As a boy in France, Rémi Ochlik had ambitions to be a photojournalist when he grew up. Many young people entertain such romantic notions. For Ochlik, they became a reality. He went to Haiti with his camera in 2004 when President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown. Ochlik was only 20. “I could sense the danger,” he later said, “but it was where I always dreamt to be, in the action.”
A year later, Ochlik started a photo agency, IP3 Press. (A photojournalist who isn’t also a hustler is a photojournalist at a severe disadvantage.) He photographed the 2007 French presidential election. He went to Congo and Haiti again. Three pictures he took of the Arab Spring in 2011 won first prize at the 2012 World Press Photo competition. His work ran in such publications as Paris Match, Le Monde, Time, and The Wall Street Journal.
Ochlik died on assignment last year. He was in a makeshift shelter for journalists in Homs, Syria, when it came under shellfire from Syrian Army forces. He was 28. “Revolutions: Photographs of the Arab Spring by Rémi Ochlik” is both a chronicle of a remarkable moment in recent history and a tribute to the chronicler. It runs at the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University through Feb. 22, the first anniversary of Ochlik’s death.
The show, sponsored by the French consulate in Boston, consists of 54 color photographs. They’re good-sized, 13 inches by 20 inches, but not overwhelming. They’re human-scaled, as all good reportage, visual no less than print, ought to be. There are a dozen each from Tunisia and Egypt, 27 from Libya, three from Syria.
The captions are written in the present tense. This underscores the you-are-there quality of Ochlik’s work. The pictures are often urgent and vivid, and always immediate. By necessity, he usually shot on the fly. Even so, certain characteristics emerge. Ochlik was better at exteriors than interiors, and with crowds than individuals. He had a real feeling for light. Some of the desertscapes from Libya, taken at dusk or dawn, have a striking chromatic delicacy. The last photograph in the show, of a nighttime funeral in Syria, suggests he had just as much feeling for light’s absence. The line of mourners is like a flesh-and-blood frieze.
Ochlik had a strong compositional eye (his crowd shots communicate human turbulence but not visual confusion). The figure of a crouching man during the second day of the Tahrir Square demonstrations, in Cairo, couldn’t be more classically centered had Ochlik posed him. Even more important for a war photographer than an eye is nerve. Ochlik was clearly brave. The reason that so many of these photographs are in-your-face now (and that’s a compliment) is because he wasn’t afraid to be in his subjects’ faces then.
It’s in the nature of Ochlik’s trade that action predominates in these photographs. Several of the images suggest, though, that he may have been at his best when capturing a sense of quiet or even pensiveness. That funeral in Syria would be an example. Another is the picture of a Libyan rebel lost in thought as he sits in front of a movement flag in the aftermath of battle. Or there’s the man grieving in a Tunisian cemetery, row after row of crypts behind him, their whiteness bleached as bones. In their stony silence, one hears the mute eloquence of the dead.