Depth of Field
One day last February, Trevor Snapp ’02.5 boarded a bus in Cairo, headed west along a coast springing with the neon of beach resorts, and stopped before the Libyan border in the dry, scrubby town of Saloum. He had been in Morocco only a day to photograph protests there—the nation, he had guessed, would be the next swept up in the Arab Spring—when he heard that Libya’s coastal checkpoint was abandoned. A journalist had passed easily into the country. “I woke up the next morning, thought, ‘I better get to Libya,’ took the next plane to Cairo, and went straight for the border,” he said. From Saloum, he described it like this: “I crossed over. There was a dude with a gun. He said, ‘get in the van.’ Next thing I knew, I was in Benghazi, and there were guns everywhere, missiles going all day long. I took a picture; rebels shot in the air. They were playing to the camera.”
The rebels, Trevor found, were scrappy but unpracticed. Their bombs were the sort fishermen tossed overboard in tomato cans to send fish, dead, to the surface. When an army loyal to the revolutionaries organized a front line, the rebels charged past it, shooting then retreating to the back. At first, they pushed Muammar Qaddafi’s forces west toward Sirte, the dictator’s birthplace. Then they began to lose. By the time Qaddafi was nearly to Benghazi and NATO dropped bombs in the rebels’ defense, Trevor had left the country.
I met him eight months later, the day Qaddafi was killed, on Avenue Bourghiba in Tunisia’s capitol, Tunis. Trevor wore a blue button-down shirt, loose jeans that tapered around his calves, ankle-high brown boots, and a soft leather camera bag slung over his left shoulder. He looked his age of 31, with a trimmed beard and wry smile. He spoke slowly and with an odd accent he calls “international English” which made his eloquence seem all the more surprising. We walked north toward the Libyan embassy, and paused at a sidewalk café for coffee. It came in tall, milky glasses and with a bowl of sugar cubes. “The bang-bang is only part of the story,” said Trevor, when I asked why he left Libya. “The market wants their bang-bang shots, and there are plenty of photographers to supply them. The market doesn’t care as much for civilian casualties or gangs that grow up in the ashes of the war. It’s hard for photographers because we risk a lot to go to these places and we want to go back. We want to finish the story. But often we have to do it on our own dime.” Though wasn’t it the breaking news, I asked, that first drew him to Libya? “I’m not interested in conflict for conflict sake,” he said. “I’m more interested in what happens next.”
Two men took the table next to ours, and a waiter placed a hookah pipe between them. He lit and fanned the coal. The sun had set, and the street was dimly lit, streaked by the yellow lights of taxis. A car passed trailing a Libyan flag. “Let’s go,” said Trevor, sliding two dinars onto the table. We continued north until we came to the embassy, a tall, columned building hemmed with razor wire. A few dozen men had slipped past the coils and gathered on the steps. They were sweaty and ecstatic, and chanted in breathy syllables. Some held their arms in slings; one boy leaned on crutches. On the sidewalk, a crowd gathered around a white SUV, doors splayed, a stereo blaring hip-hop in Arabic. A pretty girl who wore a flag over her hair asked me to take her photograph. “I’m so happy,” she said, and asked if I had seen the pictures of Qaddafi. I had: his face contorted, pressed against another man’s knee, chest soaked in blood. “I’m so happy,” she said again and ran into the crowd. A legless man wheeled onto the sidewalk. When Trevor kneeled to take his picture, the man didn’t notice, but leaned forward in his chair and sobbed.
I found Trevor one afternoon at a café east of Tunis, where we were to meet our translator before driving south from the city. Ammar, 29, had just voted in Tunisia’s first democratic election but would return soon to Dubai, where he worked for a marketing company. He was tall, impeccably groomed, and, having expected a more glamorous employer, confounded by Trevor’s nonchalance. (One night, he asked about our plans for the next day. We don’t have any, Trevor replied; we make them up as we go along. “You’re kidding!” said Ammar. “You’re an interesting man, Trevor! You really are!”)
Ammar took the back seat of our rental car, lit a cigarette, and opened a newspaper. The Islamist party, which believes faith should be the foundation for Tunisia’s new democracy, had won the most seats on the constitutional assembly. This was no surprise, since practicing Muslims were jailed and tortured by the last regime. Their devotion to Islam—and their political will—had strengthened through years of isolation. The winning party, despite its religious roots, promised to uphold women’s rights, even those contrary to Sharia law. But Trevor suspected these progressive values were strongest in the urban north, and in the country’s southern reaches, Tunisians sought a far more conservative state. So, he suggested we get out of the city.