuck his finger in a mousetrap on a lower shelf and cried a bit, an incident he still remembers sharply.
In the afternoon, we came upon a small river, we later learned it was the Piscataquog River, which flows into the Merrimack. We waded into the rocky shallows. Anja got her feet wet, but she wouldn’t go any farther. Kate and I got in. Finn sat close by on the bank, but then I brought him in. Anja took some great photographs, and I was able to take one of her, standing uneasily on the rocks, smiling. It’s how I picture her still.
On our way back to Cambridge, we stopped at a snack shop, where we ate greasy classic American food. Everyone loved it.
It was really a day when nothing dramatic happened at all—and yet I have found myself returning to its memory repeatedly in the years since. One of those frozen moments that comes back to you as a balm when you need it.
After the program, I communicated with Anja mostly via e-mail and Skype as she shuttled back and forth between Europe and the Middle East. We would talk about that day, the stream. She would ask about Finn, how he was doing.
She would tell me how things in Afghanistan were getting worse. She described it as “a hell hole.” It scared her. She had made arrangements with AP to cover wars, then shoot sporting events as a relief. It was a break from the dangers of combat journalism, but it was jarring, she told me, flying from Wimbledon to Kabul.
Like with her other friends, our exchanges often ended with me writing “BE CAREFUL” and her assuring me that she was. At some point in 2011, Finn drew her a little trinket/good luck charm and I sent it to her to carry with her. That’s what people do so often when they worry about other people, desperate little things like that.
In March 2011, she was in Libya, covering the fighting there. We Skyped and I ended with again with my plea: “BE CAREFUL… and lucky.”
“Promise” she wrote.
And added quickly, “ur lucky charm is glooed to my laptop :)”
I wanted Anja to meet Finn as he grows up. I wanted her to know him as a young man and for him to get to know this incredible person. Now I’m left wondering about that charm, wishing it had worked.