Tyler Hicks Awarded 2013 Robert Capa Gold Medal Award

A woman and her two small children hid from Somali militants’ gunfire on the floor of a cafe in Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Center. They survived the massacre, staying pinned down on the floor for more than five hours. Photograph by Tyler Hicks, The New York Times
A woman and her two small children hid from Somali militants’ gunfire on the floor of a cafe in Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Center. They survived the massacre, staying pinned down on the floor for more than five hours. Photograph by Tyler Hicks, The New York Times

By Donald R. Winslow

NEW YORK, NY (April 24, 2014) – Photojournalist Tyler Hicks of The New York Times is the recipient of the 2013 Robert Capa Gold Medal Award for his photographs of a terrorist attack on the upscale Westgate Shopping Center in Nairobi, Kenya last year.

The same picture story by Hicks won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography last week.

Now based in Nairobi but still in New York City this week after winning the Pulitzer, Hicks was on the telephone being interviewed for News Photographer magazine this morning when the Overseas Press Club broke the news of the Capa Gold Medal.

"I'm really honored by the award," Hicks said. "It was really a surprise." He said he had to go out and rent a tuxedo for tonight's black-tie awards dinner. 

The Capa Gold Medal honors the "best published photographic reporting from abroad requiring exceptional courage and enterprise." It is awarded annually by the Overseas Press Club of America (OPC). It was created in honor of the legendary war photographer Robert Capa. Capa died May 25, 1954, in Thái Bình, Vietnam, when he stepped on a landmine while covering American soldiers on patrol in the war. The first Capa Gold Medal was awarded in 1955 to Howard Sochurek.

OPC judges who picked Hicks's breaking news photographs said, "Every frame tells the story of a terrifying and dangerous situation. The photographer is at obvious risk, yet he continues to photograph multiple scenarios and stays on the scene to document the horrors and aftermath of the attack."

"I think Tyler is the perfect recipient for the Robert Capa Award this year," New York Times assistant managing editor for photography Michele McNally said today. "His pictures from the mall are searing, memorable, historical, and aesthetic. He managed this in an extremely dangerous and difficult situation. It showed such bravery and courage, that I cannot fathom."

When four terrorists attacked the upscale Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, Hicks was nearby shopping at a frame shop. He raced to the scene and started photographing with a small consumer digital camera as there were bodies outside the mall on the steps and in a car. The photojournalist's wife, Nicole Sobecki, who is also a photographer, brought his professional gear to the shopping center and Hick's made the decision to enter the building where police were searching for the gunmen as the attack and shooting continued.

"My choice to go into the mall wasn't immediate," Hicks told News Photographer today. "There was so much going on outside the mall when I arrived, people taking cover in a parking garage, people who had been shot and injured were being pushed out in shopping carts and on make-shift stretchers, to leave that scene to go seek something else inside wasn't something that was immediately on my mind. It wasn't until later when I noticed a number of bodies outside that it occurred to me what was really happening and that it was still happening inside the mall. It was one of those moments when I felt like this story needed to be told and it needed to be seen, and to my knowledge there were very few if any photographers inside."

The opening photograph of Hicks's essay shows a woman and her two children pinned down on the floor of the mall's cafe, gunshells around them, hiding from the Somali militants’ gunfire. Hicks said the trio stayed in that spot for more than five hours and just outside of his camera's frame, there were bloody dead bodies.

"There's no way I knew who that was or what happened to them afterwards," Hicks said this morning. "But after the Pulitzer was announced I got an eMail from her congratulating me on the prize. I immediately wrote back to her and said I wanted to talk to her. We talked on video [on the Internet] and she showed me her kids and they told me all about what happened and how they're doing in the aftermath. And that was one of the great things to hear," Hicks said.

OPC also presented two other prestigious photographic awards today. Robert Nickelsberg is the recipient of The Olivier Rebbot Award for the best photographic reporting from abroad in magazines and books, and Jerome Delay of the Associated Press won The John Faber Award for the best photographic reporting from abroad in newspapers and wire services. 

Delay was honored for his coverage of the ongoing civil unrest in the Central African Republic, and Nickelsberg was honored for his long-term dedication to photographically covering the war in Afghanistan.

In addition, Marcus Bleasdale won the OPC Feature Photography Award for his coverage of a dying way of life in Norway, where the whaling profession is slowly disappearing under an international quota of 1,286 whales per year. Bleasdale's story "The Last of the Viking Whalers" was shot through VII for National Geographic.

Hicks, 44, was born in Brazil but raised in Connecticut. A graduate of Boston University, his photojournalism career began at the Troy Daily News in Ohio where he was hired by their then-chief photographer, Chris Hondros. Hondros had come to the Midwest for a master's degree at Ohio University's School of Visual Communication (VisCom). When Hondros was finished in Athens, he went to work at the newspaper in Troy. After Hicks and Hondros worked side by side in Troy, Hondros eventually left for North Carolina and a staff photography job in Fayetteville. Later Hicks moved to the Tar Heel state as well, going to work for a newspaper in Wilmington. His career advanced, and Hicks started as a contract photographer for The New York Times in 1999 and he was hired as a staff photographer in 2002. 

In 2011 while covering the uprising in Libya, Hicks was taken hostage and detained for several days along with Anthony Shadid, Stephen Farrell, and Lynsey Addario. It was only a month later, on April 20, 2011, when Hick's friend Hondros died alongside photojournalist Tim Hetherington in Misrata, killed by Libyan government forces as the photographers covered the besieged city that was held by rebels.

The Capa Gold Medal was won last year by Italian freelance photojouranlist Fabio Bucciarelli for a 12-picture portfolio of his coverage of the civil war in Syria.

Watch for the May issue of News Photographer magazine for an in-depth interview with Hicks about the Pulitzer Prize and Robert Capa Gold Medal Award-winning photographs and his career.