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Remembering Pierre: ‘Being Around him was Like Standing in a Shaft of Sunlight’

Anita McNaught pays tribute to an exceptional TV news cameraman who was killed two years ago in the first weeks of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine

With a friend Pierre Zakrzewski:15 August 1966 – 20 March 2022

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It’s two years since my friend and former colleague Pierre Zakrzewski was killed by an artillery shell on the outskirts of Kyiv. They say that time blunts the sharp edges of grief, but I don’t know how many years it will take before the pain of losing Pierre will ease. Understanding that Pierre had died was not the worst of it. No, the worst of it is to go on living in a world without Pierre. A world where the light has dimmed. 

Because Pierre Zakrzewski was an extraordinary, luminous man. Sure, he was an outstanding professional – as any of us fortunate enough to have worked alongside him knew. But his dedication to journalism, his field craft and his technical skills are not even half the story. Pierre had a gift: He illuminated – in every sense of the word – the world he moved through, radiating warmth and benevolence no matter how fraught the situation.

As a TV news cameraman, a decades-long documenter of some of the most epochal, seismic moments in modern history, he was already in a very small group of rare, honed talent, judgement and courage.

It’s not just that he was fearless while not being foolhardy – a useful quality if you want to succeed in conflict journalism while staying alive – Pierre also had this mix of good humour, perspective and humanism that crossed geographical and cultural boundaries. I think this is why he was able to go from war zone to war zone, from crisis to disaster, from west to east, without getting burnt-out, or cynical.

Let me tell you about his modus operandi. 

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Pierre was a great traveller, completely at ease on the road, whatever that entailed. Rarely, if ever, under-equipped, but never weighed down. Years of scrambling at short notice, heading into unpredictable and often dangerous situations had taught him what he needed to pack. He constantly refined his kit and tailored it to circumstances. I never saw him caught unprepared.

His niche was this: Get in (him and the team), get everywhere, get all the best images, mistreat and disrespect no-one in the process of doing this, stand your ground as far as it was safe to do so, keep an open mind, document, listen, read the crowd, look after your team (including the occasional idiot), get out alive, guard the priceless footage of history, get it on air by any means possible. He often used a monopod for his camera rather than a tripod because it was quicker, lighter and less intrusive. He edited on his lap, slept like a cat. 

He was devoid of arrogance or ego. Low-key, but with enormous authority born of experience. There are more ‘filmic’ camera operators out there, specialising in wildlife, in cinema, in drama, in high-res 3D. But for the job we were doing – gathering stories as they happened, in constantly changing circumstances and often high tension, he was at the top of his game. He rarely missed a shot. He always understood the story.

That’s the technical stuff. Now let me tell you about the intangibles. 

Pierre loved people, and people loved him. This wasn’t an ‘easy charm’ – it was something much more animalistic. He didn’t have the patter or the polish, he was just utterly, genuinely in love with the world and his joy was contagious. 

Working with him, you felt the bow wave of his empathy, the years spent on the front, and his compassion – and the people he filmed sensed it also. As a correspondent in these situations, your job is to establish rapport, nail facts and gain understanding. Pierre was such an asset. He instantly connected – even in extremis. He imbibed detail and rarely forgot anyone he met. When I teamed up with Pierre on a job, I always felt I was blessed.

He brought no judgementalism or prejudice to his work, just his curiosity and warmth. People who shared nothing with him culturally could read his universality, and they relaxed. Pierre built bridges of communality everywhere he went – even in countries broken by war, violence, and hatred.

But he could also do the formal diplomatic round, like the years he spent travelling with the Fox News team following Obama and Trump. He rejoiced in the bizarreness of these trips as much as any wildlife cameraman. World leaders, despots, mass-murderers and visionaries – he filmed them all, listened to them all, tried to make sense of them all. 

He evolved organically into the craftsman he became, by leaping out of Ireland as a politics & economics graduate with an insatiable curiosity about the world and its people, then gradually acquiring a skill-set that would enable him to keep travelling, learning and bearing witness for the rest of his life. He landed first in Afghanistan, seduced by the landscape and its people, and that was it.

Part of his gift was his family; a Polish architect father and a French civil servant mother, raised on the outskirts of Dublin in a shockingly modernist house his father designed and built in 1968. A deeply cultured family of many languages, with great stories of their own. From them, Pierre inherited genes that somehow fitted everywhere. With olive skin, unruly curls and lush facial hair, in Iran, he looked Iranian, but he could pass for Spanish, Iraqi, Afghan, Kurdish, Arab, Greek, Pakistani, Jewish, Turkish…

The unexpected bonus came later: Borat. When that film dropped, it was a gift – Pierre was a dead ringer for Sasha Baron-Cohen’s Kazakh creation, and the whole world was in on the joke. In Pierre’s hands, this was a disarming tool – it defused tension, raised smiles everywhere. It still makes us smile.

I can’t believe he’s not with us anymore.

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There was a funeral, in Dublin. So many children there who, of course, adored him. There were eulogies and testimonials. One friend of mine spent the service sobbing in the arms of the Ukrainian ambassador to Ireland. Friends spoke from their hearts, wept across continents. We rallied round Mich, his wife. She’s a journalist too, so civilian platitudes don’t wash with her. We tried to console each other, and largely failed. 

I realise there will be many out there who will shake their heads and say that Pierre’s line of work put him, ultimately, at inevitable risk. But I knew him as a man who took extraordinary care with us all. He didn’t have a death wish – he had a life wish. He didn’t do his work because it gave him a thrill, he went to those places because he thought it would help people. Who was he, to hang back when people were suffering? He despised the warmongers.

The start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine was far from Pierre’s most dangerous assignment. But the shell that fatally wounded Pierre also killed his producer Sasha Kuvshynova, their two Ukrainian drivers and seriously injured correspondent Benjamin Hall.

What a waste of talent, skill and knowledge in this stupid war that Putin should never have started.

There is an ongoing European joint investigation into what happened, carried out by French, Irish and Ukrainian War Crimes investigators. Pierre’s family is closely following its progress and the expectation is that the findings will shed light on the circumstances of the attack and those responsible for this crime. The family hopes that the first stage of the investigation will soon close in France – the country is leading the investigations – and that an investigative Judge will be appointed.

Then there’s the matter of Pierre’s personal archive of films, videos and photographs. A largely unseen treasure trove of frontline material; decades of work gathered by a man who was always somewhere interesting. Often the only one there, at pivotal moments in history, because people liked having him around. 

I don’t want this in memoriam to read like a hagiography. Too many good people have been killed in Ukraine. I don’t want you to think I’m putting Pierre on a pedestal.

But you know what? Pierre should be on a fucking pedestal. He should be on the 4th Plinth of Trafalgar Square. He was a truly great human being, doing great work. He was great company and a great friend. He was exemplary. He was inspirational. He was hilarious. He cared. Being around him was like standing in a shaft of sunlight. It’s almost unbearable that this light has gone out. 

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