by Ian Langsdon
As photojournalists, we’re usually conditioned to want to be where the breaking news is. We thrive on the adrenaline rush that big stories deliver. We enjoy the spotlight, when the world media turn their attention to our respective regions. This, however, was not something we wished to enjoy.
France has been expecting attacks for months now, with our ‘Vigipirate’ threat level remaining in the dark-red scale since France’s involvement in Mali three years ago. But these attacks were beyond anything we expected – not by its size, but by its cruelty, its sheer ruthless violence. We saw ourselves in the victims – they may have been cartoonists, not photographers – but it was the sense that freedom of speech, free press, and journalism was being attacked. This was personal.
The last few days tested us. As a nation, with overwhelming displays of unity and solidarity. As a team, pushing our Paris operation beyond its limits. And as individuals, maintaining endurance throughout an emotional ordeal. I’d like to think we emerged from these events stronger, and a big thanks is owed to all those involved and who assisted in the coverage of what was to be the most complex news story of my life.
I was still in bed when I received a news flash on my phone that shots were fired at Charlie Hebdo’s headquarters. As I was scheduled off duty and due to leave on vacation the next day, I was about to ignore the beeping phone, when a second, and then a third news flash quickly popped up – I imagined it must have been something big. It was.
The Charlie Hebdo headquarters are only 5 minutes away from my apartment – close enough that I would have clearly heard the gunshots had my windows been open. I called my colleague Yoan Valat, who was aware of the situation but was stuck at the Elysée Palace covering a pool and ended up staying there all day to cover the political response to the unfolding events – Etienne Laurent had been dispatched to the scene. At this point nobody seemed to know what exactly had happened, and the news was only reporting two injuries. I took it upon myself to walk over and pick up Etienne’s cards to edit back at my apartment, allowing him to stay on site. But upon arrival, it became clear this was bigger than what I thought. It was a mayhem of policemen, paramedics and firefighters running in all directions. Police had already established a first perimeter, just one block of buildings aways from the shooting, and were already working on establishing a second ‘outer’ perimeter. Liaising with Etienne, it became clear he would soon be needing a long lens because the police were going to push back media to the second perimeter, and a stepladder would also come in handy to see above the ever-increasing crowd of journalists.
As I made the return trip to my apartment to pick up the necessary gear for Etienne, I was informed that the suspects’ car had been found in North Paris. I rushed up there just in time to get the car lifted onto the back of a truck, while Etienne remained at the shooting site to cover the unexpected visit by President Francois Hollande – his picture of the president gaining play across the globe.
One of the biggest issues we faced that day was our dwindling power supply for camera batteries, phones and 4G wifi units. Etienne and I took turns staking-out the shooting site from the ‘media pen’ the police had allowed journalists to stay in – while the other would go charge up batteries.
As night began to fall, people began spontaneously converging on Place de la Republique, 10 mins away from the Charlie Hedbo headquarters. Upon arrival there, I was immediately taken aback by the eerie silence, as a sombre mood hung over the 5 thousand-strong crowd. The crowd was dense, and it was a struggle to make my way to the centre of the square where people were beginning to light candles at the foot of the monument. Hand-written signs started popping up in the crowd – it was the birth of the now renowned ‘#jesuischarlie’.
Nobody got much sleep that night. News flashes kept flooding in, and the knowledge that the gunmen were still out there, possibly mounting another attack kept most of the Paris press wide awake. Yoan had rushed to the town of Reims, after reports of a large-scale police raid under way – and he ended up spending the night there.
The next morning, it was looking abundantly clear that my departure for vacation was more and more unlikely. The Elysée palace was to be my destination, as the president was holding a crisis cabinet meeting at sunrise, and had also taken it upon himself to summon all rival political party leaders to the palace to show ‘political unity’. Meanwhile, a second shooting occurred in South Paris, mobilising Yoan. A national minute of silence was to be held at mid-day – so Etienne took up a position at Place de la Republique, which had become the symbolic epicentre for vigils. I headed to Notre-Dame Cathedral, where the bells had begun ringing to honor the memory of the fallen. As a large crowd gathered at the foot of the cathedral, the skies opened up, unleashing torrential rain upon us. This only amplified the heavy, sombre mood. Not a word was uttered as the bells continued to echo across the river Seine. I fought back tears as I worked my way through the immobile crowd, shooting portraits of the mourners. One girl stood out. Her head was bowed with vacant look on her face, and she held her arm up, clutching a pen. This was to become an iconic symbol of freedom of speech.
That afternoon became one of the major turning points of the story – and also the beginning of a logistical nightmare. Based on eyewitness accounts, the gunmen were spotted in north-eastern France, causing a large-scale manhunt involving hundreds of elite units of armed police. Yoan made his way to the remote countryside in a bid to track down the BRI, RAID and GIGN units who were in turn tracking down the gunmen. Meanwhile, Paris was preparing for a siege of its own, with armed police officers manning checkpoints at the key entry-points of the city (following surreal rumours that the gunmen were racing back to Paris to make their final ‘stand’). Etienne ‘embedded’ himself with one such team, as I remained in the city centre for ongoing political coverage and another spontaneous candle-light vigil on Place de la Republique.
At daybreak, the situation remained unchanged. News footage showed an entire county 50km north of Paris besieged by armed police commandos and journalists. I was back at the Elysée Palace for yet more political comings-and-goings, when I received unclear news alerts reporting a hostage situation, a car-jacking and a high-speed car chase allegedly involving the two gunmen, only a few kilometres away from where Yoan had been operating. Etienne was immediately dispatched to reinforce Yoan.
The news alert came at 13.30 h – “Gunshots in Jewish market on Cours Vincennes”. I grabbed a 200-400mm, a foldable step-ladder and rushed to the scene on my scooter, breaking just about every traffic law in Paris. I arrived just as ambulances whizzed past me in direction of Saint-Mande, the bordering suburb. The police had set up a first perimeter at least 600 meters away from the HyperCacher store, which could not be seen at all with all the emergency vehicles in our way. The shop was technically not in Paris, but on the other side of the expressway separating Paris from the suburb of Saint-Mande. After shooting a few pictures of the ambulances and armed police units gearing up as they arrived after me, I decided to walk clockwise around the entire police perimeter in a bid to find a position or apartment that would grant me a view of the shop. This task took well over an hour, negotiating police checkpoints of varying degrees of hostility towards journalists. An hour later, it was clear the police had established their roadblocks and checkpoints precisely far enough to prevent any view whatsoever of the HyperCacher. They had even gone as far as removing journalists from civilians’ apartments within the ‘exclusion zone’. Back to my original position, it turned out the press was allowed to move forward 150 meters to a second checkpoint – and was now contained between two police roadblocks. I had only just entered this ‘press zone’ when a deafening detonation was heard. The assault was under way.
Three fellow journalists and I spotted an elderly man walk out of an apartment building next to us. This was our chance. We ran through the entrance and clambered up the stairs banging on every door hoping a resident would kindly let us use their balcony. The building was under intense renovation, and many of the apartments appeared to be empty. As I neared the seventh and last floor, a woman flung open her front door revealing a room full of cameramen. She demanded 500 euros for the privilege of using her not-so-exclusive balcony. I declined.
I looked up and saw a skylight window on the corridor ceiling, leading to the roof. Luckily, a painter’s ladder was propped up against the wall. A photographer colleague climbed up, poked his head out, and immediately climbed back down: “No way!” he said. With the assault under way. I put aside my profound dislike of heights and climbed up, praying the roof would turn out to be a nice flat one. It was not. It was a typical Parisian slippery tin roof, slanted on both sides. Once I climbed out the skylight, the photographer handed me my camera gear before bidding me good luck and leaving. With one leg dangling on each side, I crawled on my stomach along the ridge of the roof to the edge of the building, and rested my 200-400mm lens on a chimney pot. It was almost dark, forcing me to push the ISO up to 12,800 and the shutter speed as low at 1/40s – not an easy setting to shoot pictures when my hands were shaking from the precarious position I was in! The climb onto the roof had taken me 4 or 5 minutes – valuable time when it comes to a police raid. I had a clear vantage point on the corner of the HyperCacher shop, and could see the BRI (special police unit) truck swarming with commandos. They were already inside the shop and the sound of heavy gunfire echoed over the rooftops. After shooting images for a few minutes, I copied all my pictures onto a second card, in case police officers decided to give me trouble for climbing onto a rooftop and potentially confiscate my card. I stayed about 30 minutes after which it became urgent to transmit with the remaining 5% battery power left on my laptop using a nearby cafe’s wifi. It was only inside the improvised cafe-turned-press centre that I learned that police had launched a simultaneous raid in Dammartin-en-Goele, neutralising the two Kouachi brothers responsible for the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
The double assault and elimination of the three suspects marked the end of the first chapter of this story. The killings, the manhunt, the hostage takings were over. It was now time for France to grieve.